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One million Scots frozen out by fuel poverty

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Government ministers will fail to hit fuel poverty targets. A new strategy is required say experts.

They’re all talking about super complaints, smart meters and something called the Energy Companies Obligation in a packed conference hall in Peebles Hydro. All this against a backdrop of Scotland’s worst weather of the year, Storm Abigail, which is increasingly testing the build quality of the 19th century spa.

Despite the brewing storm, the mood in the annual Energy Action Scotland (EAS) conference is upbeat. That is until the charity’s chief executive Norman Kerr delivers an icy blast to the 200 delegates packed into the conference hall.

He quotes George RR Martin, the author behind the novels adapted to create the hugely popular TV series Game of Thrones: “Winter,” he says, “is coming”. And it is a winter where thousands will die needlessly, one in which thousands will struggle to pay fuel bills because successive governments have failed to address the growing problem of fuel poverty, Kerr tells delegates.

To audible groans, the last speaker, housing minister Margaret Burgess, tried vainly to gloss over the fact the Scottish Government had failed to deliver the benchmarks needed to tackle the issue, instead blaming the Westminster government for being too easily bullied by big energy companies and not demanding more concessions to fund energy efficient programmes across the UK.

Kerr counters by giving delegates a very different view: that it's a national disgrace that a relatively wealthy country like Scotland struggles to address the problem let alone meaningfully provide solutions. And what’s worse, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy on the table to tackle it.

Ministers set a goal way back in 2001 to ensure that by November 2016, so far as is reasonably practicable, people are not living in fuel poverty in Scotland.

While Margaret Burgess might have ignored the elephant in the room, most other experts at the conference know there is zero chance of meeting this target because not nearly enough households are given the help they require each year.

A household is defined as being in fuel poverty if, in order to maintain satisfactory heating, it would be required to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use.

Going by this benchmark, Scottish Government figures show that there were 940,000 households were in fuel poverty in 2013 – an astonishing figure considering the average Scots wage is around £27,000.

In 2015 this fugure is now estimated to be over one million, even more astonishing since it shows the problem isn't getting better but worse despite it being considered a national funding priority.

During lunch I’ve been invited to visit a family in the neighbouring town of Carnwath, South Lanarkshire, to see for myself how energy efficiency can improve people’s lives. Set in bleak open moorland, the village is as open to the elements as could be imagined with few homes you’d venture to term modern.

Danny and Jess McFaulds (pic right) and their three children however are the cats who got the cream having had their 1920s’ built home transformed by the local council’s healthy homes initiative, saving hundreds each year on fuel costs.

The transformation wasn’t cheap: a new boiler and energy efficient radiators, lagging for the pipes, loft insulation as well as cavity wall filler probably came in close to the £10,000 mark, an amount out of reach for most social housing tenants.

Newly married, Danny tells me he could never have personally afforded the sum from his wage as an auxiliary nurse in nearby Carstairs State Hospital. But now the work has been done he plans on staying in the three bedroom council house as long as practically possible.

“We see the difference in the bills and will feel the difference when winter hits proper but if the council hadn’t sponsored this initiative it simply wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

He feels the place is now a home, he tells me, a propoer place where his children can grown up safe, secure and warm.

They even put in new internal doors alongside draught excluders but not everyone in the village has been as lucky Danny says.

“The programme seems to be structured on the age of the property,” he says. “They start with the oldest homes first then work their way up. So everyone is asking if I’m getting preferential treatment. It’s a small village and word spreads fast.”

Disconnection is a weekly problem

One million Scots frozen out by fuel poverty

Two pre-payment meters, one for gas, the other for electricity are the bane of Karl Swoicizi’s life. They “eatmoney” he says and seem to have an insatiable appetite for his hard earnedcash.

They were installed 18 months ago because Karl, a Romanian immigrant, didn’t have a credit rating when he first arrived in Scotland and the energy company suspected he might default on his bill.

Now he pays on average 15% more than a customer paying by direct debit despite the fact he’s on a low income.

How much extra prepayment customers paydepends on which expert you ask. Comparison site puts the figureas high as £300 a year, Moneysupermarket just over £200 and uSwitch at about£163.

But it's not just bigger bills prepayment customers face; there are plenty of other downsides.

"For starters, if you run out of energy unexpectedly, your supply will be switched off until you press the emergency credit button which gives you time to pop out and top up the card or key, a situation Karl faces regularly.

“If it is food or heating then you’ll always make food the priority,” says Karl. “I have a family and they need fed. We can put on extra clothes, use candles for light. So when it comes down to my last few pounds the meters regularly run dry.”

