Memorandum submitted by the Hyde Group (FP 44)

Introduction

The Hyde Group (Hyde) is a leading provider of affordable housing and services that improve people's quality of life. Over 120,000 people live in more than 45,000 Hyde properties across the South East and East of England, London and the East Midlands.

Through Hyde Plus, Hyde's social and economic regeneration arm, we provide debt and money advice. The service titled Money Plus helps residents reduce their debt, maximise their income and improve their finances.

Money Plus is available to all Hyde residents who either self-refer or are referred by Hyde's housing officers. Advisers help residents to find and transfer to a suitable fuel tariff and apply for grants and benefits, achieving tens of thousands of pounds in savings for clients.

Hyde is a Registered Social Landlord (RSL) and is therefore responsible for upgrading its stock to the Decent Homes Standard, which includes sustainability and efficiency criteria. Currently, Hyde's stock across the Group (excluding supported housing) has level of non-Decency of 4.01%. Hyde is on course to complete its upgrade programme by December 2010.

Executive Summary

The criteria for government help are too restrictive, and families and individuals are on low income who struggle to pay for fuel miss out

Government must tackle the growing problem of "fuel debt" poverty as a result of significant changes in fuel prices being passed on by providers to customers.

Utility companies should do more to help clients make a better choice of tariffs and monitor their fuel consumption through better communication and improved sales tactics.

Increasing the efficiency of affordable homes through Decent Homes Standard programme has had some effect, but the energy efficiency requirements were too low and must be strengthened in the post-2012 standard.

Response in full

1. Effective low cost heating and insulation is key to reducing high fuel bills but many low income families are excluded from this support because of the tight means-tested restrictions of government support.

1.1 Warm front is available to those who own or rent privately and in receipt of:

Income Support

Council Tax Benefit

Housing Benefit

Job Seekers Allowance (income-based)

Pension Credit

Income-related Employment and Support Allowance

This does not help families who may be in receipt of Tax credits who are often on low incomes and are struggling to make ends meet.

1.2 Similarly, elderly people who have some savings and not eligible for Pension Credit don't qualify for this support. The 300 rebate available for non qualifying pensioners is too low to help insulate or change their heating against the total costs that might be generated from carrying out these works.

1.3 Winter fuel payments and cold weather payments also have very restrictive criteria. The winter fuel payments are for households with over 60s and the cold weather payment is for those in receipt of Pension Credit when the temperature is below freezing for 7 consecutive days (25). These benefits should be extended to everyone in receipt of means tested benefits as families with young people or disabilities are equally vulnerable from the effects of cold weather.

2. The definition of households in poverty debt should cover those who spend over 10% of their income to service fuel debt.

2.1 Such debt is the result of energy providers passing on volatile changes in fuel prices to consumers. The government should explore how the existing range of support and initiatives can address this emerging group of people who are spending more than 10% of their income in servicing fuel debt.

2.2 For example, a client who has been paying 50 per month for a period of time and has amassed debt suddenly has to pay 120 per month for their fuel. They may find themselves struggling to make these payments in the long term.

3. Utility companies should be compelled to do more to help people chose the most appropriate fuel tariffs.

3.1 Money Plus' fuel poverty project has discovered that simply by being on wrong or unsuitable tariff people were overspending by hundreds of pounds. The project helps clients save money by finding a more suitable rate. Utility companies should do more to provide the most appropriate service to their customers.

3.2 They must also reduce confusion about the different types of tariffs available and customers by providing clear, appropriate information. Information permeated by industry jargon results in people taking on the type of tariff that is allocated by the supplier without a real appreciation or understanding of what that means for them in terms of usage and potential cost.

3.3 Consumer awareness and education is key to moving towards a culture where people are able to make informed choices about the methods of payment, tariffs and the best supplier for their needs.

3.4 While for most customers transfers are problem-free, many people who have different suppliers for their gas and electricity are reluctant to explore changing suppliers as the process is perceived to be complicated.

3.5 Some of our clients were contacted by agents of suppliers, who often use hard sell tactics and target vulnerable people. For these clients, transfers to a more suitable supplier were more complicated.

3.6 Customers should be better educated about their rights and responsibilities in accessing energy. The jump in the monthly fuel payment in the example (50 to 120) may have been avoided if people were more aware that they should monitor their meter readings more often and supply these on to their supplier even if a meter reading has not been taken by the company

4. The energy efficiency requirements of the Decent Homes Standard are low and any future standards must be strengthened

4.1 Since 2001 social housing has been undergoing a programme of upgrades to a Decent Homes Standard (DHS), which set out the minimum criteria of socially rented flats and houses. Criteria D states that a home should 'provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort', meaning that the dwelling must have both effective insulation and heating.

4.2 The DHS has helped to improve sustainability of social homes, but progress towards the target of 100% decency for all social homes by 2010 is slow.

4.3 The prescriptive nature of the DHS has meant that some more advanced sustainability measures have had to be put aside because of the financial pressure to meet the standard by the end of 2010.

4.4 The DHS has not been effective for hard to treat homes as it has no requirement to insulate solid external walls or un-insulated suspended timber floors.

4.5 Any energy related standard post 2010 should take into consideration and RSLs' stock age and type. For example a common SAP target could indirectly penalise RSLs with older and/or more distinctive properties where the cost of improving the energy efficiency may be disproportionately high.

4.6 Without additional funding to address such homes, disposal of some homes is the only means though which an RSL with large numbers of such homes can fund works to those it keeps.

February 2010