It may still be August, but some families are already living in fear of what the winter could mean for their energy bills. We’ve already seen a 54% rise in the energy cap, and the further rises predicted in October and January are frightening.  The hundreds of extra pounds households need to pay their bills just aren’t there in people’s budgets, as inflation soars and wages fail to cover the costs. The increased costs, especially for those with fixed incomes such as families in receipt of benefits, will push people into debt and poverty this winter.

For those households most in need, the Government has announced a much-needed extension of the Household Support Fund. This is a local safety net that provides funds to cover the essentials such as food, water and crucially – energy bills. It is the last resort for many who are already struggling to make ends meet. Of the £500 million in funding available last winter, distributed between October 2021 and 31 March 2022, 80% went to families with children – reflecting the increasing difficulty that families have in making ends meet.

Yet despite the incredible price and bill rises we’ve seen since last winter and with worse yet to come, the Government has only allocated the same £500 million to the Fund for this winter. Worst still, the Government has also added strict criteria about how the funding must be divided, with a third having to go to families with children and a third having to go to pensioners – regardless of local demographics and of who needs the support most.

One of the benefits of the fund as originally designed was that it has allowed local flexibility. But the new criteria forces councils to give based on arbitrary Government targets, rather than targeting it where it is needed most. The needs of an area like Tower Hamlets, where just 6% of residents are over 65 but nearly a quarter are children, are vastly different to North Norfolk, where over a third of the population are over 65. Considering 80% of the original fund went to families with children, many of those who benefited from the original round of funding will be left, literally, out in the cold. But this won’t just affect families with children: a strict formula that takes no account of demographics will see pensioners penalised in some areas and children penalised in others.

The Household Support Fund is of course just one piece of the puzzle: we need more support overall for all those struggling with their bills, and a strategic approach to tackling energy insecurity that includes retrofitting homes and shifting the ownership of our energy mix towards community energy. But this Fund is a crucial tool for responding to the energy crisis, right now, on a local level. It is imperative that the Government take action before the next funding round begins in October, increasing the funding and removing restrictions so that we are able to respond to local needs this winter.