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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Fuel poverty and the impact on children

The impact on child health as a result of fuel poverty was the subject of a recent seminar held in Belfast. Housing Rights is well used to dealing with enquiries about problems with heating systems, lack of sufficient heating and financial issues relating to the cost of heating a home. In many cases this can have a knock-on effect on the condition of the home such as dampness and condensation. But, an impact that is often hidden is the effect a cold home can have on children.

Growing up in a cold home

Many children living in colder properties end up with long term health issues, or have to be hospitalised. Research from Bernard Stafford of Sheffield Hallam University, on childhood hypothermia revealed surprising figures in the demographics of those who are hospitalised as a result of primary hypothermia.  The figures from the health service in England show that a child under 5 is much more likely to be admitted to hospital. One of the possible underlying factors for this is the relative price of domestic fuel. The under 5s are more likely to be at home for most of the day, compared to older children who are out at school. If the home is not heated properly then the under 5s have a higher exposure to the risks of cold.

Furthermore, it can have serious consequences for the child’s education. Children can suffer from not having a comfortable private space to do their schoolwork, such as a warm bedroom / quiet room.

Housing fitness standards

Whilst the condition of housing in Northern Ireland has improved greatly over the years, Housing Rights believes that the current fitness standards are not fit for purpose. Under the current standard, the availability of an electrical socket in a room will be considered enough to pass the heating standard. We believe that this is totally inadequate for the 21st century.

The Department for Social Development is due to carry out a review of the fitness standards and we would like to see the current standards to be totally replaced, rather than tinkered with. We have previously highlighted the Housing Health and Safety Rating System  as an ideal standard to introduce here, and thermal comfort is one of the areas that is considered under it.

Heating the private rented sector

Earlier this year the Department overhauled its grant aid and assistance for improving the heating and insulation in domestic dwellings. The Warm Homes Scheme has been replaced by the Affordable Warmth Scheme.

According to the Department, between 2008 and 2013, one in three households with children were in fuel poverty; some 73,000 households. The majority of these were rented terraced housing relying on oil for their heating. The Warm Homes Scheme very much relied on self-referral, whereas the Affordable Warmth Scheme involves working with local councils to target vulnerable households. The Department believes that many of those who have been targeted so far are households who would not have previously self-referred.

It is too early to determine whether the Affordable Warmth Scheme has been a success. Only time will tell. One of the main concerns of Housing Rights about the new scheme is that there is a risk that private landlords will not be willing to contribute the 50% towards the cost of the improvement works. We certainly hope for the sake of the most vulnerable, that that is not the case.

Fit for the Future? Housing Rights Private Rented Sector Conference

Improving standards in the private rented sector, including fuel poverty, will be examined at our upcoming Private Rented Sector conference ‘Fit for the Future?’ The conference will be held on 17 November, in Belfast (Riddel Hall). The final programme is now available. If you would like to book a place at the conference please contact Frances.

Tagged In

Fitness, Money Matters, Affordability

This article was written on 21 October 2015. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.