Millions of households ‘cannot afford their heating’ as cold snap sets in

The Met Office has issued warnings for ice across much of the UK as a sudden cold snap bites while 2,000 homes in Sheffield are still without gas, as North of England Reporter Kelly Foran explains

More than three million low-income households cannot afford to heat their homes, new research shows, posing a risk to their health as a severe chill sweeps the UK.

The UK Health and Security Agency has issued a cold weather alert recommending vulnerable people warm their homes to at least 18C, wear extra layers and eat hot food to protect themselves from plummeting temperatures.

But some 710,000 households are unable to heed the advice as they cannot pay for warm clothing, heating and food, according to analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

A fifth of all low-income households – 2.5 million – are going without food and heating.

The survey of 4,251 people in the bottom 40% of incomes also found that around 4.3 million curbed their spending on heating ahead of the cold spell.

The survey was conducted from October 31 to November 25.

Why the current weather conditions are more than your average cold snap, writes ITV Weather Presenter Lucy Verasamy

This week marks the first wintry weather of the season. The arrival of Arctic air brings much colder air for all of us with temperatures widely well below freezing by night - and for some of us not much above freezing by day.

Temperatures will be close to -10C or lower the next few nights in the most prone rural spots with frost, ice, snow and freezing fog in the forecast. Winter hazards will feature well into next week too.

Such cold air is not unheard of this time of year, it is December after all, but it's unusual to have temperatures fall so low this early in the winter season for more than a couple of days.

This current cold spell will be longer than our more likely shorter cold "snaps". With the cold expected to stay with us into next week - its longevity is marked as unusual and rare given weather patterns of the last 20 years.

This adds another extreme weather story to this year - and quite a gear change after an extremely wet and mild Autumn. 

More than seven million households have gone without at least one of the essentials since June, the Foundation will say in a full report next week.

The social change organisation also found that many families are already in arrears on their bills, owing more than £1,600 on average.

Around 2.4 million households have borrowed money or used credit to afford their bills so far this year.

Freezing weather means they face the impossible decision over whether to take on more debt to heat their home to the level recommended by health professionals.

More than three million low-income households cannot afford to heat their homes. Credit: PA

Rachelle Earwaker, senior economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “The government must see that families won’t be able to get through the winter on the current levels of support.

“For hundreds of thousands of households it’s not a choice between putting the heating on or not. Our research shows they can’t afford anything recommended to protect themselves from the effects of plummeting temperatures.

“We’re still experiencing historically high inflation and the prices of essentials are still soaring. Energy bills, while capped, are still almost double what they were last winter. Housing shortages, rising rents and mortgage payments are overburdening budgets across the country.

“The dangerously cold weather on the horizon is cause for concern. People are being forced to wager their financial health and whether they can afford more debt, against their wellbeing without sufficient heat, clothing or hot food.”

She also said the basic social security level is “woefully below” the level that would allow people to afford essentials.

The Foundation is urging the government to change Universal Credit and increase the basic rate of support.

A government spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be to support the most vulnerable and we recognise that people are struggling with rising prices which is why we are protecting millions of those most in need with at least £1,200 of direct payments and providing households with £400 towards energy costs.

“Our immediate support also includes our Energy Price Guarantee, saving around £900 for a typical household over winter and our Household Support Fund is helping people with essential costs.

"Meanwhile the Chancellor recently announced a further extensive cost of living package, ensuring those most in need are supported next year as well as this.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.