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Energy / ‘Comprehensive plan’ needed to tackle fuel poverty, MP says

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has called on governments to roll out a “comprehensive plan” to tackle fuel poverty in the Highlands and Islands after a parliament committee ruled that support for households with the rising cost of living was not sufficiently “rural-proofed”.

He said a newly published report from Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee “hit the nail on the head” regarding the financial disadvantages faced by rural and island households.

The cross-party committee found that UK-wide schemes to support people with the cost of living did not meet the needs of remote communities in Scotland who face a “rural premium”.

Examples cited by the committee include exposure to fuel price inflation due to being more reliant on transport, a reliance on expensive alternative fuels for off-grid households and higher charges for food deliveries to remote locations.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland. Photo: Shetland News

The committee did acknowledge the “unprecedented package of support” provided by the UK Government which has helped to mitigate the impact of price spikes.

This included the energy price guarantee, the energy bill support scheme and targeted cost of living payments to those on certain benefits and tax credits.

But the committee said some schemes had prioritised “administrative ease” to accelerate funds getting to people rather than specifically targeting financial support for those who need it most.

Committee chair MP Pete Wishart said: “Schemes implemented by both the UK and Scottish Governments have been welcome in large parts of Scotland, but the reality is these households have been lumbered with a ‘rural premium’ that hasn’t been adequately addressed by state support.”

Shetland has consistently had some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the country.

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With cost of living rising, Shetland Islands Council previously said that by April 2023 a household in Shetland would need to earn £104,000 a year to avoid being in fuel poverty.

Responding to the committee report, Carmichael said: “From the state of our housing stock to our natural climate it is little wonder families pay a premium to live in our communities – and current policy responses have not gone far enough to bridge that gap.

“I do not begrudge ministers too much for seeking quick policy solutions for urgent problems, and the 2022 energy price crisis was certainly urgent.

“Even so the fact that our communities have persistently high fuel poverty, for reasons that are fairly obvious, is hardly a new state of affairs.

“At some point ministers and officials are going to have to take ‘rural-proofing’ – and island proofing – seriously.

“Our governments need a comprehensive plan to tackle fuel poverty where it is at its worst – in the Highlands and Islands.”

The UK Government said it had engaged “with public sector bodies, civil society groups and community organisations” to understand the expectations of rural Scottish communities and “to ensure that cost of living support measures are designed to adequately address these needs”.

It added: “It should be noted that the challenges faced by our rural and remote communities are often complex and cross-cutting, with no one solution.

“It is therefore important that both reserved and devolved policy levers are exercised in tandem to support rural communities in Scotland against the worst of the impacts brought about by the current cost of living challenges.”

Meanwhile Scottish cabinet secretary for rural affairs and islands Mairi Gougeon told the committee: “The Scottish Government recognises that the current cost-of-living crises disproportionately hurts the most vulnerable in society and heaps more pressure onto our public services.

“This especially applies to island and rural coastal communities which face significant and unique challenges, such as access to reliable digital infrastructure, availability of affordable, appropriate local housing, access to regular and reliable public transport, coupled with demographic challenges.”

Writing in a letter last year, she said the Scottish Government had allocated almost £3 billion to support policies which tackle poverty and protect people “as far as possible” during the cost of living crisis.

Gougeon added that the both UK Government has “failed to deploy the full range of powers available to them to make a real difference to people’s lives in Scotland and in island rural communities to cope with the cost-of-living crises”.

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