Scots facing relentlessly rising energy bills and desperately hoping to postpone turning on the heating must prepare for further grim news.
This year, the average Scottish family will meet the official definition of living in fuel poverty: spending 10% if their household income on energy bills. Scandalously, the numbers are projected to grow above the current 35% of households for at least the next three years, making a mockery of the Scottish Government's target of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016.
It was Dr Brenda Boardman who defined fuel poverty more than 20 years ago in a study of households paying a disproportionate amount of their income for cooking, lighting and heating their homes. Ahead of a conference in Edinburgh today on how to upgrade housing stock to improve energy efficiency, she has identified the shakiness on which the Scottish Government's energy efficiency strategy is based: the lack of guaranteed funding. As she points out, much about the plan, including minimum standards and a loft insulation programme, is good, but people need to know who is going to foot the bills.This need not be the Government on either side of the Border. Dr Boardman rightly identifies some landlords as unacceptably laggardly in insulating their properties. Applying minimum standards would keep tenants' bills down and help reduce CO2 emissions.
Overwhelmimgly, however, it is the disastrous combination of low income and high fuel bills that forces people to spend a larger chunk of their income on energy, leaving less for other essentials. The problem is particularly acute in Scotland, where winters are colder than in southern England and where many of the most vulnerable families live in stone houses which are not suitable for cavity wall insulation.
Cold homes are miserable places and families most likely to be in fuel poverty, especially those who need constant heat for health reasons, are the least able to get out and about. The Existing Homes Alliance Scotland has outlined a number of practical measures which would speed the snail's pace of improving energy efficiency in the homes which need it most.
There is a limit to what the Scottish Government can do. It would help considerably if the UK Government would consider redistributing the winter fuel allowance from those who admit they do not need it to those, especially in colder areas, who need more. And Ofgem should put more pressure on suppliers to offer the lowest tariffs to those on the lowest incomes.
Nevertheless, the SNP could put its retrofit programme for home insulation top of the list of "shovel-ready" projects it wants to put into action. It should also adopt the Existing Homes Alliance's five-year targets for the rented sector and minimum standards for private housing at the point of sale or rental. It would not even require a shovel.
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