A report by Stevenage Borough councillors into levels of fuel poverty in council housing has found that attempts to keep people in their homes could be adding to the problem while the design of older properties is causing damp and mould.

The findings of the year long study by the housing development and scrutiny committee estimates 20 per cent of families in the poorest neighbourhoods in the town are living in fuel poverty - defined as those spending over 10 per cent of their income to heat their homes.

This was despite two-thirds of the 10,000 Stevenage Homes properties undergoing energy efficiency work since 2009. To date, the borough has received government insulation grants of �241,239 with a further �252,325 in the pipeline.

Portfolio holder for housing Ann Webb, said a policy of encouraging people to stay in their homes rather than go into residential care, could unwittingly be keeping residents in fuel poverty, because some cannot afford to heat large homes.

The committee recommended council officers look into the so-called Supporting People policy to establish whether this is the case and if so, what options are available.

Councillors also found that homes fitted with pre-payment meters by energy companies often worked out the most expensive way of buying fuel, and meant that “low income households rather than paying a discounted rate for paying for fuel at the point of use, actually paid a premium.”

Older housing stock is also causing problems for residents, the report said. Members found that “especially non-traditional solid wall construction and some of the flat blocks, such as Sky Lark Flats and Sloan Court” suffer from mildew and mould because of the building design, not from tenants’ use.

The committee recommended officers further examine the issue of potential problems with condensation in “solid block non-traditional units” in the town.

A negative link between high heating costs and children’s education was highlighted in the report, with pupils “less likely to do well in school if they came from a household that is inadequately heated, as these households are faced with the dilemma of heating or eating.”

The committee concluded, despite lacking a “single data source” to accurately indicate levels of fuel poverty in the town, that the council’s environmental health officers and Stevenage Homes had done “all they could” to tackle fuel poverty.

Stevenage Citizen Advice Bureau manager Marian Hurle said the high cost of heating homes was a serious issue in the town and one that will get worse due to the recent hike in energy prices.

“We are really worried about the coming winter. Since one or two companies have put up their prices and others will probably follow suit. This is going to tip even more people into debt and fuel poverty.

“Given that at the Stevenage CAB over 37 per cent of our clients have a household income of less than �1000 per month this means that fuel poverty is going to be rife.

“Wages of people on low income are generally at a standstill and benefits for those who are long term sick and unable to find work are not keeping up with inflation. Put all these factors together and it looks like being a hard winter for a large number of Stevenage residents.

“Our experience is that households living in poverty risk mental and physical ill health as a result of living in damp, cold conditions. Prolonged cold conditions increase the risk of trips and accidents and can aggravate respiratory illnesses.

“If the home is not heated regularly or heated sufficiently, condensation can accumulate and leave rooms damp. This can aggravate conditions such as asthma and leave people susceptible to skin allergies and repeated colds. Imagine how you feel when you are regularly cold – it is bound to have an impact on your health and well-being.”