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It is estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic pushed an additional half a million people into fuel poverty in the 2020/21 winter with more than two million falling behind on their bill payments, according to recent research.
Cold homes are not only uncomfortable, but they are also dangerous. Living in an unheated home increases risk of a heart attack, breathing problems or a stroke. Social housing tenants, who are often on lower incomes, are more vulnerable to fuel poverty and many have faced desperate decisions this year, often between “eating or heating”.
At the beginning of the pandemic, our partners HACT recognised that there was an urgent need for residents to be able to quickly access the most basic of needs. As a result, they chose to partner with Charis to create and mobilise quickly a digitised process to remotely distribute fuel vouchers to social housing residents at a time when many were in crisis. As a result of this process, almost £1 million worth of fuel vouchers were distributed from Autumn 2020 to Summer 2021 to residents across the UK.
HACT partners with organisations across the social housing sector to drive value for residents and communities.
Recognising the requirements of HACT, Charis set up a dedicated online portal, giving housing association partners throughout the UK round the clock access to fuel and cash vouchers through a digital process. HACT provided one dedicated point of staff contact, through which they were able to connect with a network of 160 locally trusted partners across the UK, many of whom had pre-established relationships with tenants needing ongoing financial inclusion and hardship support.
Working closely with HACT between September and the end of November 2020, we successfully distributed 5981 vouchers with £262,778.40 from the Energy Savings Trust to social housing residents across England, Scotland, and Wales.
In January 2021, we distributed a second round of Energy Savings Trust fuel vouchers. In just seven weeks our partnership was able to distribute 7855 fuel vouchers worth £351,769.80 to 4,775 social housing households across the UK.
A further £350,000 of fuel vouchers were distributed to households across Scotland between March and April 2021 in partnership with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA).
Ultimately, the pandemic forced us to adapt and innovative but resulted in us pioneering a successful digital model with a huge impact for those residents most in need. While there were challenges around setting up and undertaking a scheme without face-to-face engagement, as well as for agents supporting residents remotely, the joint working approach and administrative structures adopted allowed us to scale up the scheme quickly and respond to the increased demands for support due to the pandemic.
This partnership approach with HACT and their network of 100’s of housing providers resulted in greater efficiency of governance, high spending, and delivered great results. The scale of the programme also meant that individual housing associations could get access to services such as Paypoint and Post Office vouchers which cannot be accessed by a housing association acting individually as they would not be purchasing on a large enough scale. Previously, if a housing association wanted to help residents pay for fuel, they would have to accompany them to the corner shop to top-up their meter in person.
Since the distribution was achieved remotely, the process of administering the vouchers was more environmentally friendly as it involved no physical paperwork. The unique Charis platform, we refer to as the “Shop” allowed the scheme to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so organisations could get instant help when an emergency arose.
The funding has prompted housing associations to provide other services which sustainably support their residents around fuel poverty and related issues, such as advice around financial and debt management, switching energy provider and making energy efficiencies around their homes. By reducing the strain on household expenditure to adequately heat their home, tenants supported through the fuel voucher scheme also have an increased ability to pay for their housing.
Organisations across the sector can take learnings from HACT and Charis’ collaborative approach on this scheme, focusing on economies of scale to reduce costs and sharing objectives.
The scheme has been widely commended across the sector, with a major UK funder offering an additional £400,000 to the programme off the back of its success.
In September 2021, the project was shortlisted for the UK Housing Awards 2021 in the category of “Innovator of the year”.
All the customers who have benefited from the scheme have been financially effected by the pandemic and have struggled to keep their homes warm this winter. We have helped customers who have been made redundant, furloughed, or have seen their incomes reduced. We have also helped families who have increased heating costs because they and the children are at home more.
The grants programme – supports anyone living in a Sovereign home to access the resources and support they need to meet their own goals.
Partnering with Clarion Futures to deliver employment support grants to their residents