Although energy companies claim many people prefer a prepayment meter as it helps them to budget, paying for energy this way is not always the customer's choice.

In many cases if a new customer fails aprovider's credit check, like Karl, necessary to be accepted for monthly orquarterly billing, the supplier will insist on a prepayment meter.

“I’ve contacted the energy company twice and twice they’ve told me it will cost £115 for each meter if I want to switch,” he says. “I can’t afford this. Yet these meters were not my choice; they were forced on me.”

And if someone has a poor credit history or is struggling financially, switching from prepay can be tricky. At the very least they need to pay any energy debts before a supplier will switch them over to a post-pay tariff.

This means many are trapped onto high cost energy plans and are at the mercy of the energy companies with no real choice to shop around for the best energy prices.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” says Karl. “Whyshould I pay more? Those with the least pay the most. It makes no sense.

"Theenergy companies are targeting poor people because they know they have nochoice and few options.”

As many will vouch, and the issue Danny touches on, is that fuel poverty in Scotland is a story of the haves and have nots, with some experiencing the good fortune of energy efficiency while many more persist in draughty, inefficient homes.

To put it into perspective, through the Home Energy Efficiency Programmes (Heeps), the government helped just 33,000 homes in 2013/14 to install new boilers, gas central heating and wall insulation.

And the new Warmer Homes Scotland scheme, worth up to £224m over the next seven years, will only help an estimated 28,000 “vulnerable Scots” – the elderly, disabled people and those on benefits – to heat their homes by energy efficiency measures.

But in 10-15 years’ time those who have had their homes improved will need upgrades so the current rate of investment will need to be at least maintained to eradicate fuel poverty and more than likely increased at huge capital cost.

Norman Kerr:
Norman Kerr: "Despite a number of decent initiatives, fuel poverty remains high"

"At present there’s a postcode lottery in Scotland’s social housing when it comes to energy efficiency," says Willie Tearney, an independent energy efficiency auditor. He assesses homes on behalf of the government and then tells them what is needed by way of improvements.

"Through no fault of their own some families are at a marked disadvantage when their next door neighbour might be paying hundreds less in fuel bills each year simply because they’ve managed to access funding when their neighbour hasn’t," he tells me. "Not enough awareness is going on for these complicated grant schemes."

He believes all homes over a certain age should be assessed and retrospectively made energy efficient, shifting responsibility from tenants to central and local government.

This is the kind of situation that makes fuel poverty a massively complex issue, says Norman Kerr. But one not so complicated that it can’t be fixed.

“There is sometimes a hiding behind facts and figures to avoid the responsibility but the issue remains pretty simple,” he says. “Fuel poverty isn’t a lifestyle choice. Many families are suffering not just because they are on low income but because they live in homes that are not fit for purpose. That’s a scandal. And a scandal that needs to be addressed.”

Houses today use up to 30% less energy than those built in the 1980s and around 60% less than a home built at the turn of the century.

The big problem, says Kerr, is that while local authorities can be brought to book, private landlords are not so accountable. And while this sector is relatively small, a huge percentage of families in this sector suffer disproportionate levels of fuel poverty

“We’ve placed lots of duties on local authorities to make social housing more energy efficient and that is having a significant impact. But we’re not doing that with the private rented sector and that is why, despite a number of decent initiatives, fuel poverty remains high.”

While the government talks in hundreds of millions of investment, the real problem seems to be that the strategy, created back in 2001, to eradicate fuel poverty is flawed and needs rewritten, say leading figures.

Teresa Bray, chief executive of recycling and energy effeciency charity Changeworks, said that with targets lost, a new action plan is required.

“Changeworks has spent over 20 years working with the Scottish Government, local authorities and other partners to address fuel poverty. While many of these initiatives are helping to improve people’s lives, save money and reduce energy use, more needs to be done," she said.

“Bringing together policy makers and practitioners is the only way to ensure any new action plan is built on the latest ideas and experience proven to make the most difference.”

Patrick Harvie, the Greens' economy and energy spokesman, is damning of the current rate of progress.

At current rates families will continue to be locked into poverty through no fault of their own. Yet ministers still won’t own up to their responsibilities, he says.

“The Scottish Government pledged to eradicate fuel poverty by November 2016, and everyone except the government itself seems to have admitted that there's no chance now of hitting this target,” he said.

“The number of households unable to heat their homes has been growing, not shrinking, and while some important powers are yet to be devolved Scottish ministers could be doing much more with the powers they already have.

“We know that investing in energy efficient homes is one of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty, but if the government continues at its current rate, it will take decades for all vulnerable people and families in Scotland to have decent warm homes."