Society’s duty to act now over fuel poverty to prevent needless winter deaths as action hots up across South Yorkshire – Opinion piece

Society’s duty to act now over fuel poverty to prevent needless winter deaths as action hots up across South Yorkshire – Opinion piece

As published in the Yorkshire Post on 26/09/19

By Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region

How society cares for its elderly and most vulnerable is an important yardstick by which it should be judged.  But sadly, the UK doesn’t fare well when it comes to our record on excess winter deaths or fuel poverty.

The number of vulnerable and elderly people dying unnecessarily due to the cold weather is unacceptably high. In the most recent figures available, which relate to the winter of 2017 to 2018, it’s estimated that 50,100 people died in England and Wales because of the cold weather.  This was more than double the number of excess winter deaths from just two years previously.

This is a national scandal and should be a source of great shame to us all. I say national scandal, because the problem is undoubtedly greater here than elsewhere in Europe. Shamefully, we have the sixth-worst long-term rate of excess winter mortality out of 30 European countries.

Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all have significantly lower rates of excess winter deaths than we do. Yet all of these countries are also considerably colder that the UK.

That’s because these countries tend to be better prepared. They take staying warm seriously and they make it a priority to look after the elderly and vulnerable during colder spells. We could learn a thing or two from our Scandinavian neighbours.

Across the UK and right here in the Sheffield City Region, there are some great examples of how we are supporting our elderly and vulnerable to stay safe and warm.

In Sheffield the council operates 135 community energy networks covering almost 6,000 council homes, enabling residents to manage their energy use and costs in a much more effective way. In Barnsley, low-income households have been provided with grants for new boilers, to enable people to keep their homes warm.

These projects should be the norm, not the exception. The causes and consequences of excess winter deaths put a huge strain on our NHS and on local Government – not to mention the human cost and suffering.

That’s why I’ve made it my mission to raise national awareness of this quiet crisis. I’ve campaigned long and hard on this issues as an MP. I’ve asked questions in the House, questioned Ministers and Prime Ministers at every opportunity and led debates to push the Government into taking firm action.

Recently, I gave the keynote address at the National Energy Action charity national conference, which took place at Sheffield City Hall. More than 250 people attended the two-day conference to look at the challenges facing those in fuel poverty and find solutions.

We know that better heating, reducing energy prices, addressing the issue of cold, damp and draughty housing and health care are key to eradicating excess winter deaths and fuel poverty, but our approach nationally has been woefully inadequate.

We know that co-ordination between organisations is key to effective action; and we must work together.

That’s exactly what I’m doing here in the Sheffield City Region. Earlier this year, I brought together Directors of Public Health, the NHS, the housing sector, councils and charities from across the region to identify where we can do better.

Some of the improvements we’re now going to make include sharing existing good practice, bringing in new resources and working better across traditional local authority and NHS boundaries.

By putting more powers and resources in the hands of regional-decision makers, who know their places best, we can effect real change for our communities.

But we all know that central Government have a key role to play. Successive Governments have simply not done enough to make excess winter deaths a priority. This needs to change and urgently.

I’m committed to pressuring Government to act, using my Mayoralty to drive change in the Sheffield City Region; and raising the profile of this crucial issue nationally; raising the voices of those vulnerable victims of this quiet crisis.

We must ensure that we are prepared for next winter – and winters after that.

For it is our collective responsibility to ensure future winters do not have the same devastating consequences for our relatives, friends and neighbours.