The council is to look at helping make Shetland’s coldest homes warmer for good rather than spend an extra £500,000 a year on a grant for old people who lost out on the traditional Christmas bonus.
The decision to look at helping all ages tackle fuel poverty permanently found favour at Wednesday’s meeting in a chilly Town Hall in preference to councillor Cecil Smith’s call for the £300 winter fuel grant to over-65s to be resurrected. Around 1,500 households no longer get a Shetland Charitable Trust grant after it restricted it to the disabled and households with people over 60 on benefits.
Shetland has the third-highest rate of fuel poverty in Scotland with 22 per cent of households classed as “fuel poor”. A study last year showed 49 per cent of houses in Unst suffered fuel poverty.
Council officials have now been tasked to find a way of complementing the various other measures being taken to combat fuel poverty, which include the Scottish government’s insulation and heater grants, the UK government’s annual winter fuel payment of £125-£400 and the charitable trust’s £300 annual payment.
The debate arose after 12 of the 22 councillors signed Mr Smith’s notice of motion calling for the reinstatement of the grant that he introduced last year, which was only paid out once before being scrapped during February’s budget cuts. But it turned out some of the signatories had added their names merely so their concerns about fuel poverty could be aired, particularly with Shetland in the throes of what looks set to be another hard winter.
Putting his case, Mr Smith said the council had a policy of keeping old people in their homes as long as possible rather than residential care and a crucial part of that was the winter grant. People were struggling to keep warm, he said, VAT was increasing and those hoping to get home insulation under a government scheme had been told the waiting list was now two years.
Alastair Cooper rounded on him and his supporters, implying they had double standards by refusing to allow officials any extra cash while demanding more for their own pet scheme. He said: “Here we are – a bunch of members trying to bust our no-growth policy!”
Gary Robinson criticised the trust’s policy of doling out grants for 30 years while doing nothing to tackle the real causes of fuel poverty. It was a bit like keeping sending food to famine-struck countries instead of giving them the tools and crops with which to feed themselves. Proper action against fuel poverty would help people save money every year, he said.
Not for the first time Laura Baisley savaged Mr Smith’s emphasis on the elderly while ignoring other vulnerable groups. She said it was astonishing to assume that people only started suffering fuel poverty once they reached a certain age. What about young people with families?
Allan Wishart disliked Mr Smith’s “blunderbuss” approach to tackling fuel poverty and Jonathan Wills chose to goad him, saying his grant would look very good for Mr Smith at election time.
During the debate several members made reference to a letter by local man Steven Coutts of the Scottish Green Party who urged councillors not to agree Mr Smith’s grant but to target those who most need help with fuel poverty caused by inefficient housing and higher energy costs.
He said: “More money is certainly needed due to the ‘hard to treat’ nature of housing stock in Shetland. The benefit of investing in efficiency improvements brings year-on-year benefit to householders in terms of lower heating demand and thus costs while also supporting local installation firms.”
But Mr Smith’s chief supporter Allison Duncan did not care what anybody said; more needed to be done for the elderly, many of whom were not on superannuated pensions and had to live on the periphery of the Arctic Circle suffering the effects of a much worse chill factor than is recognised.
It was the solution crafted by Betty Fullerton which eventually found favour in the Town Hall. She called for a report from officials within two months collating information on all the fuel poverty schemes currently on the go along with the data that the council has been busy gathering. She hopes the council might be able to augment what is already being done or plug the gaps, perhaps with grants but ensuring that state benefits are explored along with the services offered by agencies other than the council.
She said she wanted the assistance targeted at those who really needed it, regardless of age. After the meeting she said she hoped the council’s input would cost a lot less than the £500,000 that Mr Smith’s scheme would have incurred.
This week’s debate was the result of the charitable trust’s decision last year to restrict its annual grant to those in need after HM Customs and Revenue slapped tax demands on it for uncharitable giving. The cutback saved around £500,000 a year. This Christmas more than 1,400 individual payments have been made totalling £427,000.