Some folk are making do without essentials such as new clothes or shoes just to make sure they can afford to pay their heating bills, a survey has revealed.
The Citizens Advice Bureau found a third of respondents struggle to pay for enough fuel to heat their homes.
The survey, compiled last winter, attracted 468 respondents, and offers a worrying insight into energy issues faced across the isles.
Fifty six per cent said they had to cut back on basic items to keep on top of their fuel bills.
More than 36 per cent of those said they had to cut down on food, while almost 16 per cent of respondents cut their budget for children’s clothes and shoes.
More than 10 per cent said they had cut back on a host of other expenses, including holidays and Christmas presents.
In a similar survey five years ago, 81 per cent of respondents said they were never in arrears with heating payments. That figure has since dropped to 69 per cent.
The findings were today presented in a far-reaching report by local CAB manager Sylvia Jamieson. It showed:
• Two thirds (64 per cent) of those struggling to pay for fuel have had to use a credit card to make payments at some point, and 39 per cent have had to borrow from friends or family;
• More than half the respondents think they need insulation to make their homes more efficient;
• Forty-six per cent of respondents leave rooms unheated due to fuel costs.
The number of households living in fuel poverty is believed to have increased from 35 per cent in 2007-09 to over 40 per cent now. Fuel poverty is defined as happening when 10 per cent of a household’s income is insufficient to afford their energy needs.
Ms Jamieson said fuel poverty was a major issue for Shetland, where a combination of a harsh climate, deteriorating rural housing and changes to the benefit system are increasingly leaving people out of pocket.
“The Shetland Islands Advice Bureau is the busiest bureau in Scotland for the size of population. But also we have seen an increase in the number of enquiries about utilities in the past few years,” she said.
“We’ve come to a situation now where utilities has become one of our top four [issues], and we are unique in that.”
She said work on the report began last November after a high level of inquiries and “frustration” of people who were “desperate for help”.
That contrasts with the perceived “boom-time” the economy is enjoying, typically with increased oil and gas activity offshore.
“There’s a perception in Shetland that this is the good times. We’re seeing more folk struggling with basic everyday living costs.
“If you speak to the Salvation Army, the demand for food parcels is increasing and increasing, so there is something not marrying up there.
“What is happening is the gap is increasing between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. If you’re on minimum wage or a low income, or if you’re on benefits, we bide in one of the areas where the cost of living is the highest, be that fuel for your house or fuel for your car.
“There must be some way that we can marry up the boom that we have in Shetland with this increase in a sector of the community that’s finding it harder and harder to pay for basics like food and fuel.”
But the report also shows people earning a good wage are still susceptible to problems when it comes to covering fuel costs.
Half of those who responded to the survey owned their own home and were paying a mortgage, and almost a quarter were owner-occupiers without a mortgage.
“What has surprised us is that two income households with a reasonable income coming into the property are still struggling and, in one case mentioned in this report, one family is spending 40 per cent of their income on their fuel. They’re working.”
Ms Jamieson added many were now turning to the peat-banks and gathering driftwood in order to keep the fires burning.
“Folk have no choice. It’s a cost decision,” she said.
The report calls for more “political commitment” to upgrade housing and the introduction of pre-payment meters to help prevent residents from going into arrears.
It also calls for data on low incomes to be combined with information on the least energy-efficient housing. That, she says, should identify those needing help. The report shows that of £4 billion spent on fuel poverty policies in 2008, only £1 billion reached those most in need.
However, a key ambition is to involve the oil and gas industry – a major player in Shetland’s booming economy – in trying to tackle the problem head on.
“It’s maybe an aspiration more than a recommendation,” said Ms Jamieson.
“I find it frustrating that, in a lot of ways, we’re in a boom.”
The report was welcomed by an audience of around 20 people at Market House this morning.
SIC councillor Allison Duncan said it was a “very sobering paper”, but insisted it showed “what a brilliant job CAB does in Shetland”.