According to her daughter, Ève Curie, when the young Maria Skłodowska was a student in Paris in the 1890s she was often so cold in her garret room that she’d put her wooden chair on top of her blanket as she tried to sleep to give herself ‘some sort of illusion of weight and heat’. Reading of Marie Curie’s austere beginnings made me feel better about growing up in a house that was always cold.
My parents feared the cost of running the central heating. They also worried the boiler might fail if they overworked it. All winter our chilly, single-glazed windows dripped with the condensation of six people’s exhalations, and the walls glistened with moisture. Black mould bloomed on ceiling corners and behind furniture, and speckled the fronds of the Venetian blinds and all the sealant and grouting. The largest patch was in the corner of the bedroom I shared with my older sister, where two clammy external walls met. Like a clumsy metaphor for class mobility, my bookshelves hid the ominous mark. Every now and then, my father would barge in with a bottle of bleach and some rags and demand that I remove my books and we vacate the room. Our grumbling would tail off at the fear and guilt in his voice. He’d scrub the mould from the peeling, wrinkled wallpaper, douse the wall in bleach, and then cough all evening.
If we’d lived near any woods, I might have compared the smell of the mould to the dank aroma of mulching leaves or rotting logs. We learned to ignore its nasty, earthy tang as it melded with the other odours of a teenage bedroom: body spray, nail varnish, incense. Long-term exposure to black mould is hazardous to health. Its spores are irritants, inflaming skin and respiratory mucosa and causing headaches and asthma attacks.
Being cold is not only miserable, it also diminishes your resistance to respiratory disease, and seeds other determinants of poor health, such as damp and mould. Our homes, like our diets and stress levels, are inscribed on our immune systems, and writ large in statistics on life expectancy or deaths from Covid-19. As ever with poverty, the risks and costs are compounded. Huddling around the cheaper warmth of portable heaters increases the risk of house fires. Over time, damp buildings succumb to decay and need expensive repairs. Wallpaper, furniture and curtains moulder and stink. I can date the books I owned as a teenager, including Curie’s, from the mildew stains on their fore-edges.
A household exists in fuel poverty when the cost of maintaining a healthy temperature tips its inhabitants below the poverty line. It’s a function of household income, energy prices and the amount of heat a building leaks. The UK is failing on all three variables.
When adjusted for inflation, wages are stagnating or falling. Rising food prices make this worse: money is only worth the bread you can buy with it. As Jack Monroe pointed out last month, these rising costs have been skewed towards basic staples. Supermarkets have been quietly whittling down their low-cost ranges to force customers towards higher price points, placing greater burdens on those already struggling to eat. Thanks to Monroe’s incisive campaigning, some supermarkets have now brought some low-cost staples back to their shelves.
British houses are some of the worst insulated and most expensive to heat in Europe. They emit more carbon than the agricultural sector, and there’s little warmth to show for it. Dampness is endemic. Disproportionate levels of poverty mean that communities of colour are worst affected: while 3 per cent of white households live in damp accommodation, 13 per cent of mixed white and Black Caribbean households, and 10 per cent of Pakistani households, struggle with health-endangering damp. People of colour are also almost twice as likely as white people to grapple with fuel poverty.
The government has announced that on 1 April it will lift the energy price cap, allowing bills to rise by 54 per cent. The average household will have to find an extra £700 per year. A £200 loan will be imposed across the board, to be recouped over five years, and households in some council tax bands will get a £150 discount. These derisory gestures skirt around the question of what it will mean for people to make up the shortfall. Homes will be colder, damper, sadder. Mould will flourish. Children will wheeze. The million adults who currently skimp on a whole day of food every month will go hungrier. Food bank queues will get longer. Meanwhile, Shell announced that its quarterly profits have quadrupled, and BP reported $12.8 billion profit for 2021, an eight-year high.
The UK has been hit particularly hard because of its shoddy housing stock and short-sighted dependence on gas. Seventy-seven per cent of British households rely on gas-powered central heating to thaw homes that scarcely hold the warmth. The longer-term exit route is clear: the government must invest in renewable energy, and retrofit houses so they meet the needs of those who live in them without gushing carbon. In the short term, we need unyielding price caps that put our health before that of businesses. If energy companies founder, we must conclude that their business models are, like the fossil fuel sector, incompatible with human wellbeing.
A recent opinion polls indicates that 71 per cent of Britons would support the government enforcing limits on how much companies are permitted to charge for energy, housing, food and other basic necessities. Tory voters are even more enthusiastic than the rest of us: 76 per cent want a ceiling on the cost of living. Do they misunderstand their place on the political spectrum, or Thatcher’s role in establishing the cruel philosophy we now live by? Or was it only ever the racism they were after? Either way, there’s hope in those numbers. Johnson’s government has conned us left, right and centre, but no one can be fooled about the meals they miss or their frozen feet.