'Devil's choice': The people most at risk from the fuel crisis

The senior woman and man holding gas bill in front of heating radiator. Payment for heating in winter.
Energy bills for millions of households are set to soar even further when a price cap review takes place in February.

Households and businesses around the country are bracing themselves for a difficult winter amid a backdrop of rising energy costs and inflation.

Energy bills for millions of households have increased in recent weeks and are set to soar even further when the price cap review takes place in February.

Some experts have warned that bills could increase from the current level of £1,277 per year to as high as £1,559 for the average household.

The impact on vulnerable people could be intolerable, critics have warned, with many poorer households facing the stark choice between heating and eating.

Yahoo News UK has looked at which areas are most likely to feel the strain of rising energy bills in the coming months.

Watch: How to save money on a low income

'Devil's choice'

Fuel poverty is determined by a number of factors including if a household's residual income falls under the poverty line after paying bills.

There are also various factors which can impact fuel poverty, including the cost of energy and the energy efficiency of the property involved.

Data published by the department for business, energy, and industrial strategy (BEIS) this year for 2019 shows fuel poverty is worst in the Midlands, with 17.5% of households suffering from fuel poverty.

It shows that the North overwhelmingly has higher levels of fuel poverty than the South, with the top two areas after the West Midlands being Yorkshire and the Humber at 16.8%, and then the North East at 14.8%.

Proportion of fuel poor households - Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics in England, 2021 (2019 data)
Proportion of fuel poor households - Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics in England, 2021 (2019 data)

Fuel poverty was a growing issue before the explosion of energy prices in the latter half of 2021, when the cost of whole sale gas surged 250% compared to January 2021.

When broken down to local constituency level, the figures show that Hodge Hill in the West Midlands has the highest rates at 27.4%. Indeed, six of the 10 constituencies with the highest levels of fuel poverty are in the region.

In contrast, Wokingham in the South East has the lowest fuel poverty rate - in fact, all 10 of the constituencies with the lowest proportion of households impacted are in the South East.

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Labour MP for Hodge Hill, Liam Byrne, highlighted the difficult winter Birmingham residents are facing.

“Thousands of Brummies already confront the harsh reality this winter of the devil’s own choice between heating and eating," he said of his constituents, 70% of whom have been hit by the double whammy of Universal Credit cuts this month.

"Our food bank queues are already massive and the energy price hike is now set to make them longer.

"It’s now critical as a first step that ministers U-turn on their plan to cut over £1,000 in Universal Credit before the suffering bites any deeper”.

The map below clearly shows the stark north-south divide in terms of those living in fuel poverty, with the chart underneath highlighting the worst-hit areas with at least 1 in 5 household in fuel poverty.

The areas with the most number of people in fuel poverty
The areas with the most number of people in fuel poverty

Other groups more likely to have higher levels of fuel poverty are those living in metropolitan areas, and ethnic minorities.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity focused on tackling charity, said the rising crisis of fuel poverty needed to be addressed to tackle the challenge of inequality between regions.

“Rising fuel prices are just the latest indication that the rising cost of living will leave many families facing a difficult winter and beyond," said Peter Matejic, Deputy Director of Evidence & Impact.

"Last week’s £20 per week cut to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits has affected around 5.5 million families, who now face unnecessary hardship and are having to make impossible decisions between feeding their families, heating their homes, or paying the bills.

“If the Prime Minister wants to truly level up and improve living standards, he must reverse this damaging cut or risk being remembered for plunging people into poverty.”

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition said it would be "impossible" for the government to fulfil their promises to "level up" when fuel poverty is such a significant issue.

"It will be impossible for the government to level up, when fuel poverty is dragging people down," said Simon Francis, Co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.

Ladywood, Birmingham which is one of the worst areas in the country for child poverty.
Ladywood, Birmingham which is one of the worst areas in the country for child poverty (PA Images)

"The latest rises in energy prices means that we face the possibility of more households facing fuel poverty than ever before.

"And with fuel poverty comes increased risks of suffering the worst effects of respiratory illnesses, such as Covid-19."

Francis also pointed out other factors - such as the enter of the furlough, the Universal Credit uplift, and inflation - would hit those most at risk of fuel poverty hardest.

"When combined with the end of furlough and Universal Credit uplifts as well as increases in general prices caused by inflation and Brexit supply issues, this will be a difficult winter for many," he said.

"Indeed, we face the real possibility of fuel poverty becoming endemic in our society, especially in the North and Midlands where significant work is needed to improve the energy efficiency of our homes which is the only long-term solution to the crisis."

Watch: Business secretary questioned on rising energy bills