Insulation kits to help Bristol households through the winter

Insulation kits to help Bristol households through the winter

As low-income people grapple with the energy crisis, the Bristol Energy Network will support hundreds of homes with insulation and training. But with thousands fighting, much broader action is needed.

With a global gas price crisis pushing Britain’s energy bills to an all-time high, many Bristol homes remain drafty and poorly insulated. Now more and more families are wondering if they can afford to stay warm as winter weather picked up harshly in December.

To help the city’s most vulnerable residents through the coldest months, Bristol Energy Network (BEN) has secured funding to provide emergency insulation kits and DIY training to almost 200 homes.

BEN will host a series of workshops in six different neighborhoods in early 2023, where participants will be guided and trained by DIY experts. The network is also helping to coordinate the just launched Bristol Emergency Winter Fuel Fund, a crowdfunding initiative aimed at helping Bristol residents meet their energy bills during the coldest months.

Confirmed workshops locations to date include the Filwood Community Centre, the Hartcliffe Climate Action Hub aka the Roundhouse, the Docklands Community Center in St Paul’s, the Southmead Greenway Center and The Hub in Lockleaze. Full details of the sessions confirmed to date, which include all meals and childcare, can be found at the bottom of this article.

The boxes that will be provided to workshop attendees will contain insulating strips and other materials to provide tensile strength to windows and doors and help keep their homes warmer this winter.

Sessions include advice on sealing drafty windows to retain heat (Credit: David Griffiths)

“We’re running 12 workshops and we have 178 boxes to distribute,” explains BEN’s Rachel Moffat. “People are taking them home to install and they contain the materials people need to follow the advice in the workshops and potentially help neighbors with their homes as well.”

Together with partner Re:Work, a Bristol-based social enterprise that provides skills training and employment support for young adults, BEN’s Emergency Boxes scheme offers a practical solution – albeit one that never should have been needed in the first place – for households in where wasting energy just isn’t an option.

In addition to box contents and do-it-yourself support, the workshops will include energy saving tips, how to communicate with energy companies and information on where more comprehensive support is available.

Low-income residents living in the areas where the workshops are held can apply for a spot with hot meals and childcare.

A drop in the ocean

The announcement of BEN’s emergency relief scheme comes after Bristol City Council secured £2.7million in funding through the Bright Green Homes scheme, which allows low-income people living in poorly insulated homes to apply for up to £25,000 to make their homes more energy efficient.

Currently, an estimated 3.2 million households in England suffer from fuel poverty, notoriously forcing people to make ‘heat or eat’ choices.

The kits contain materials people need to follow the advice in the workshops and possibly also help neighbors with their homes.

Rachel Moffat, Bristol Energy Network

Up to 30,000 households in Bristol are thought to live in fuel poverty. While emergency aid for 200 families feels welcome, it feels like a drop in the bucket and underscores the need for political intervention.

This winter – even with a price freeze to limit average energy bills to £2,500 – the picture is deeply worrying. “The price freeze is helpful, but that’s still an 80% increase since last summer,” explains Moffat. “People’s wages haven’t gone up. It’s not as if fuel poverty didn’t exist before – people have struggled before. Now everyone is fighting.”

In addition, the so-called “price freeze” was communicated in a confusing manner – there is no actual cap on energy bills, only the price per unit of energy. “We always try to remind people that they pay for each unit of energy they use,” says Moffat. “What is an ‘average home’? Each has a different use and you pay for each unit you use.”

Renewed fears of price increases

Few aspects of Liz Truss’ short tenure as Prime Minister are mourned. But in a fight to undo the havoc Truss unleashed by her tax cuts on the wealthy, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt reduced the period over which energy prices would be “frozen” from two years to six months.

While Hunt announced in the autumn statement that support would continue beyond April 2023, it is being scaled back, meaning the costs incurred by a ‘typical’ household will rise to £3,000 under the new £2,500 cap.

“A lot of people are at crisis levels this winter,” confirms Moffat. “But we want to try to overcome the media panic, to make people feel like they have more control, otherwise you go into despair because we can’t control energy prices. We say let’s turn on the heating but have control over it.”

Activists have pointed to the win-win of isolated homes for the past two decades. Bristol’s Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE) has long advocated prioritizing energy efficiency to reduce carbon emissions and energy bills.

More recently, Insulate Britain and the Warm This Winter coalition have been desperate to get politicians to take isolation more seriously, campaigning for a windfall tax on rising gas company profits.

In a darkly ironic twist, funding for BEN’s emergency isolation initiative comes from the REDRESS program (which energy companies voluntarily pay into when they may have broken the rules of energy regulator OFGEM).

The Legacy of Political Inaction

Fixing leaky houses has always been a breeze. But successive governments have failed to rise to the challenge, preferring flashy, expensive infrastructure projects to less flashy and fiddly work to improve household energy efficiency.

Alongside Bristol City Council’s newly launched ‘Welcoming Spaces’ initiative (where people can gather and keep warm), BEN’s emergency intervention is a damning verdict on political inaction on household isolation.

In view of unmanageable energy costs and the climate crisis, perhaps there will finally be a political breakthrough. But it won’t come cheap: Bristol City Council’s 2020 Action Plan puts the cost of retrofitting Bristol’s social housing stock at around £200m alone.

The only way to secure this level of spending is probably through the Council’s ambitious “City Leap” programme, which was approved by Council members on December 6th. The partnership between the City Council and two private sector companies, US-based renewable energy specialists Amaresco Ltd and Vattenfall Heat UK (Sweden’s state-owned energy company), will pump £424m into the city’s low-carbon transition.

Details are limited at this time. But the council has said insulating its property will be a priority, with much based on a promise to retrofit all social housing by 2030.

Until then, BEN’s emergency boxing scheme could be a lifeline, albeit for a limited number of Bristolians.

“We hope that a result of this do-it-yourself project will help people to retrofit,” says Moffat. “(BEN) will never be able to afford to fund the installation of heat pumps, but we can prepare people for change. There is hope to take action.”

Re:Work staff and volunteers after windbreaking a door (Photo: David Griffiths)

The confirmed dates for the Bristol Energy Network and Re:Work workshops are: 12th and 17th January 2023 at the Greenway Center in Southmead, 14th and 24th January at the Lockleaze Hub and 11th January and 18th February at the Filwood Community Centre. Additional meetings at Docklands Community Centre, St Paul’s, Henbury and Brentry Community Center and the Roundhouse, Hartcliffe will be announced in due course.

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