by Richard Pooley
Photo: Rod Millar Inc
The UK’s previous prime minister, Boris Johnson, had this to say on his most recent visit to Kyiv: “While [the British] people are paying energy bills, people in Ukraine are paying with blood.”
Olena Zelensky, wife of Ukraine’s president, made the same point in a TV interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, broadcast on September 4:
“The prices are going up in Ukraine as well. But, in addition, our people get killed. So, when you start counting pennies on your bank account or in your pocket, we do the same and count our casualties.”
Her words might have had more force with British viewers if she had said pounds rather than pennies. If the new British government does not intervene as expected this week, hundreds of pounds will be removed from British bank accounts around October 1 when the average annual household electricity and gas bill is due to rise from £1,971 to £3,549*. The poorest, many with no bank accounts, who use pre-payment meters (paying in advance by card, token, key or even those strange things called coins), will, on average, pay £59 more than their richer compatriots from October 1. The UK's energy regulator, Ofgem, is due to raise the maximum amount that energy companies can charge households from January 1. The statisticians at Cornwall Insight reckon the average household in Britain will then have to pay £5,386 a year for their energy. £1,971 p.a. to £5,386 p.a. in three months; with the threat that it will go yet higher from April Fools’ Day next year.
Note that these are household bills. UK companies are not protected by Ofgem from the realities of the world energy market. A business which fixed its energy price for two years from October 2020 will pay five times as much from October 1. Hardest hit will be the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – pubs, restaurants, shops, care homes, artisanal workshops and small factories - who generally pay more per unit for their energy than the big companies.
If you are a Brit reading this after September 7 you may already know what new PM, Liz Truss, is going to do to help people survive this winter and maybe the next one too. I type “survive” deliberately. I do hope she won’t simply freeze prices at current levels for everyone. The Labour Party have argued for this, saying it will cost a mere £29,000 million, half the cost of the Covid-19 furlough scheme introduced by then finance minister (and now failed candidate for PM), Rishi Sunak. This assumes that Putin’s war will have ended by next March and that he, nice man, will have let us Europeans have his gas back again. In fact, the war is likely to go on for years. Labour’s price freeze would cost us well north of £100,000 million by October 2023 and doesn’t include help for businesses. If Truss has any sense (she may have more than her enemies think and certainly more than her predecessor has), she will focus on helping the poorest people and the SMEs. The former really will have to choose between going hungry and freezing if they are not helped. The latter will go bust without financial assistance from the taxpayers, making hundreds of thousands of people unemployed.
And that is not all the harm that a universal price freeze would cause. It will remove the incentive for people to cut their energy use.
From what I read, see and hear, at first hand sometimes, small firms across the UK and Europe have been doing all they can to cut their bills – e.g. Spanish shops and offices switching off the air-conditioning despite the unprecedented summer heat, Italian restaurants turning off the lights in the evening and using candles instead, British corner-shops switching off their chilled cabinets at night, German gyms making customers take cold showers. Companies such as these are not waiting for governments to help. They will go out of business if they don’t reduce their energy demand now.
Do the big companies have the same urge to cut their energy costs? Not if UK supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are any guide. A week ago I was shivering in a T-shirt and shorts in my local Sainsbury’s. The temperature outside was 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit for our North American readers). Inside, throughout the store, it can’t have been higher than 12 C. Several other customers were wearing coats. Walking around town late one night recently the public buildings and smaller shops and offices were dark inside; the bigger stores were shut but brightly lit.
But it is we the people who must and can do more. British homes, some of the least energy efficient in Europe, account for a third of national energy consumption. It’s too late for the coming winter to install double or triple glazing, insulate the roof, install solar panels, though it would be a good idea if we started to plan on doing so before the autumn of 2023. Instead, we need to take heed of all those energy-saving tips that are out there. You know the ones: save an average of £55 p.a. if you don’t leave your electrical appliances on stand-by (yes, that includes the TV)***; switch off lights in empty rooms (save £20 p.a.); keep use of the tumble dryer to a minimum (save £60 p.a.); don’t hang about in the shower (4 minutes max. and you’ll save £70 p.a.); turn off heaters in unused rooms; reduce your water temperature by turning down your boiler’s flow; put silver foil behind radiators; make sure there is no furniture up against those radiators; draw curtains and close shutters as soon as it gets dark etc., etc.
But the biggest money-saving solution is to reduce the temperature in the rooms you use. In 1970 the average temperature in winter inside a house or flat in the UK was 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit).**** Yes, you read that right. Dangerously cold, especially when you consider that 12 is an average. But do Brits really need to live in 23 degrees Celsius? According to the heating and ventilation experts, HomeServe, that is the average temperature inside a British home these days. That’s almost as dangerous as 12 degrees C. It’s absurd that we Brits are wasting so much energy on over-heating our homes. Turn down the thermostat a few degrees and you will not only save loads of money (heating accounts for over half of our home energy costs), you will also be putting two fingers up to Putin and helping to save the planet. The German government has already decreed that public buildings be heated to no more than 19 degrees C. President Macron asked French citizens on September 5 to heat their homes this winter to no more than 19 degrees C. Come on Truss, you’re not being a nanny if you ask us to do the same.
Our Ukrainian guest, Tatiana Mazno, listened sympathetically last week when I explained how our household energy bill had risen three-fold in the past two years and could be as high as £8,000 in January 2023 if the government didn’t do something and if we didn’t take some radical steps to save energy. Her reply was instructive:
“In Kyiv we’ll have two colds this winter. Outside, we can expect it to be minus 15C to 20C for a few weeks. Inside, it will be a government-mandated plus 15C to 17C maximum.”
She went on to explain how her flat in central Kyiv is in an old Soviet-era building with thin walls. Her husband has no control over the heating. That is done centrally. He’ll just have to wear more clothes.
Ukrainians are fighting to protect their and our freedom and uphold their and our values. Surely, we Brits can do our bit by being a little more stoical.
*It will be about £1000 lower in Northern Ireland. Why? Has a benefit from Brexit been found?
** UK-based management consultants with the snappy slogan ”Delivering comprehensive insight that enables you to succeed in the net zero transition.”
***Figures from the UK’s Energy Saving Trust
****I shared a farmhouse in Devon with other Exeter University students from 1972 to 1974. I can attest that in both winters there was sometimes ice on the inside of our bedroom windows.