Jane Bradley: Chilling stats behind fuel poverty

A third of Scottish households are destined to have a miserable winter because they can't afford heating writes Jane Bradley

Half of those living in rural areas are struggling to heat their homes, with the figure rising to 65 per cent in the most remote parts of Scotland.
Half of those living in rural areas are struggling to heat their homes, with the figure rising to 65 per cent in the most remote parts of Scotland.

This winter, if you believe the forecasters, we are in for the worst cold snap in centuries with the next few months set to turn into a re-run of Ice Age 2.

We will never see spring again, they tell us, instead, we will be covered in a blanket of snow for eternity, with the mercury plummeting to the LOWEST LEVELS since the Met Office was but a twinkle in Michael Fish’s eye.

The actual accuracy of this prophecy of doom aside, there is no question that we are definitely going to be chilly over the next few months. Those of us who live in older properties are already shivering in anticipation, pulling out of cupboards the heavy blankets which adorn our sofas in the wintertime, not just for aesthetic purposes, but for warmth.

Invite people round for dinner and by the time the main course is over, no matter how close or formal your relationship with them was, you’re all tucked up together under a thick, woolly layer, as if you’re ten years old and suffering from a bad bout of flu.

Indeed, a large proportion of Scotland’s homes are the same as mine: leaky, draughty and chilly - and expensive to heat.

But for many Scots, the freezing weather is not just an inconvenience, it means they will have to make a choice between whether to heat their home, or put food on the table for their family.

Two independent reports into fuel poverty published earlier this week revealed the scale of the problem north of the border.

A third of Scottish households are currently deemed to be in fuel poverty.

More worryingly, half of those living in rural areas are struggling to heat their homes, with the figure rising to 65 per cent in really remote parts of the country, according to the Scottish Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force.

The reports - one from the Scottish Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force and other other by the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group - between them listed 100 recommendations which they believe the Scottish Government should consider to tackle the problem.

The government, on receiving this information, however, jumped on one aspect considered by the report: redefining what fuel poverty actually means.

“The definition of fuel poverty is to be reviewed to ensure help is targeted at those who need it most,” trumpeted the first line of the official press release, brushing over the 100 or so other recommendations made by the two separate groups set up to tackle the stark problem facing Scotland: that people just cannot afford to heat their homes.

Under the current official definition, a household is deemed to be in fuel poverty if more than 10 per cent of household income is spent on “maintaining a satisfactory heating regime”.

Yet, arguably more significantly, on Tuesday - the first day of November - the government will have missed its own arbitrary deadline to eradicate fuel poverty “so far as is reasonably practicable”.

Eradicate it? It’s positively booming.

The solution? Change the definition, an idea which prompted the perhaps once over-optimistic Labour-controlled previous government which created the deadline to warn it could “move the goalposts” of what it means to be fuel poor - perhaps allowing the full reality of the problem to slip through the cracks.

Of course, there are inevitably pitfalls in the current system. If - Di Alexander, the head of the Scottish Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force, pointed out to me - someone lives in a castle and their fuel bill is £20,000, but they earn just short of £200,000, a salary earned by only a tiny fraction of the population, they would still be counted as being in fuel poverty.

That is, of course, ridiculous. No-one on that salary can claim to be poor in any respect.

But almost any policy, almost any definition, has loopholes - although they are few and far between.

By focusing on these loopholes, what the Scottish Government is doing is brushing aside the wider problem: that there are literally millions of people in Scotland who are, at this very moment, sitting shivering in their homes.

Some of these people will be elderly and far more vulnerable to freezing weather. Others could be children, with chest conditions and breathing problems. All of them deserve to live in a “satisfactory heating regime”.

These people will be looking ahead to the next few months and worrying how to maintain a constant temperature inside their houses which will not require them to borrow from loan sharks - or take away from the portion of the household income reserved for food.

In the countryside, the problems are obvious: many rural parts of Scotland are off-gas areas - places which do not have access to gas-fired central heating and are therefore having to rely heavily on more expensive methods of heating their homes.

It also considers how money could be best distributed: whether taking the Winter Fuel Allowance away from affluent pensioners could provide more funds for those who are really in need.

Mr Alexander tells me that what we need is more “hand holding” - a personalised response to help people who could take steps to make heating their homes more efficient and cheaper.

If this could be accomplished, it could revolutionuise Scotland’s fuel poverty statistics, no matter what the definition. People hear terms being bandied about: HEEPS, cashback, cavity wall insulation. Yet no-one knows how they can make these things apply to them. I’m sure I don’t and I’m an educated, fairly young woman living in Scotland’s capital city. Transfer the freezing home dilemma to an 80-year-old living alone in rural Aberdeenshire and you can see the problem.

I hope the Scottish Government decides to stop worrying about definitions and take action to help people in reality.

After all, a personalised approach may just have more effect than all of the policy and official definitions in the world.