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Citizens Advice Cymru’s Holistic Energy Advice

Creating a Warmer Wales through Citizens Advice Cymru’s holistic Energy Advice

Citizens Advice Cymru was awarded funding by British Gas Energy Trust in 2018 to roll out targeted energy advice in fourteen delivery areas across Wales, which enabled the organisation to provide holistic advice and purposeful intervention to assist people who were experiencing or at risk of fuel poverty and hardship in general.  The project is aptly called Warmer Wales or Cynhesu Cymru “Warming Wales” in the Welsh language.

Prior to this, most energy projects in our Wales network had been short, discreet and seasonal projects leading up to the winter period and centered around raising awareness and consumer confidence.  Whilst these opportunities were valuable, they had not been sufficient for local services to retain expertise in this advice area.  Our service has always been able to offer issue-specific advice which was energy related, such as querying a fuel bill or associated with their presenting issue, especially in the context of debt or welfare benefits but we hadn’t been able to develop meaningful energy related expertise in a systematic fashion.   The BGET funding however, has enabled a service delivery model enhancement for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it has enabled local Citizens advice to employ project workers dedicated to offering energy advice, which necessitated a more in-depth delivery of energy advice and a deeper understanding of peripheral issues.  This in turn has enabled energy advice to be integrated into wider advice giving at different touch points, whether a presenting issue or to offer wider scope for intervention for the benefit of clients, for example, through greater income maximisation, significant capital home improvements and lower bills, raised consumer awareness and enabling lower carbon consumption.

Secondly, the subsequent resource to train workers in Energy Awareness to NVQ Level 3 not only raises the scope of advice and access to wider support but also the tacit and shared knowledge within the organisation at a local and national level, which trickles into other areas of advice. This has been achieved through the cascading of information, in-house training sessions; the availability to provide specialist support on more complex issues; and awareness raising with other organisations.

For example, Citizens Advice Denbighshire in north east Wales have been able to take full advantage of this momentum in energy awareness by ensuring that staff and volunteers have access to training to increase their knowledge and confidence. Last year one volunteer and one staff member completed the NEA Level 3 Energy Awareness Course, seven members of staff and eight volunteers completed the NEA Level 2 Fuel Debt in the Community Course and all staff and volunteers were given the opportunity to attend the Big Energy Saving Network energy training presentation.  For Citizens Advice Rhondda Cynon Taf, the Warmer Wales guarantee of longer term funding and access to qualifications means that they have been able to train two staff members who support a further three members of staff working on shorter term energy projects as well as the rest of the staff and volunteer team. This has enabled them to release their lead adviser from the project at certain times to become the Citizen’s Advice regional energy lead and energy champion. In this role, he has made links with other energy advice organisations, has been active on national groups and was able to contribute to Wales and UK policy forums.

The training received across the Warmer Wales project means that staff and volunteers are able to systematically ask the right questions as part of the normal advice service to establish if they can assist the client in relation to energy, when the client may be unaware of what is available to them, for example, the savings that can be made by switching suppliers and tariffs, that they could be eligible for warm home discount and the benefits of being on a supplier’s priority service register and have access to grants.

Finally, the Warmer Wales project has enabled those local Citizens Advice involved to develop a strong local identity as a centre dedicated to specialist energy advice and with it not only the ability to reach new client groups and those harder to reach but also the development of new and often unexpected partnerships with organisations and client groups which links to the wider welfare of individuals.

This has been echoed by CA Bridgend’s Energy Advice Team who have seen more doors have since opened up to their service.  By now, all of their advisers have an elevated understanding of energy as an advice topic area, enabling them to identify surrounding and related issues; pertinent questions can now be found woven into client interviews, particularly where a risk of fuel poverty is identified.  In the office, staff are talking about energy more, both with clients, each other and third party organisations, leading to an embedding of the local Citizens Advice knowledge not only within the service but within the community.   At the Warmer Wales project at Bridgend, this inclusive and empowering approach in their work with clients, rightly culminated in their receipt of an NEA Inclusivity award in 2019.

Widening Visibility and Scope

All local Warmer Wales projects have a very good relationship and regular meetings with statutory and non statutory bodies, such as local authorities, JobCentre Plus social services, GPs, mental wellbeing and healthy eating groups, all of which recognise their expertise in dealing with energy enquiries and their ability to resolve energy issues and will now refer clients to the service.   It has also enabled them to develop meaningful relationships within the energy advice sector, particularly with NEST Partnership Development managers and are invited to attend events and forums, such as Fuel Poverty Focus Groups for the Welsh Parliament fuel poverty inquiry and also running their own local events to promote energy awareness in their local area amongst their community partners. Beyond this our energy advisers have created personal contacts within many of the leading energy suppliers customer service teams, which helps resolve clients’ issues quicker and can support the team with energy issues and complaints through to Ombudsman cases. Such linkages are vital to ensuring that vulnerable people have access to all the support available to them and in an efficient manner.

The extent of poverty in Wales has left many many households vulnerable, especially in the face of the financial shock posed by the Coronavirus outbreak.  Projects such as Warmer Wales and it’s holistic approach to the person’s whole situation, in the context of energy advice, are a vital resource to ensure people living in or at risk of falling into poverty can be supported to improve their lives and on the road to lasting solutions.

Author – Alun Gruffudd, Citizens Advice Cymru