ADEPT member Steve Read, director of environment and public protection at West Sussex County Council sets out how his local authority is working to make an impact on fuel poverty.
Fuel Poverty – where households on lower incomes struggle to afford to heat their homes – remains an important issue for local authorities.
In the UK, a household is considered to be in fuel poverty if, after paying above average fuel costs, their disposable income falls below the official poverty line.
The government’s latest fuel poverty statistics show that this definition applies to nearly 11% of English households. It is an issue that affects some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and can have a huge impact on wellbeing.
Local authorities recognise that rising fuel prices and low income levels, as well as poor energy efficiency ratings, particularly in the private rented sector, means the number of people in fuel poverty may grow.
Councils have little influence over fuel prices or household incomes, so traditionally support has been limited to energy improvement measures and finding cheaper tariffs.
However, with just 20% of households switching tariff regularly, at West Sussex County Council we decided to take decisive action by launching our own energy supplier.
Your Energy Sussex
In 2018, Your Energy Sussex was launched to encourage more people to switch and save money on their energy bills. The project began in 2015, prompted by Council Leader Louise Goldsmith.
Initially, the council explored a number of options, including setting up its own licenced energy company. However, we opted for a ‘White Label’ agreement with Robin Hood Energy, the licensed energy company owned and operated by Nottingham City Council.
Robin Hood Energy provides Your Energy Sussex with the back office energy company services. Your Energy Sussex is led by West Sussex County Council and supported by 12 Sussex local authorities, including East Sussex County Council and Brighton & Hove City Council.
The overarching aim is to provide residents across Sussex with a local, council-supported energy supplier as an alternative to the ‘Big 6’ energy companies.
One of the key differences is that we operate a not-for-profit organisation – after costs, any surplus is channelled into a Fuel Poverty Fund, to support residents who are struggling to pay their bills.
We expect to have some funding later this year to support initiatives such as local boiler replacement schemes, energy efficiency measures or emergency fuel vouchers. There are wide-reaching benefits for the local community too.
We offer 100% renewable electricity (sourced from UK-based wind and solar generators) and our ambition is to provide more locally generated energy to Sussex customers. One of our underlying principles is about keeping customers informed.
Your Energy Sussex works hard to keep customers on the best available tariff by writing to and calling them when they reach the end of their fixed deal.
We also work with pre-payment customers, when appropriate, moving them to a credit meter so they can access cheaper tariffs.
Through our ‘Voids’ service we are also helping social housing tenants to switch to a competitive fixed energy tariff. We have a growing number of contracts with registered social landlords, including councils, who switch their properties over to Your Energy Sussex when they become vacant.
In this way, new tenants get a competitive tariff when they move in, although they can choose to switch if they wish. Pre-payment meters are normally more expensive than credit meters, however for some tenants who are used to budgeting this way they are the more appropriate option.
Wherever possible we ensure smart meters are installed when upgrading a meter, which can switch between credit and pre-payment options, providing greater flexibility.
With more than 4,000 customers and already self-sustaining, Your Energy Sussex is proving popular. The Fuel Poverty Fund is steadily increasing and the supporting partner authorities will oversee how the money is spent.
Committing to the environment
West Sussex County Council has a track record of implementing energy-saving measures and Your Energy Sussex is an extension of this, reinforcing our commitment to environmental sustainability, air quality and recycling.
It is genuinely about offering a real alternative to the residents of West Sussex.
We believe it has helped build our reputation as a proactive, trusted local authority making a real difference to our community.
Ultimately, our overarching aim is to make it easier for customers to engage with the energy market – we’d like the government to work with energy suppliers to address this, ensuring that all customers can benefit from better energy deals.