France: new approaches towards tackling urban fuel poverty

In our latest guest post, Ute Dubois (ISG International Business School, Paris) discusses the relevance of the rural-urban divide for the understanding of energy poverty in France and for assessing the suitability of past and new policy approaches for the alleviation of energy poverty. Ute’s analysis highlights the differences between rural and urban typologies of energy poverty in France, recent changes in the policy framework, and the importance of local action at the city scale.

Since the first estimate of the number of households in “energy precariousness”, in 2009 [1], the focus of French policy approaches has been mainly on rural fuel poverty. According to that estimate, the majority of fuel poor households are located in rural areas or in small towns. They are mostly low income households and a majority of them are elderly homeowners living in single family homes. Therefore, the focus of the main fuel poverty programme that is proposing thermal renovations – the programme “Habiter mieux”, launched in 2011 – has been on this category of households. The households living in collective housing were excluded from that programme. Thus, people living in collective housing, i.e. tenants of the social and private sector and homeowners in multi-family buildings could not benefit from Habiter mieux.

This does not mean that fuel poverty does not exist in urban areas. During the past few years, social workers in urban areas have been confronted with increasing demands for financial assistance from the social funds for housing (FSL)[2] and the (optional) municipal energy schemes. This has been confirmed by a study of the national union of communal social services (UNCCAS) that was published in March 2013 [3].

What this suggests is that there could be two types of fuel poor populations in France. This is also suggested by the dichotomy in fuel poverty policies, that seem to address the difficulties of urban and rural households with different tools. On the one hand, there are households living in rural areas who pay high energy bills [4] but who are often not asking for help through the FSL, but can benefit from thermal renovation programmes. On the other hand, there are households living in urban areas who, on average, ask more often for help trough the FSL but who did not have access, until very recently, to the main thermal renovation programme addressing fuel poverty.

This intuition is confirmed by a study on different indicators of fuel poverty that was undertaken by Devalière et al. (2011) [5]. Two fuel poverty indicators are analysed: the 10% expenses threshold on the one hand and the self-reported indicator of “suffering from a cold home”. If the two indicators result in similar fuel poverty figures (3.8 million households in the first case, 3.5 million in the second), it is interesting to note that the populations identified by both methods are not similar: the intersection between the two groups is only 621 000 households. Whereas the “expenditure” fuel poor seem to be small households (with many single person households) who live mainly in the rural areas, the “cold” fuel poor are living in urban areas and are more often families with children. The existence of different types of fuel poor populations has also been confirmed by recent studies of the national observatory of energy precariousness (ONPE).

One striking element here is that the urban fuel poor declare more often that they suffer from cold homes than the rural fuel poor. But they are helped mainly in case of payment difficulties, which can alleviate their financial difficulties but not solve the problem of cold homes.

This dichotomy in policy approaches concerning the urban and the rural fuel poor could however be reduced as the result of three recent evolutions.

A first evolution relates to the programme ‘Habiter mieux’. During its first two years of operation (mid 2011 to mid 2013), the results in terms of numbers of thermal renovations were lower than expected. In parallel, the French government is now strongly promoting thermal renovations: a national programme of energy renovation has been launched this year by President Hollande, which should result in 500 000 renovations per year until 2017. To increase the number of beneficiaries of “Habiter mieux”, the programme was reformed in June 2013 order to attract more households. In addition, the amount of the public subsidy per household was significantly increased. In the same time, the eligibility thresholds were increased and the programme was extended to homeowners in multi-owner collective housing and to private landlords (if they fulfil certain criteria in terms of limitation of rents). These measures could benefit especially the urban fuel poor.

A second evolution relates to the existence of a new planning tool at the local level: the territorial plans for climate and energy (PCET). Since the Grenelle 2 law on environment of July 2010, all local public authorities with more than 50 000 inhabitants are obliged to produce this kind of documents [6]. They deal among others, with energy efficiency issues and also with fuel poverty reduction. Hence, fuel poverty is becoming a more visible part of local policymaking in the energy field, i.e. the question of fuel poverty is not restricted anymore to the field of social policies. Although this tool is not specifically “urban”, it could be interesting in urban contexts because it attracts the attention of local policy actors on the energy vulnerability of their territories, a phenomenon that cannot be addressed only in terms of social policy.

A third evolution can be observed in the field, where some local actors (public authorities or other actors of the energy sector) are developing local diagnoses of fuel poverty. These diagnoses are often conducted with the objective of creating fuel poverty maps on a territory. While the first fuel poverty maps were realised in large rural areas (one exception being the project “CAPE” that was realised in 2009 and 2010 in a deprived area of Paris), there are now initiatives in urban areas in order to characterise more precisely the phenomenon. This type of studies are starting to be realised both at the level of municipalities and in larger areas, like the Départements. In the region Ile de France, which is surrounding Paris, some diagnoses of this type are currently elaborated.

As a consequence of these evolutions, a new way of looking at fuel poverty in urban areas may emerge. It can be expected that the question of urban fuel poverty will not be viewed anymore as a simple issue of social protection that could be treated with subsidies in order to alleviate (sporadically) the financial difficulties faced by households for the payment of energy. Urban fuel poverty is increasingly becoming an issue for local energy (especially energy efficiency) policies. In that context, the local diagnoses that are being developed in several urban areas should be a useful instrument to gain knowledge of what fuel poverty actually is in urban contexts.


[1] Plan Bâtiment Grenelle, 2009, Groupe de travail Précarité énergétique, Report, http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rapports-publics/104000012/0000.pdf

[2] These funds are, among others, providing financial assistance to households with payment difficulties of energy. In addition, households who are helped by the “Energy” part of the FSL are protected from disconnection in case of nonpayment of energy bills.

[3] This study reveals that 77% of social centres have faced increasing demands for assistance for energy during the past three years. Cf. UNCCAS (2013) L’implication des CCAS/CIAS dans la lutte contre la précarité énergétique, Enquêtes & observations sociales, March 2013, www.unccas.org

[4] in the French approach of 2009, the fuel poverty indicator was based on actual energy expenses higher than 10% of a household’s income

[5] Devalière, I., Briant, P. (2011), La précarité énergétique : avoir froid ou dépenser trop pour se chauffer, INSEE Première, N° 1351 – May 2011 , http://www.insee.fr/fr/ffc/ipweb/ip1351/ip1351.pdf

[6] More than 400 local public authorities have to elaborate these plans. While these plans were initially expected to be completed at the end of the year 2012, a majority of local public authorities (approximately two thirds) were still in the process of elaborating their plans in June 2013.

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