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Dickensian season for the elderly

A government report on energy saving reveals a shocking picture of housing deprivation, with the elderly and those living in rented accommodation suffering winter cold on a Dickensian scale.

The English House Condition Survey 1991 (Energy Report) shows that the average home is half as energy efficient as today's building standards require, while 15 per cent of the entire stock - 3 million homes - are grossly inefficient. Four out of ten homes have no loft insulation, or insulation less than 3.5ins thick. Only one-quarter of all cavity walls are insulated. And only three in ten homes are draught-proof.

Last year, however, the Government cut funds from pounds 100m to pounds 73m for its Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES), which pays people on low-incomes and older people up to pounds 305 to insulate their lofts, seal off draughts and lag hot-water cylinders. The average grant is pounds 160.

By contrast, the report says pounds 2,000 to pounds 5,000 needs to be spent on improving the energy performance of each inefficient house. It puts a price of pounds 26.3bn on measures to cut England's consumption of domestic fuel by 30 per cent, the target set in the 1995 Home Energy Conservation Act. To date, pounds 350m has been spent under HEES.

The Energy Report measures the fuel efficiency of homes on a scale of 1 to 100. Current building regulations demand a rating of 70. And draft planning guidance from the DoE says the poorest 20 per cent of households need ratings of 60 or more before they can afford adequate heating. But the average energy rating of England's homes is just 35, while 7 per cent score 10 or less.

Elderly and disabled people and those with respiratory problems "are concentrated in the least efficient stock", the report adds. Well over half England's pensioners are failing to maintain a "minimum" heating regime of 18C (64F) in their living rooms. This rises to 83 per cent of single pensioners in privately rented accommodation. The 250,000 homes they inhabit have an average energy rating of only 11, and it would cost them one-quarter of their entire income to heat their homes adequately.

Yet the elderly are at especially high risk, the report warns, "not only because of their increased frailty but also because their age makes them physiologically less sensitive to cold".

According to Mervyn Kohler of Help the Aged, these factors account for an observed 15 per cent "swing" in the mortality rate among the over sixties in winter.

The report says the private rented sector "stands out as being exceptionally inefficient", with an average rating of 22. More than one- quarter of the sector has an energy rating of 10 or less, and 17 per cent rate 1 or less.

"We are talking about badly maintained older houses with thin solid walls, draughty doors and windows, no insulation and a tiny electric fire for heating", Dr Brenda Boardman, of Oxford's Environmental Change Unit, said. "It is impossible for anyone on a low income to keep warm in this kind of housing. It simply does not provide adequate shelter from the elements."