Collectivities matter: The ‘hidden’ geographies of urban energy deprivation

Professor Stefan Bouzarovski, Professor of Geography and Director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy, University of Manchester, writes about his research based on his on-going work on energy vulnerability and urban transitions  …

In the UK, the onset of winter regularly stokes public concerns about the social impacts of rising energy prices. Reports about the predicament of ‘fuel poverty’ – often described as a condition where households are unable to achieve adequate levels of energy services in the home – abound in the media and political debates. The extent to which the government needs to intervene in the market so as to lower energy prices has become a major talking point, and a bone of contention among political parties, utilities, and the government. Similar dynamics can be observed in other European countries – high electricity prices, for instance, recently became a key electoral issue in Germany; and widespread popular unrest over austerity and energy bills was one of the main reasons why the Bulgarian government was forced to resign in 2012.

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

The relationship between energy affordability and poverty is complex and contingent, involving multiple factors related to the energy efficiency of the home, everyday fuel consumption practices, residential occupancy patterns, as well as broader dynamics of power and recognition (Bouzarovski 2013). Yet many public discussions and media discourses collapse the issue to a limited set of state policies at the energy price-utility regulation nexus. The archetypal image that accompanies this reductionism is one of a pensioner sitting in front of a poorly functioning gas fire or electric heater. This is often contrasted with representations of wind farms or solar panels, whose allegedly high costs are pushing increasing numbers of people into fuel poverty.

In part, the prominence of pensioners and older people in media discourses on fuel poverty can be attributed to the political agency of this group, and the severe fuel-related hardship that many of its members face – a reality uncovered by a significant body of academic research (Wright 2004). However, the prioritization of older people over other groups in society has led to the marginalization of other households and individuals who are vulnerable due to their demographic, economic or residential circumstances. Further exacerbating the situation is the normative emphasis on private home tenure in many fuel poverty amelioration policies. The requirements of the UK’s Green Deal, for example, are intimately tied with property ownership, which means that this policy is generally outside the reach of households in the leasehold, private rented or social housing sectors. The main French fuel poverty policy (Habiter mieux) has likewise chosen to focus on homeowners living in rural areas, thus resulting in an approach that favours older people over other groups (Dubois 2012). As a whole, therefore, the current state of affairs confirms the argument made by a number of academics: that how and where fuel poverty is addressed by the strongly depends on the interrelation between dynamics of procedure and recognition (Walker and Day 2012). This is counter to earlier understandings that emphasize the distributional aspect of the issue (Boardman 1991).

The disadvantaged position of private rented and younger or more transient populations within current fuel poverty policy is further exacerbated by the regulatory and pricing mechanisms associated with the ongoing transition to a low-carbon economy. This emergent policy regime entails the re-allocation of environmental externalities away from fiscal systems onto final consumption, accompanied by a broader shift from income redistribution toward environmental taxation. Its consequences are particularly felt by fuel poor households, who may be subjected to, inter alia, increased prices for energy – either because companies indirectly pass the cost of ‘carbon taxes’ to the final bill, or due to direct levies on energy service-paying customers. In many European countries, such processes primarily affect households who use electricity for heating, as this fuel is seen as the best medium for passing on the cost of broader energy and low carbon policies onto the final consumer.

High rates of household electricity use, however, are disproportionately present in cities, as is non-private housing ownership. This means that the emergence of new energy-related forms of deprivation and inequality is inextricably tied to the planning practices and spatial morphologies that define urban areas. But the lack of adequate policy to address such difficulties is supplemented by an almost complete absence of research on the topic. It remains unclear, for example, how the socio-spatial patterns created by the lack of adequate energy services in the home – and the broader inability to access infrastructural networks – map onto existing geographies of segregation. The agency of built forms is of particular importance in this context, as an additional determining factor to conventional poverty-inducing dynamics (such as incomes and prices). Also unclear is the manner in which the background context of ‘austerity urbanism’ is influencing dynamics of domestic energy deprivation, both via the exacerbation and deepening of existing inequalities, and by ‘residualizing’ and moving the responsibility for the delivery of fuel poverty policy away from conventional support structures.

It should also be noted that the city of today is a site of far-reaching demographic and cultural change. This involves new forms of friendship, kinship and community affiliation under the influence of processes such as the ‘second demographic transition’ (de Kaa 1987). How one conceptualizes and practices collectivity in the built environment of city thus becomes paramount; this is both because new forms of inequality are closely linked to communal forms of residence (houses in multiple occupation, apartment buildings), and due to the opportunities for alternative practices of sustainable living offered by innovative joint housing arrangements.

The ‘hidden’ geographies of deprivation that arise at the interface of energy use, collective living and urban formations are one of the main research themes of the newly formed Centre for Urban Energy and Resilience at the University of Manchester. We intend to break new academic and policy ground in addressing the numerous unknowns that exist in this research domain. During the past week, for example, we organized a stakeholder roundtable on energy efficiency, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupancy in London, and a workshop on energy vulnerability in European cities in Brussels. Watch this space!

References

Boardman, B. 1991. Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth. London: Bellhaven.

Bouzarovski, S. 2013. Energy poverty in the European Union: landscapes of vulnerability. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.89/abstract.

Dubois, U. 2012. From targeting to implementation: The role of identification of fuel poor households. Energy Policy 49: 107–115.

De Kaa, D. van. 1987. Europe’s second demographic transition. Population Bulletin 42: 1.

Walker, G. and Day, R. 2012. Fuel poverty as injustice: Integrating distribution, recognition and procedure in the struggle for affordable warmth. Energy Policy 49: 69–75.

Wright, F. 2004. Old and cold: older people and policies failing to address fuel poverty. Social Policy & Administration 38: 488–503.

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