How housing can prevent winter deaths

Published on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 14:38
Written by Helen Barlow

Compared to previous years, we've had a relatively mild winter. Despite this, any sort of cold weather can be deadly for the most vulnerable in society, particularly those who are over 75, on low incomes or in poor health

Across England tens of thousands of people die from preventable illnesses between November to March. The Office for National Statistics puts the total for 2011-2012 at 24,000.  Dudley Council, like most local authorities, has a strategy in place to support these vulnerable individuals during the chillier months.

In the West Midlands our focus is not just on cutting excess winter deaths. We also want to reduce the amount of people suffering from illnesses made worse by cold, damp homes. We want to increase comfort and quality of life by improving living environments. This will have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of thousands of vulnerable people as well as the financial benefits of reducing hospital and GP costs.

The problem is that many of the most vulnerable people are also the most socially isolated. Some have few friends or family and rarely leave home due to mobility problems. Others mistrust people they don't know, especially unfamiliar 'professionals' trying to give them advice. They might be resistant to changing their behaviour when it comes to home improvements and even energy use. In many cases, vulnerable individuals don't have the cash to make any improvements.

The challenge, then, is how to target this section of society. Dudley home improvement agency recently won funding to meet this challenge. We are one of 55 home improvement agencies (HIAs) who've been given Department of Health cash via the FILT Warm Homes Service. This new scheme allows HIAs to bid for money which they distribute to vulnerable people as home improvement grants. This cash is for small scale measures - boiler repairs, new gas fires, thermostatic radiator valves, draught proofing doors – but they can have a significant impact on someone's health and wellbeing.

We've also used the funding to train case workers so they can provide personalised advice to vulnerable people, helping them to improve the warmth of their home. This might be guidance on ways to control fuel use, help on accessing energy efficiency financial support or a benefits entitlement check.

Key to the success of this scheme are the many networks we've nurtured. Without these local partnerships and referral chains we wouldn't be able to find those hard to reach individuals who most need help over the winter.

We've employed a graduate to spread knowledge of our Warm Homes scheme through direct contact with front line NHS and social care professionals. This has prompted a huge rise in the number of referrals from staff who have direct contact with the most vulnerable and isolated.

Another solution has been working closely with Dudley Council's gas contractor, leading to many more referrals to the HIA for boiler and gas fire repairs and saving clients money.

We've mapped the voluntary sector services provided across the borough so we can easily identify where the nearest available support for each client is by looking at a map rather than trawling through long lists. This has speeded up referrals on to other services that can help vulnerable clients.

We're also working with community organisations and faith groups to reach those most in need of our help. Our caseworkers can then signpost these individuals to other voluntary sector services providing winter support - good neighbour schemes for snow clearing, befriending services or free meals services.

At Dudley HIA, our approach to helping people keep warm has centred on embedding our work within the many different strands of the local community. I firmly believe that the partnerships we've developed have helped us to increase trust between case workers and clients and prevent many deaths this winter.

For more information about local home improvement agencies visit or call 0845 864 5210

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