Swale Borough Council: Fuel and Water Home Advice Service

When declaring the Climate and Ecological Emergency in 2019, Swale Borough Council committed to ensuring the most vulnerable in society were not adversely affected. To help deprived communities save money, improve their energy and water efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions, a Fuel and Water Home Adviser was appointed to work within communities to improve their livelihoods.

The challenge

Fuel poverty in Swale is around 10 per cent of the population with some areas rising to 20 per cent, which is one of the highest in the county. Water poverty is thought to be around the same figures. Additionally, many of the fuel and water poor are vulnerable and hard to reach. The consequences have a wider impact on health and wellbeing such as stress, social isolation, and the exacerbation of existing medical conditions. Living in a cold home also slows recovery from illness.

The aim of this project is to provide a programme of advice, support, guidance and education to enable households to understand and implement effective energy and water management solutions in the home, resulting in lower bills, reduced energy and water usage and a reduction in CO2 across the borough. Giving households the knowledge and tools they need to empower them to change their habits and behaviour around energy and water usage is essential to the role everyone has to play to tackle the climate emergency, with quality of life as a priority.

The service has been designed to support Swale Borough Council’s target to tackle the climate change emergency and to work in partnership to identify resources to help deliver programmes that address fuel and water poverty.

The solution

COVID-19 has meant the Council were unable to visit households to assess their needs and requirements since the appointment of a Fuel and Water Home Adviser (FWHA) in November 2020. However, this did not halt the onset of the project. It was formally launched in January 2021 and is set to continue until to at least 2023.

A social media campaign was implemented advertising the service and inviting people to contact the FWHA for support and advice, including energy and water saving tips, switching suppliers and about grants.

The Council has included the project details in the quarterly magazine “Inside Swale”, alongside social media and digital advertising. This is helping the service to reach a variety of demographics. The Council are cautious of the digital divide, acknowledging that the physical magazine is a key source of information for many residents.

By tendering the adviser to Seashells Children Centre, the nursery and support centre provides the perfect partner location to reach those that need the support the most. Leaflets have also been placed in food bank boxes distributed across the borough.

FWHA works with households to;

  • assess their needs and requirements and advise and support accordingly
  • get in touch with utility companies if the household is in debt
  • help change supplier and or tariff
  • assist in applying for grants
  • ensure all vulnerable people are signed up to the priority services register
  • provide advice for becoming more energy efficient and to change behaviour, to help reduce their carbon footprint
  • provide support with fuel and water accounts to maximise their income.

Households are able to self-refer into the service. Ongoing support is available and follow up contact takes place at appropriate intervals to promote communication and build trust.

The FWHA also supplies households with a free consumer pack consisting of water and fuel saving tips, as well as energy and water saving products, to help them live a greener lifestyle and save money.

The impact

Although the launch of the service was delayed due to continuing COVID-19 restrictions, as of June 2021 the benefits of the service were beginning to be seen. These included:

  • 145 referrals received across the relevant postcode areas
  • 45 households signed to Priority Services Register for both Water and Fuel
  • 70 households supported to switch gas supplier – each household saving between £75 - £100
  • 50 households supported to switch electricity – with savings predicted to be between £90 - £130
  • Five households in severe water debt signed to Newstart with Southern Water – saving up to £500
  • One household with £2,000 water debt written off by Southern Water
  • 10 households received 20 per cent reduction on their water account
  • Nine households supported to apply for grants
  • One household supported to approach an Environmental Health Officer regarding severe damp and a missing window
  • One household has an incorrect bill and meter reading – the resolution of which saved £600 to the occupier.

Overall, the initial average saving was £115 per household referral.

Work is currently being undertaken to assess the carbon savings of the actions that have been implemented within households.

Lessons learned

The biggest lesson learnt whilst setting up this project has been that the effects of living in a cold home are complex, multi-faceted and not fully understood. For example, prepayment remains one of the most expensive payment methods along with cash and cheque. If a consumer is unable or unwilling to pay by direct debit or via the internet, this drastically reduces the range and variety of tariffs available. It also reduces the savings that can be made.

The Council's FWHA has been working very closely with the two main water companies across the district, with an excellent scheme through their vulnerability team, working on a one-to-one basis with customers to reduce debt and gain a level of trust from their customers. This is not something the gas and electricity suppliers have in place and would be something that they should consider exploring.

Working with partner agencies is paramount to the success of this project, with multi-agency working and cross-referring of householders.

Cross-referring enables partner agencies to explain what help is needed and the circumstances of the householder without them feeling as though they have to keep explaining their circumstances time and time again, which is something found to be one of the most complained about aspects of speaking with utility companies.

Delivery of this project was not as difficult as first anticipated with the COVID-19 restrictions that were in place. Working virtually was very successful as it enabled the FWHA to speak with households at a mutually convenient time, without the stress or embarrassment about their living conditions, or the need to tidy up before allowing someone into their home.

It also gives the flexibility of speaking with householders in the evening whilst children are in bed, for example. A rapport is built with householders to gain trust before entering the home to deliver energy efficiency packs.

This is also having an impact on time as it means the FWHA spends less time travelling between households.