Why would, or wouldn’t, people tell their energy and water providers that they are struggling to make ends meet?
What are the vulnerabilities associated with rural living?
What are the opportunities and risks of low carbon energy solutions for so-called vulnerable customers?
These are some of the questions we asked during an online discussion about the role that ‘lived experts’ can play in shaping better energy and water services.
We brought together:
- Three expert speakers: Steve Crabb, Independent Chair of the Vulnerability Commitment at Energy UK (amongst other roles); Dr Elizabeth Blakelock, Principal Policy Manager at Citizens Advice UK; and Andy Ross, co-founder and Director at the Centre for Energy Equality
- From our Lived Experts Research Community, nine ‘lived experts’ in a range of challenging circumstances, including financial difficulties, disability, long-term health conditions, and difficulties keeping warm in rural accommodation
- People from energy and water companies up and down the UK who both want to, and are being regulated to, do a better job for customers in vulnerable circumstances
Our expert speakers set the scene for us…
Dr Elizabeth Blakelock explained that Citizens Advice has never seen such demand from people who are facing extremely challenging circumstances in terms of their finances, and such complexity of needs, caused largely by the cost-of-living crisis and high energy bills. The need for compassion and empathetic communications from energy and water companies is therefore clear, as is clarity about the support that some customers are entitled to. But a combination of low awareness levels about support available, and a lack of trust in providers, presents a barrier to customers disclosing their financial problems to providers.
We moved on to the rural agenda with Steve Crabb. He explained that people in rural areas often live in older, less energy efficient properties, that are hard to heat and harder still to retrofit with energy efficiency measures. Some are off the gas grid and reliant on oil or solid fuels, making them more expensive to heat. Many are more vulnerable to extreme weather events. This perfect storm of low energy efficiency, high cost and being off the grid is exacerbated by pockets of very severe financial vulnerability where the fuel poverty gap – that gap between what people have and what they need – which is twice as big in rural areas as in urban areas. And people in rural areas are proud and do not like to ask for help.
Finally, Andy Ross told us that the opportunities and risks of low carbon solutions are both likely to be amplified for those in vulnerable groups. Opportunities include affordability (many low carbon solutions are cheaper to produce, so there is potential for energy bills to come down in the longer term) and potential health benefits (improved air quality), as well as job creation. But risks include affordability, particularly around up-front costs for consumers, as well as the disruption associated with changing equipment in the home. Targeted support for those who need it, education and outreach, targeting grants to those who need them most, and co-creation with those same customers would all be essential to ensure this is an opportunity for underserved groups.
Then, with apologies to Elizabeth, Steve and Andy, we heard from the ‘real’ experts – those people with first-hand experience of a whole range of vulnerable circumstances whose voices need to be heard in businesses.
Here are three take-aways from each of the three discussion groups…
Disclosing financial vulnerability
1. A sense of shame
“You feel shameful in having to ask for help.”
There is a terrible sense of shame associated with financial difficulty, which is a barrier to disclosure. A lived expert explained that she chose to go without her heating over disclosing her situation to her energy provider.
2. ‘Struggling’ doesn’t mean you’re eligible for support
“Because I wasn’t in arrears, they didn’t offer me any help. I thought, what’s the point of encouraging customers to reach out for help if you’re struggling?”
A lived expert disclosed her financial struggles to her water company some years ago, because they had said in a letter to reach out if you were struggling. When she spoke to someone she was asked if she was in arrears. As her answer was no and she always pays her bills on time, she was told no support was available to her. Whether true or not, there is a sense that support is only there for those on benefits and/or already in debt.
3. Not much can be done for renters
“If you want to heat the house you’ve got to think really carefully because if you do contact your supplier to disclose and ask for support, there’s only so much they can offer you because you don’t own the property”.
There was agreement that landlords will not necessarily want to help with the opportunities that could reduce bills.
1. Power outages seem increasingly common and have a major impact
“It is not just about someone not being able to switch a light on; it brings the whole community to a stand-still.”
Petrol pumps don’t work, village halls have to stop community support activities and mobile phones are little help. As one person put it “if electric goes down with no notice then you have no phone… if I’ve had no warning I won’t have charged up my mobile… and I live alone”. “We are becoming isolated communities” said one lived expert from rural Scotland.
2. The Priority Services Registers are little help for unplanned outages
One lived expert, who had a medical need for a regular intake of water, has to go out and buy large quantities of bottled water – “no one has ever come round to say here’s a free bottle of water – that’s a new one to me”.
3. A sense of self-sufficiency
There is a sense, in rural areas in particular, of wanting to be self-sufficient. One person talked of being known locally as “the wood lady” as she saves money by scavenging wood and not using her central heating. This would align with Steve’s point about people in rural communities being too proud to ask for help.
The transition to low carbon energy
1. Affordability takes precedence over net zero considerations
“Despite the benefits, you don’t want to put yourself in a more vulnerable position… if I was making that switch right now that’s what would be on my mind.”
One lived expert asked, for people who are financially vulnerable, what kind of support is out there to make these changes? Another said that there is an argument taking place between his landlord, and the organisation that runs the estate he lives on, about who would pay for electric vehicle charging points.
2. Properties that have already been adapted are harder to retrofit with low carbon solutions
The changes that need to be made to properties to adopt low carbon solutions can be more difficult to make if the property has already been adapted for people with particular needs, such as disabilities. For example, builders were not able to access pipes under decking that had been reinforced to accommodate a heavy mobility scooter.
3. The focus right now is on the tech, not on the support
“The support mechanisms for before, during and after need to be there. But the focus right now is about the technology and maybe the disruption, but the support needs to be there once people have these new systems.”Andy, Centre for Energy Equality
Any advances in technology and changes to the way we heat our homes must be accompanied by significant levels of support for consumers, particularly those who are likely to find the change more difficult to handle.
There was agreement that insights like these were invaluable to businesses seeking to understand, and do a better job for, customers in vulnerable circumstances. But this was just the beginning; just as some businesses are at the start of a journey of better understanding vulnerable customers, this was just the start of exploring how to use lived experience to shape better services.
We know from practical experience of our work at Three Hands Insight that the answers lie within the practical activities that can be carried out between businesses and lived experts, such as:
- In-depth insight sessions
- Inclusive design activities
- Testing comms and digital interfaces with customers
- And co-creation in innovation activities.
Here’s a great case study of some work we’ve already done in this area with Centre for Energy Equality.
But let’s give the last word to Elizabeth Blakelock, who summed things up beautifully:
“Whoever’s job it is to worry about customer experience should be listening to lived experience.”