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News / CAB: households left in cold despite energy boom

CAB manager Sylvia Jamieson with her report into fuel poverty.

IT MIGHT be boom time for the oil and gas industry in Shetland, but almost a third of island households found themselves falling behind in paying their fuel bills in the past year.

The finding is part of new research published by the local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) on Tuesday. It surveyed nearly 500 households – more than half of which were cutting back on essentials, including food and clothing for children, in order to keep their houses warm.

While the local economy thrives thanks to new oil and gas developments, three quarters of those surveyed wear extra layers of clothing and 42 per cent wear blankets during the day to keep warm. 30 per cent had still fallen into arrears in heating their homes during 2012 – a rise of 12 per cent in the past five years.

CAB manager Sylvia Jamieson said there had been a big increase in the number of people contacting the branch for advice on how to cope with rising energy costs.

It is thought that over 40 per cent of households in Shetland are fuel poor – those paying more than 10 per cent of their income on heating – compared to 35 per cent between 2007 and 2009.

CASE STUDY:

Gordon Downing, a domestic supervisor for NHS Shetland, owns a three- bedroom flat in Commercial Road, Lerwick with his wife.

The couple are paying over £150 a month for energy to a mixture of Scottish Hydro and the district heating scheme.

Downing said their energy bills seemed to be rising incessantly. Despite having two incomes, they continually find it difficult to keep on top of their heating costs – a scenario in keeping with Citizens Advice’s research, showing that it’s not just people on benefits who suffer from fuel poverty.

“Neither of us smoke or drink, yet we still find it a struggle to pay the everyday bills,” he said. “We never go out – basically we just can’t afford it.

“There should be some sort of freeze on charges. But I think the big problem with these energy companies is the chief executives and directors taking huge bonuses. Something needs to be done about that. Despite the huge profits, there’s no let-up in the increase in fuel prices.”

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The prevalence of fuel poverty is partly put down to the cold climate, meaning many people need to have the heating on even during the summer. It is also exacerbated by the high cost of living and the large number of poorly insulated houses.

52 per cent of those surveyed felt their home would benefit from better insulation. But many, particularly those living in privately rented accommodation, were scared to ask their landlord to do something about it in case it put their tenancy in jeopardy.

UK and Scottish government insulation schemes are in the pipeline, but those present at the launch heard that energy companies found it far cheaper and easier to insulate flats and terraced rows of houses in cities than to tackle a remote island community.

Contrary to some perceptions, fuel poverty is not confined to those on low incomes or claiming benefits. Jamieson said CAB had dealt with one family where both parents were working, but over 40 per cent of their income went on heating.

“It seems to be right across the spectrum,” she said. “We’re seeing an increase in folk going back to cutting peats, collecting driftwood, or getting access to free pallets.”

Jamieson’s report calls for greater political commitment, locally and nationally, to upgrading older rural homes’ energy efficiency. It also recommends the introduction of pre-payment energy meters at no extra cost to users.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out that Shetland “sits at the heart of some of the richest oil fields in Europe, yet has some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK”.

CAB’s report suggests initiating talks with oil and gas companies to see if they are willing to make a commitment to help tackle the problem.

Jamieson talked of “frustration” that more and more people were struggling with everyday living costs. She pointed out that demand for Salvation Army food parcels was rising, while more than half of those surveyed were leaving several rooms in their house unheated.

“The gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider,” Jamieson said. “There must be some way we can marry up the boom we have in Shetland with this increasing sector of the community that’s finding it hard to have basics like food and fuel.”

Speaking after hearing Jamieson’s presentation, SIC infrastructure chairman Allan Wishart praised her report and said it made “sobering reading”.

“There’s a lot of information and statistics in there which shows a huge divide in Shetland between people who are relatively well off and those who are struggling to heat their homes, and in some cases have given up,” Wishart said.

“It’s something that we as a society in Shetland should pay a lot of attention to and find the way to do something about it.”

• Anyone looking for advice on how to cope with rising energy costs can contact CAB by phone on (01595) 694696 or by emailing sicab@shetland.org

 

 

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