THE growing problem of fuel poverty was top of the agenda when we met recently with the Scottish and UK governments, the big six energy companies, Ofgem and several consumer groups and charities.
We shared experiences of supporting vulnerable consumers who struggle to pay for their energy and discussed the various programmes, projects and schemes available to cut energy use and thus reduce bills.
But for all the talking, there were disappointingly few outcomes. That’s not to say that those around the table had anything but the best of intentions. Yet we have a situation where more than a third of the Scottish population are in fuel poverty and where hundreds of thousands are forced to choose between heating and eating.
Fuel poverty in Scotland is getting worse, rising from 32 per cent of all households in 2009 to around 40 per cent last year.
Fuel poverty is defined as having to spend 10 per cent or more of your disposable income on heating your home to an adequate temperature. Its three contributing factors – low incomes, poor energy efficiency and high cost energy – reflect broader trends in Scotland.
Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country see hundreds of people every day who struggle to make ends meet. That increasingly includes people who haven’t eaten in days because their measly wage or slashed benefit doesn’t cover the basic costs of living.
This is a truly shameful position for a prosperous, 21st century nation to find itself in. The UK government’s welfare changes look set to make the situation even worse, with Scotland’s economy set to lose more than £2 billion as a result.
On energy efficiency, much has already been done, but our cold damp climate, partiality for tenements and a public distrust of free schemes like cavity loft insulation mean we’ve still got a long way to go before homes are truly energy-efficient.
The UK government’s Green Deal could potentially improve the situation for homeowners who can afford to take out finance to invest in measures like solar panels and solid wall insulation.
However, it is doubtful that Scotland’s large tenant population will be able to take advantage of the scheme and we still have concerns about the potential for scammers and cowboys to take advantage of consumers through the scheme.
And then there’s our energy bills. Much of Scotland is reliant on electric heating as the gas grid doesn’t reach many of the country’s rural communities. What is more, the high prices facing heating oil customers and those using liquid petroleum gas can make it tough to get through winter with enough spare cash to put food on the table.
Most of the government-run schemes and many of those run by energy suppliers do little or nothing for these off-grid customers, leaving them hoping that forming an oil club will bring costs down to something resembling affordable.
So what can we do to address fuel poverty? To really tackle it once and for all. Well, whilst ministerial summits are great for bringing diverse interests together, we will never solve fuel poverty in a morning.
The cost of energy is likely to be the area which is hardest to address. So long as we are reliant on crude oil and its ever fluctuating prices, the price of energy will be largely unpredictable. But in the meantime, switching tariff or supplier can save customers hundreds of pounds. Only a fifth of the UK population switch regularly, meaning most of us may be missing out on a better deal. Any initiatives which make tariffs and suppliers easier to compare are, therefore, welcome news.
Energy efficiency is the area where the Scottish Government can have the biggest impact, as this is devolved, alongside housing. Schemes in recent years to insulate Scotland’s inefficient homes a street at a time have been very successful. The new National Retrofit Programme, set to roll out from April, aims to build on the Universal Home Insulation Scheme, focusing on the areas hardest hit by fuel poverty. As ever, this scheme would benefit from more funding but the initiative is welcome nonetheless.
For me, the third cause of fuel poverty is the one which has the simplest solutions but for which many politicians have little appetite. Low incomes plague far too many families, leaving them struggling not just to heat their homes but to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.
A genuine living wage, jobs with enough hours to make ends meet and a benefits system that provides a real safety net for those going through tough times or unable to work could transform the lives of families the length and breadth of the country.
• Sarah Beattie-Smith is policy and parliamentary officer at Citizens Advice Scotland
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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