More than 700,000 people in England and Wales are living in homes without central heating this winter, one in 10 of whom are elderly and ill, according to figures that lay bare the plight of the most vulnerable.
The new official data highlights the extreme end of the conditions being suffered by those who live in 4m homes the government rates as “non-decent” for failing to meet basic standards.
With the country enduring its chilliest months, charities lobbying for the rights of elderly people have warned that cold homes could cause 10,000 unnecessary deaths this winter.
A government spokesman, when approached for comment, described the lack of central heating in homes as “completely unacceptable” but ministers stand accused of failing those living in the worst conditions.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis based on the 2021 census shows that 699,500 people live in a home without central heating in England.
London has the largest number of households without central heating (76,190), followed by the rest of the south-east (49,875), the south-west (42,550) and the north-west (47,710). There are a further 15,496 homes in Wales without central heating.
Confirmed figures are due to be released from the 2021 census on Thursday.
The ONS further reports that among those living without central heating in England, 68,100 are aged 65 and over with long-term health conditions.
A central heating system provides warmth to a number of spaces within a building from one main source of heat, typically a gas boiler in the UK.
Holly Holder, the deputy director for homes at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “The number of homes without central heating in England is truly shocking. We have among the worst and least efficient homes in western Europe and often it is older people who have to reside in these subpar properties.
“The life and death implications of this are really being seen now as we enter the bracing cold of mid-winter at the height of a cost of living crisis.”
She added: “The consequences of such a poor standard of housing are deadly. Cold homes kill. The UK has a high excess winter mortality, far greater than in much colder European countries such as Norway where properties are better insulated.”
Rishi Sunak is already under fire for his U-turn on plans for local compulsory housebuilding targets that could raise the standards of the country’s housing stock. The policy was dropped after pressure from Tory backbench MPs.
One in five (21.5%) of excess deaths in England are related to cold homes, with the UK as a whole said to have among the oldest and poorest quality housing stock in western Europe.
Recently published data from the English Housing Survey, has highlighted the poor state of the country’s private rental sector, in particular, with 23% of private rentals failing to meet the decent homes standard in 2021-22. That compares with just 13% of owner-occupied homes, and 10% of social housing.
James Anderson, the founder of the Disability & Elderly Plumbing and Heating Emergency Repair, a community initiative in the north west of England for those unable to fix their homes, said he regularly came across houses without central heating.
The plumbing and heating engineer recently launched a funding appeal for an elderly woman in Huyton, Liverpool, who was relying on a small electric heater to keep her warm. Anderson warned she was unlikely to survive the winter in her dilapidated and freezing terraced home.
“Irene has had to get used to this, but she shouldn’t have to – she nearly cried when we told her we were going to help her out,” he said.
Matt Copeland, the head of policy at the fuel poverty charity National Energy Action, said there had been a failure to help the poorest households retrofit their homes, leaving them reliant on expensive and inefficient electric heaters in many cases.
“Households without central heating are some of the worst affected by the energy crisis – and [are] twice as likely to be fuel poor than households who do have centrally heated homes,” he said.
“They’re also significantly more likely to live in the least energy efficient properties. This winter, with prices high and temperatures dropping, those homes will find it prohibitively expensive to stay warm at home. It is imperative that fuel-poor households [that are] off the gas grid are prioritised for any future targeted support.”
A government spokesman said they were currently consulting over the powers of the regulator of social housing to tackle non-decent homes and that ministers were introducing a decent homes standard for the private rented sector.
She added: “It is completely unacceptable that families are having to live in homes without heating and we are acting to ensure people can stay warm this winter. This includes £1,200 to help pay their bills.
“The Decent Homes Standard requires all social homes to have an efficient form of heating, such as central heating, and we will also introduce this to privately rented homes.
“To help those who use heating oil and fuels other than gas to warm their homes, we have increased the Alternative Fuel Payment (AFP) to £200 and are committed to delivering this to customers as soon as possible.”