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‘Dysfunction in Poverty, House Insulation and Energy Pricing Existed Long Before Current Crisis’

The acclaimed public health academic spoke to Adrian Goldberg for the Byline Times Podcast

Stock image of a young girl with a hot water bottle. Photo: jon challicom/Alamy

Dysfunction in Poverty, House Insulation and Energy Pricing Existed Long Before Current CrisisSays Health Inequalities Expert Michael Marmot

The acclaimed public health academic spoke to Adrian Goldberg for the Byline Times Podcast

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Senior academics are warning that soaring energy prices triggered by the war in Ukraine will lead to a “significant humanitarian crisis” in the UK, leading to the loss of thousands of lives and blighting the development of millions of children.

It has been estimated that 55% of all households will fall into fuel poverty by January 2023 without Government intervention.

The research was led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, at the UCL Institute of Health Equity, who spoke to the Byline Times Podcast.

Adrian Goldberg: One of the key insights of your research is that, even before the massive rise in energy prices that we’re seeing, many people were struggling to heat their homes. Thousands of people were already dying from the cold.

Michael Marmot: We produced our first report on fuel poverty in 2014, and we already documented then that excess winter deaths in the UK are higher than in colder countries. And at least 10% of those excess winter deaths, which are around 63,000 deaths a year, can be attributed to cold homes. 

We think that the reason excess winter deaths are higher in the UK than, for example in Finland, is that our homes are less well insulated.  And that’s been going on for a long time.

It’s astonishing to think that more people die of the cold in this country than they do in Finland. And you trace that directly to the quality of insulation in British homes?

Exactly right. And any Scandinavian will say to you ‘there’s no such thing as cold, there’s only poor clothing’. We could apply the same to housing – it’s not cold homes that are the problem, it’s inadequate insulation.

The Government stopped investing in home insulation in 2013 – [spending] fell off a cliff. ‘Get rid of the green crap’ said Prime Minister David Cameron. So our houses are sub-standard.

Secondly, the incomes of employed people between 2007 and 2019 fell in the UK. We had the worst performance of any rich country over that period, apart from Portugal and Greece. So there was a rise in poverty. 

And then the third component is the price of fuel. Why has the price of fuel gone up more in the UK than it has in other European countries?  The war in Ukraine and the problem with gas coming out of Russia affects all European countries.

We have this dysfunctional energy market. It used to be the case that green energy producers produced energy at higher cost than oil and gas, and so they were subsidised. Now, with the rise in oil and gas prices, green energy is cheaper. But we’re still paying the market price, which is way above the price that would be paying if it was just production costs plus reasonable profit… which is the result of a botched privatisation. 

So all three components – house quality, poverty and the way energy prices are determined – are dysfunctional and have been going on for a long time before this rapid increase in cost.

We’ve spoken before on the podcast about health inequality and your second Marmot Review in 2020 revealed this inequality was worsening between the north and south. You attributed that directly to the policies of austerity.

I did. The more deprived the area, the shorter the life expectancy. But that gradient is steeper in the north-east and the north-west than it is in London and the south. 

If you’re rich, it doesn’t much matter where you live. If you’re poor, it matters enormously. For people in the more deprived areas, the disadvantage of being in the north is much bigger in terms of health, than it is in the south. 

And that means that the Government’s ‘levelling up’ ambition was potentially of huge importance. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten about it.

I’m sure that there’ll be people posting on social media saying that they grew up in the 1960s and there was frost on the windows and your mum or dad would say ‘just put on an extra jumper

The fact that older generations survived rigours doesn’t mean that those rigours were good for us. People died earlier, they got sick. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease was ‘the British disease’… I’m not saying that was all due to cold. That was [also] due to air pollution and smoking. 

But my colleague, Professor Sinha who’s involved in this report, points out that children’s lungs are more likely to be damaged in cold temperatures. And when the indoor temperature is cold and damp, there’s more mould, which in turn, damages lung development. And that sets a pattern for the rest of the person’s life.

So indoor cold is bad for lung development. It’s also bad for mental illness and for educational performance.

What can the Government can do directly, this winter, to address the crisis?

One way to intervene in the energy market is to fix the price. The Government can subsidise, in the short-term, the producers that can’t meet that lower price and pay for it out of taxation. Richer people, if we have a properly progressive taxation system, should be paying a higher rate of tax as well as a higher absolute level of taxation. And that can pay for this intervention. 

But if you target only the poorest, then you miss the fact that more than half of households will be in fuel poverty. So you need some sort of approach that deals with the fact that it’s not just the people, let’s say on Universal Credit, or on pensions, who need help, but probably half of all households.

Adrian Goldberg is the editor and producer of the ‘Byline Times Podcast’ and ‘Byline Radio

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