Never mind buying gifts for their families and friends, this Christmas many people in Britain will face a choice to heat or eat. It’s a national scandal and it deserves to be at the forefront of our political debate. If politics can’t address this scandal then increasing amounts of people will be joining Russell Brand in avoiding the ballot box.
But here is another national scandal: £1 in every £4 spent on energy bills is wasted through poorly insulated homes or leaving on appliances when they’re not needed. £1 in every £3 spent on water bills in the UK is wasted by people leaving the taps running when we brush our teeth and wash our hands or use old appliances. And new research published today shows that the average family in Britain is wasting nearly £60 a month by throwing away almost an entire meal a day.
Not only are we paying increasing amounts on water, energy and food bills but we’re wasting large amounts of these things too.
Water, food and energy. They are central to the cost of living crisis and they are three of the most important environmental issues. Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy prices has captured the imagination of voters and dominated political debate by positioning Labour on the side of the consumer. The energy price freeze has opened up important questions about the way the energy markets function. When it comes to such basic needs, it is right that government intervenes in markets to ensure that they work in the interest of people.
But the amount of wasted energy, food and water must be part of the conversation too. That is why a massive push forward energy efficiency policy should be a priority for the next Labour government. But it is also why the Fabian Society have looked closely at food waste and water efficiency as areas where much more can be done.
Bringing down bills to address the cost of living crisis will not just be solved by technocratic government intervention like price freezes – though this is necessary at times. Government will always have a responsibility to ensure that markets function and that prices are fair – a fact that John Major understands even if David Cameron doesn’t.
But government, businesses, communities and families have to do more together to use resources such as food, water and energy responsibly. We have to come together to upgrade our housing stock and business practices to be far more energy efficient, move to a system of universal water metering and use water saving devices wherever possible.
And we have to plan our meals better and simplify best before and use by dates to stop so much precious food going in the bin. We must do more to bring communities together to raise awareness about these important issues.
Some of waste-limiting measures will place pressures on some households. That is why Labour is right to pledge to force water companies to introduce a social tariff to help those who will struggle with bills. Responsible use of a scarce resource like water is key; Labour must set a timeline for universal water metering. Around half of households pay the same water bill no matter how much they use. This is ludicrous and the UK is one of two European countries that still charge for water in this way.
Quite apart from addressing the squeeze on household budgets, taking too much water out of the environment to supply our homes and businesses is impacting on our natural habitats. Using more energy than we need means more carbon emissions. And food production takes up precious land, uses large amounts of water and uses a lot of energy in production and transportation from farm to fork.
Water, energy and land are becoming scarce. Scarcity pushes up prices. And scarcity is not caused by population growth and immigration. There is more than enough food to feed everyone in Britain and indeed on the planet. But we waste so much of it. There is more than enough potential to generate energy to keep our lights on, heat our homes and drive our economy but we are still overly reliant on expensive fossil fuels and lagging on energy efficiency standards. And there is more than enough water for homes and businesses but we must use it more responsibly and manage our natural habitats better to ensure safe supply in future.
If we don’t address the environmental crisis then we will never bring prices down. Worse still we will quickly undermine the conditions necessary to sustain flourishing human, animal and plant life on the planet.
The cost of living crisis is the most urgent issue facing Britain right now. That the seventh richest country in the world has millions of people struggling to pay the rent, heat their homes or feed their families is a mark of shame on our politics but also on our economy and society.
If Labour can show it is serious about addressing the environmental crisis – the most important issue facing Britain and the world – then perhaps more people will join comedian Robert Webb in filling out a membership form.