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On the Defence: UK cultural narratives of mistrust between energy users and providers

Health and Life Sciences, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE7 7XA, UK

Special Issues: Cultural Narratives in Health

In general, households rely on energy providers to supply essential energy services such as gas and electricity. It seems reasonable to assume that it is mutually beneficial to have a customer and supplier relationship invested in trust. Key findings from the qualitative evaluation findings of a UK Comic Relief-funded energy services and managing money better programme, suggest that the programme’s effectiveness was strongly affected by negative narratives about energy suppliers. Such narratives, rooted in feelings of being labelled a ‘cheat’ or incapable of sorting their own affairs on one side and views of energy providers being exploitative and profit-hungry on the other, engendered a common, oppositional ‘united against them’ culture, built on reciprocal mistrust and disrespect. This analysis is not unique to our research, as nationally, at least and within the last decade, there has been a decline in public trust of energy providers, with a suggestion that profit has come before people. The 3-year evaluation carried out by Northumbria University, UK with the research led by a North East England registered credit union and social landlord, assessed the quality of life impacts of a face-to-face energy advice service. Expert Energy Advisors offered free home visits and gave people aged 50 and over the tools to reduce and manage energy usage, question energy companies about tariff terms and conditions and ensure maximum take up of benefit entitlements. Whilst findings point to positive health and social benefits, including reducing high anxiety about unmanageable bills, being able to question and challenge energy providers ‘high’ bills and tariffs and passing on such skills to others, there remained a ‘taken-for-granted’ mistrust of energy providers. We argue that for public good to come from public health research, we need to understand and appropriately address the roots of such cultural narratives.
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