Nine years ago, when I invested every-thing I had in a part-rent, part-buy, one-bedroom, government-backed eco-home which proved to be a boiling box in summer, my first instinct was to throw myself out of a window – but I couldn’t because they opened only ten centimetres. My second was to complain about it in The Spectator. Now, I return to update you on my energy bills. Prepare to turn green with envy.
Friends who live successful sorts of lives – involving houses, spouses and gardens – exclaim ‘Oh, so you weren’t joking about living in a J.G. Ballard novel?’ when they come around for the book launches I host in my living room, before asking if I can open a window. ‘I can actually,’ I boast. ‘The restrictors were removed on humanitarian grounds and a man in the block next door fell out and died last year in circumstances still unreported in any newspaper.’
But last night, I asked a WhatsApp group of these friends how rising electricity bills were working out for them. ‘They wanted to put our monthly payment up to £920 – which would have been £11,000 a year,’ complained one, who lives in a cottage. ‘They’ve agreed to take £720.’ Someone else found hers had gone up by £6,500 a year and intends to sleep in a tent in the garden this summer, while another said he’d concluded his was a misprint comparable only with his latest tax bill.
As for elderly people on fixed incomes, the situation makes anyone with an ounce of compassion feel unwell. In January, the Daily Mirror reported that a 98-year-old D-Day veteran was living on a pension of £220 a week and spending £134 a month on electricity – even though he was careful to boil just enough water for one cup of tea and was only putting his immersion heating on every other day.
So when I reviewed my latest electricity costs from GEUK, I felt very grateful to my eco-home: last year the bill totalled £475.63 for the entire year. In February, I received a note from the company’s CEO advising that this figure would shoot up by some £300 from this month. In normal circumstances, such a price increase for exactly the same product would send you shopping around for alternatives, but in Poundland everything I want to buy now costs £2, so thank heavens for insulation.
‘Our pricing is not reflective of the fourfold increase in wholesale gas prices the market has experienced,’ GEUK’s Doug Stewart explained in his letter. ‘We are still the only supplier supplying 100 per cent green gas, which means it will be exempt from the green gas levy.’ Customers cannot expect prices to go down again no matter how green the gas gets, though – because we are ‘not experiencing a spike, but a sustained rise in energy prices’. This was before the war in Ukraine began and Putin started charging in roubles – the ramifications of which are likely to kill more pensioners in the coming winters than Covid ever did.
Some eco-home owners are not as lucky as me. Those who bought properties from which the cladding had to be stripped, because post-Grenfell it was revealed as a threat to their lives, now find that the temperature indoors has dropped drastically. In January, the Guardian exposed the plight of 500,000 people in the 17,000 apartment blocks across the UK which rely on communal heating and hot water systems, whose properties are not protected by the government’s energy price cap. ‘One owner of a two-bedroom flat saw bills rise from £80 in November to £260 for December,’ the paper noted. ‘Others have received even higher bills, as the unit gas price has tripled, alongside rising electricity charges.’
Extinction Rebellion, obviously, doesn’t think such costs are enough of a deterrent and is intent on driving them up further by blocking tankers full of anything – including cooking oil – from reaching us. But what I find saddest about this permanent rise in energy costs that will bankrupt pensioners and ruin the prospects of young families is that so many of us were using the bare minimum anyway.
Anyone who has a father who read Evelyn Waugh novels for parenting guidance will have been raised, like me, in a culture of lukewarm baths used by two previous occupants. The thermostat in our draughty house was positioned right next to the hearth so the heating went off if it was cold enough to light a fire. Shaun Hill is 64 years old and his carbon footprint makes Greta Thunberg look like a petrolhead – he’s never once flown on an aeroplane and his idea of ‘going abroad’ consisted of a single trip to Ireland. It’s these sorts of people that the eco-zealots want to punish further. My dad’s heating oil bill has shot up to £949 and the electricity to £1,337 – which is just above the new national average. If Boris Johnson continues to insist on wasting heinous amounts of money on his mission to turn our green and pleasant land into the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’, the ‘Qatar of hydrogen’ or whatever despotic regime he seeks to emulate this week, it’s going to get even more expensive.
So is abandoning country life and downsizing to a part-rent, part-buy eco-home in a modern metropolis the solution to rising energy bills? Probably – but I wouldn’t recommend it. When footage of the Chinese authorities killing the dogs of people who tested positive for coronavirus in their latest lockdown emerged, my second impulse – after horror – was to wonder: ‘The CCP lets them keep dogs?’ In London lockdown, I was sent constant reminders that I am not allowed any sort of dog in my home – even for emotional-support reasons. Only the very rich can look on rising energy costs and feel anything but dread – and none of them, of course, live in an eco-home with one bedroom.