The Scottish Government this week accepted that a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling fuel poverty was often not suitable for communities like Shetland.
Following complaints over the work done by contractors engaged by Scottish Gas to insulate homes as part of a government scheme earlier this year, housing minister Alex Neil told an isles delegation visiting Holyrood that he would look at doing things differently in future.Though no new cash was on the table, the Shetland contingent said the discussions were “extremely encouraging”.
Civil servants have been looking into more than 100 outstanding referrals in Shetland under the nationwide “energy assistance package”. A fresh timetable has been set for completing the installation of insulation and other heating measures.
A Caithness-based company, RDI Services, was subcontracted to carry out work in hundreds of isles properties last winter.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott castigated Scottish Gas for presiding over an “utter shambles” surrounding the insulation scheme, saying the way the company had behaved was “a disgrace”. He joined a five-strong delegation in asking Mr Neil to ensure local organisations were involved in future efforts to improve energy efficiency.
Mr Scott said it was not the first time a contract of this nature had proved problematic, where outside contractors “come in, do the job and get on the next boat out of Shetland and there’s no comeback”.
He said: “I think we would deliver better value for money, more bang for our buck if the government devolved budget and responsibility.”
RDI had not responded to requests for comment from The Shetland Times when we went to press yesterday.
SIC social services committee chairman Cecil Smith and vice chairman Allison Duncan were accompanied on the trip to Edinburgh by MSYP Emily Shaw and council officials Maggie Dunne and Anita Jamieson.
Afterwards, the consensus was that they had been “pushing at an open door” in calling for national programmes to be tailored to suit local circumstances.
It is hoped that future schemes will now have a local point of contact, perhaps through the “one-stop shop”, a joint project between Hjaltland Housing and the SIC which dishes out impartial energy advice.
In a presentation to Mr Neil on Tuesday, Ms Dunne laid out the alarming scale of the fuel poverty problem. Between 2007 and 2009, more than a third of Shetland households spent more than a tenth of their income on heating their homes. One in eight households was deemed to be in “extreme” fuel poverty, and escalating energy prices mean those figures are now likely to be much worse.
Mr Neil and his staff were furnished with Met Office figures highlighting the stark climatic difference between Shetland and the UK mainland. As Mr Duncan pointed out, while Londoners were basking in 28C temperatures towards the end of this summer, the temperature in Shetland was only 13C.
The minister provided reassurances that addressing fuel poverty is not viewed as the “poor cousin” of climate change. He agreed with the SIC’s vision of emulating Scandinavian-style insulation in all houses, and his government had its own ambitious target to eliminate fuel poverty in Scotland by 2016.
Mr Neil conceded he was unable to do much about one of the key causes of fuel poverty – the huge price increases being foisted on consumers by the “big six” energy companies. SSE (the parent company of Scottish Hydroelectric, which runs the Lerwick power station) ramped up its electricity prices by 12 per cent earlier this autumn.
The minister will meet energy company chiefs later this month, but Mr Scott pointed out a similar meeting with the UK government had yielded very little. He is calling for energy market regulator Ofgem to intervene, saying they already have “plenty of powers” but had been “too cosy with the industry for too long”.
Mr Scott – so often a critic of the SNP – was very supportive of the Scottish government’s efforts to eradicate fuel poverty. “The main point which Alex Neil absolutely recognises is these big national schemes don’t reflect local circumstances, and struggle to be delivered in places like Shetland,” he said.
Speaking ahead of a national conference yesterday on the interlinked problems of high energy prices, low incomes and cold homes, Mr Neil said: “As an energy rich nation, the fact that any of our citizens is facing or living in fuel poverty is a disgrace.
“The Scottish government has increased its budget this year, in the face of scathing cuts from Westminster, to increase the reach of initiatives to help those in fuel poverty and also to encourage greater energy efficiency.”
This week’s council presentation also shone a light on deficiencies in the UK government’s approach, including a failure to take the wind-chill factor into account when determining cold weather payments. Such payments kick in when the temperature falls below zero for a sustained period.
There remains a real worry that benefits reforms making it more difficult for vulnerable people to claim rebates on energy bills could worsen fuel poverty. The council has suggested eligibility for the social tariff should revert to its previous criteria.
Pre-payment meters and electricity cards – often used by those on low income – are the most expensive form of electrical heating. The council is calling for the cost of such cards to be reduced. Many of those in Shetland living in fuel poverty “have no other option for paying for fuel, as they have no bank account and are concerned about going into debt”.
- People can contact the”one-stop shop” for free and impartial advice on energy bills on (01595) 741368. To find out whether you are eligible for benefits you can contact the Citizens Advice Bureau on (01595) 694696.