Shetland Islands Council is to ask sister organisation Shetland Charitable Trust to help out with tackling the alarmingly high level of fuel poverty which persists in the isles, afflicting around one third of households.
After discussing the stark findings of a thorough investigation into the matter by policy official Emma Perring, members concluded that in these belt-tightening times they could not afford to spend £300,000-a-year on proposed grant assistance to those claiming housing and council tax benefits.
But there was consensus that the scourge of fuel poverty, said to afflict 3,500 households in Shetland, is not going to go away. An approach is to be made to the charitable trust – which is also facing financial restrictions – to see whether it can stump up any cash to help.
It was the one councillor who is not also an SCT trustee, Allan Wishart, who said after today’s Full Council meeting that he felt it was exactly the sort of assistance the trust was there to provide. He sees it as the “number one priority” for Shetland as and when any public spending does become available.
“To have people sitting around in their house with a duvet pulled around them to stay warm is pretty dismal in this day and age in Shetland,” he told The Shetland Times. “It just underlines how real the problem is in Shetland, and I think the figures today really put quite a bit of urgency into having to do something.
“I do think, as [councillor] Gary Robinson said, we have to make sure we target it because I’m uneasy about a blanket payment of money to pensioners, because there are pensioners who I would say just don’t need that sort of support, and there are pensioners and many younger people who absolutely do.
“If we could do something about insulation and double glazing, it might cost more but in the longer term it will cost less. Unless we continue working at it, it will drift on for another 20 years. I think we have a duty to find a solution to it.”
With at least a third of households deemed as being fuel poor (defined as a household which spends over 10 per cent of its income on fuel), the gravity of the situation was not lost on councillors. Ms Perring’s suggestion of a grant scheme would have aided 1,500 households with up to £200 each winter, of which 57 per cent would be pensioners and 43 per cent of working age.
While the traditional reaction has been to blindly throw money at the problem, a growing number of councillors are now trumpeting the need for longer term measures to improve insulation and energy efficiency in old crofts and poorly equipped properties built between the 1970s and 1990s. A startling 94 per cent of Shetland homes have either a “poor” or “moderate” energy rating.
Aptly, the issue was discussed in a freezing cold Lerwick Town Hall this morning. Mr Robinson said “doling out money” dealt only with the symptoms, rather than the cause. He said that with no money available the best the SIC could do was enter discussions with the charitable trust and national government.
The council does have a fuel poverty grants scheme of £145,000 planned for the year ahead and measures are to be taken to improve uptake. Ms Perring’s research highlighted that the potential upheaval of clearing out lofts and redecorating rooms was a barrier for many would-be applicants for assistance, 50 per cent of whom pulled out before work could take place.
As well as lobbying national government, what the council did agree to do is change the conditions of its fuel poverty grants scheme so the savings limit is increased from £1,000 to £5,000. A sum will also be included to cover the expense of preparing a house for added insulation and to redecorate rooms once the work is completed. It will also offer households a £50 council tax rebate for introducing energy efficiency measures.
Allison Duncan, who deals regularly with benefits claimants, said it was a “very detailed and, I think, damning” report which suggested the situation was worse than he had anticipated. He said encouraging more people to claim benefits they were entitled to would help, while efforts to advertise and encourage home insulation must be redoubled. Apart from that, the only option left would be for those with fireplaces to “pick up a tushkar and head for the peat hills”.
Councillor Jonathan Wills recalled discussing wind chill problems in the 1990s, but pointed out the charitable trust didn’t have any cash either and there was a danger of “encouraging expectations that we must disappoint”. “We need to have some idea where the money’s going to come from,” he said.
Councillor Rick Nickerson said some of his constituents had been left “totally confused” by concurrent national and local home inspection schemes to improve insulation. He called for some clarity to be provided so members know what advice to give people who contact them.