Broken Britain: heartbreak, tears and fuel poverty in Birmingham Hodge Hill
Representing the constituency with the highest rate of fuel poverty in England can be a challenge, as Caitlin Doherty discovers.
Such is the challenge of representing a constituency where householders have seen their fuel bills double and triple in recent months that Labour MP Liam Byrne says he has found himself in tears.
According to the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, Byrne’s constituency of Hodge Hill in Birmingham has the highest rate of households in fuel poverty in England, with more than half of residents estimated to be struggling to heat their homes.
As a result, many have been driven into debt and forced to make what Byrne describes as “heartbreaking” sacrifices, as household costs including food and other bills, as well as heating, are driven inexorably up.
He believes their problems have have escalated as a result of the rapid increase in domestic heating bills following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“A question that we ask people is how much has your fuel bill gone up,” he tells The House, “and people are talking about it being double or triple.
“People who are on [pre-payment] meters are finding it even tougher and people feel they’re being ripped off by their energy companies through their direct debits; it’s driving people into debt.”
One contributing factor is low energy performance. The Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group, says there are more than 30,000 homes in Hodge Hill which rate lower than a C grade on their energy performance rating, placing it in the bottom fifth of constituencies in England and Wales. Ratings are ranked from an A grade (very efficient) to a G grade (inefficient).
This combines with a situation in which income in Hodge Hill is considerably lower than average. Median gross weekly income was £511 in 2022, according to the House of Commons library, compared to £613 across the wider West Midlands and £640 nationally.
Byrne says rising bills are causing problems at all levels of the community, with cost of living and energy being raised even by pupils he meets on local school councils.
“Everything is about dealing with the cost of living crisis,” he says, “with ‘cutting down on heating’ being the first choice many choose to make.”
“People have stopped buying nice things for their children – it’s heartbreaking,” he adds.
National Energy Action is a charity that specialises in supporting people who may be struggling to pay their bills.
A spokesperson said that by April, nationwide 8.4m households are expected to be in fuel poverty, a huge rise compared to the 6.7m households in October.
Head of policy Matt Copeland says the realities for those in fuel poverty across the UK are “pretty stark”.
“We know that millions of people are rationing their energy usage,” he adds.
“When I say rationing, it’s not just turning down your thermostat one degree, it’s heating just one room.
“Or it could be other more extreme things that are happening.”
“People are turning to quite difficult things to stay warm,” he adds.
Copeland called for more support for low income and vulnerable households “as soon as possible”, with the outlook appearing more bleak after April, when the government’s energy price guarantee changes and the average bill cap increases.
Meanwhile, Byrne is full of praise for both individuals and groups in his community who are trying to support those around them.
“The stories are harrowing but they’re also inspiring,” he says. “We have schools where kids have taken Penguins out of their lunch boxes and put them in food bank crates.”
He goes on: “You just leave in floods of tears; the generosity of our community. Kids say they want to make sure everybody has what we have and we feel sad when we hear that there are families going hungry.”
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