Energy and equity: affordable warmth wherever you live
Calor and National Energy Action hosted a fringe meeting at Conservative conference on rural fuel poverty. Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) and 3 MPs including the former Energy Minister were on the panel.
The panel was chaired by former Energy minister Charles Hendry MP, President of the NEA (National Energy Action). It also included Peter Aldous MP, Neil Parish MP, Holly Sims, Corporate Affairs Manager at Calor Gas Ltd, Maria Wardrobe, Director of External Affairs, NEA (National Energy Action) and Janice Banks, Chief Executive Officer, ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England).
Charles Hendry MPbegan the meeting by saying events beyond the Government’s control would dictate that there will be a debate over the next 18 months about energy, due to Ed Miliband’s policy announcement at the Labour conference.
It was a more complex issue than if you are simply pro-consumer or pro-energy company the former minister said.
He added that it was now a critical point for energy policy, especially due to the new definition of fuel poverty. The former mechanism for monitoring fuel poverty was not fit for purpose and the new one should be better Hendry added, though it might show a slight reduction in those being recognised as fuel poor.
Maria Wardrobe, the Director of External Affairs at the NEAsaid she represented the national fuel poverty charity and said they will be tough on energy companies and the Government if the issue of fuel poverty was not addressed.
Statistics show that there are currently 2.3 million fuel-poor people in Britain and these are predominantly those on low incomes. Wardrobe added that it was only sustainable to invest in eradicating fuel poverty if the investment went into energy efficiency and had a date to complete the project. Baroness Verma’s amendments to the Energy Bill currently going through parliament have been particularly helpful.
Wardrobe was especially concerned with rural fuel poverty as you are more likely to live in a fuel efficient home if you live in a rural area. The Warm front scheme was especially helpful for some residents in offering them a grant to cover insulation costs. She also argued that the winter fuel payment could be extended to include people under 60.
There should be an obligation on the part of the energy company to help customers in rural properties, and are therefore more likely to be disadvantaged, she added.
Peter Aldous MPsaid he would mainly speak in connection with fuel poverty in his Suffolk constituency of Waveney. This was connected to his private members bill last year, the Mobile Home Act. Research showed him that most mobile homes have very poor insulation and are often occupied by older people. Age Concern is also looking into this and continuing the campaign he said.
The figures showed that of the 316,000 households in Suffolk, 55,000 are in fuel poverty, of which 5,000 are in Waveney. Aldous said that it was primarily older people affected by fuel poverty and 1/3 of the electorate in his constituency is over 65. Many suffer from heart disease or asthma which can be worsened by poor home insulation. He added that the properties in question often have solid walls with no insulation, and are often not on the grid with access to mains gas.
Further pressures on families affected by fuel poverty include how it impacts on the education of young people growing up in the poorly insulated homes. Mr Aldous added that many of these people are in low paid jobs, reliant on an old car due to poor transport links and therefore they feel the impact of the rising cost of fuel.
Aldous concluded by saying he was working with the Suffolk branch of ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) to encourage people who don’t need the winter fuel allowance payment, so it can best be redistributed in areas where it is most needed. Broadband he said offered the best way to improve the rural economy and he welcomed that steps the coalition government has already taken.
Neil Parish MPsaid the policies the government has pursued have driven prices up which are now affecting people, especially those on low incomes. Rural areas he said are often not on the grid so those residents are reliant either on oil, liquid gas or electricity. He also said that the Green Deal has to work for the countryside. Insulation for example has to go on the inside of a wall if it has no cavity, which applies to many rural homes.
“Lots of people out there who can’t get these systems working. Warm words are wonderful; but they can’t heat your house” he concluded.
Holly Sims, Corporate Affairs Manager at Calor Gas Ltdsaid that rural fuel poverty is an issue extremely high up on Calor’s agenda as75 % of their business is done in countryside. Of the 2 million homes that don’t have access to grid in UK, most are rural and elderly.
Sims added that off-gas communities are hit with a double whammy, and the cost of oil and liquid gas is so much higher than mains products and because they are likely to be in the least efficient homes.
There is plenty of advice on energy efficiency out there but it is not tailored specifically to the needs of each person which made it difficult for people to know the best action to take, Sims added. She also talked about the hidden or dispersed nature of fuel poverty which also made it difficult to deal with.
In rural areas it was often older people often trying to heat larger family homes on a tight budget with fewer working people living in them and less money to pay energy bills. She also said there was often a lack of take-up of support schemes offered as people did not like to claim or did not know how to, and that people often failed to change their electricity provider even though this was now possible.
Holly Sims concluded by mentioning the Future of Rural Energy in Europe (FREE) project, which is a three year programme run by Calor aimed at tackling fuel poverty and promoting energy efficiency.
Charles Hendry pointed out the it should be possible for government to make the winter fuel payments to people in the summer when it was cheaper to buy oil, rather than now in peak season.
Janice Banks, the newly appointed CEO of Action for communities in rural England (ACRE)agreed with other panellists who have indicated if people live in rural areas they are twice as likely to be in rural poverty than urban dwellers. She added that the average rural wage was lower than the average urban wage, yet energy prices were the same, and of course rural residents often had to drive everywhere using more fuel in the process.
Banks was critical of the oil price and said there was a lack of transparency and volatility in the oil market as a result. She said smart metering would also help for those with large outdoor oil tanks to know when they are running low.
She concluded by saying where some areas offered community oil buying schemes, these were very helpful as deliveries on rural roads were reduced and therefore less congestion. It was also more fuel efficient and cheaper for oil users.
Question & Answer session
A member of the audience asked about means testing winter fuel payments.
Charles Hendy and others on the panel said that the payment should not be means tested as people would simply lose out or in many cases not apply for it even if eligible.
Holly Sims from Calor agreed it should be paid in the summer months as it was a cheaper time for users to buy liquid gas or oil and it was cheaper for the companies to deliver.
A local councillor on the Isle of Wight asked if the Green Deal is extended to the Isle of Wight as he has failed to get a response from the department about this.
Charles Hendry said he was unsure of this, but would check with the relevant minister Greg Barker and get in touch with the questioner.
Neil Parish raised the cost of ground source heating pumps, which he said would put people off from getting one installed
A member of the audience said that the Renewable Heat Incentive policy was unlikely to be taken up by many as a 10% grant is not sufficient if 90% is too high for the household to pay.
A member of the audience mentioned the Fuel poverty advisory group which receives
data matching by Central Government to find out where the most energy poor houses are.
Neil Parish MP said we must face up to the fact that green energy is subsidised by the consumer through taxation and government grants which does drive up energy prices for all users. Whilst he supported renewables, he said it was important to face up to this and realise the subsidy of green energy is unfair.
Charles Hendry concluded the meeting by saying we should not look at fuel poverty in isolation from other poverty, and that most people who were fuel poor, also struggled to pay other bills too.
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