Editorial: Fuel poverty — the Scottish Government must act to stem this epidemic

Six months ago we suggested that it was “likely that the north-west of Scotland suffers from the highest levels of fuel poverty in Europe”.

Last week it was confirmed — the Western Isles in particular do suffer from the highest levels of fuel poverty in Western Europe. And the rest of the north-west will not be far behind.

In recent years a lot of statistics have been produced which indicate that there is an abnormal level of fuel poverty in the Western Isles, Skye and the West Highlands.

The statistics are often different, but they all agree on a couple of things: fuel poverty has become endemic in this region; it is far worse than elsewhere in the country; and the situation here is deteriorating fast.

The latest statistics from the Energy Advisory Service, which we reported last week, are more alarming than ever.

There are normally two categories of fuel poverty. They are ordinary fuel poverty, when a household is spending 10 per cent or more of its total income on fuel, and extreme fuel poverty when a household is spending 20 per cent on fuel.

In the Western Isles, the Energy Advisory Service has discovered a third category — a shocking 11 per cent of island households are spending 30 per cent or more of their incomes on fuel.

A further 71 per cent — no fewer than seven in every 10 island homes — are in ordinary fuel poverty. By contrast, total fuel poverty in our northern European neighbour the Netherlands stands at eight per cent.

This has taken most of us by surprise because it is a relatively new problem. Until recently most Highland and Island families experienced no fuel poverty at all. They spent little or none of their hard-earned cash on commercial fuels such as coal and oil. They cut their annual supply from the peat bogs. That was not exactly free, but it cost time and labour rather than money.

The decline of communal peat-cutting has thrown increasing numbers of people on to the open fuel market. There they have found themselves at the mercy of what the EAS calls “higher-than-average” oil, coal and electricity charges which continue to rise.

Two other factors complete this perfect storm. Western Isles wages are among the lowest in Scotland — half of the working population takes home less than £16,500 a year. Islanders therefore have insufficient money to buy increasingly-expensive fuel.

Most people in the Western Isles still live in detached dwellings which do not benefit from the accumulated warmth and shelter of a town terrace. Crofthouses of both the old stone variety and the later DAFS grant-and-loan build are not well insulated against the wettest and windiest climate in Europe. When they were heated by peat, that hardly mattered — the amount of peat cut was calibrated according to the quantity required by the house.

But once they became dependent on oil or electricity many of the low-paid, the unemployed and the pensioners of the region found themselves faced with the primitive choice of heating or eating.

The growth of fuel poverty may have been creeping up on us for only a decade, but nonetheless politicians have been slow to react. It is perfectly clear that a special programme is needed in the West Highlands and Islands, if only to slow down the spread of fuel poverty.

We are not claiming that we are the only sufferers from this blight. Across the whole of the UK almost 20 per cent of households are in fuel poverty. Across the whole of Scotland 27 per cent fall into the category.

We feel for those people, and their problems should certainly be addressed. But 20 or 27 per cent hardly compares with a Western Isles figure of over 80 per cent, and an estimated 50-60 per cent of the population in fuel poverty in Skye and the West Highlands. They have a chill. We have pneumonia.

The question of solving Highland fuel poverty is devolved to the energy department of the Scottish Parliament. Even in the current fevered atmosphere, there is a great deal that the Scottish Government could and should be doing to remove this scourge from the north-west of the country.

It can be done. The UK Government took 400,000 households in England and Wales out of fuel poverty between 1996 and 2006. Such an initiative would abolish fuel poverty not only in the north-west but also in the rest of Scotland. The Scottish Government should clearly ask Westminster for advice on the subject. In the short term, we offer our own.

Fuel poverty is driven by three main factors: the cost of fuel; the amount of fuel consumed in a house; and the low income of the inhabitants.

The average UK household spends £1,264 a year on fuel. Almost half of households in the Western Isles spend over £2,000 a year.

That is not only due to our climate. Excessive fuel charges in remote areas should be monitored and curbed. As a consolation, household fuel carriers could be exempted from the recent ferry fare hikes.

To reduce fuel consumption an aggressive, proactive scheme to insulate every house in this region should be launched. The problem should be put on top of the agenda of the ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ campaign.

In tandem with those measures the Scottish Government should acknowledge that, like all other forms of poverty, fuel poverty is caused by financial hardship. It is not suffered by the better-off. Improving the economy of the north-west Highlands and Islands is the long-term solution to this and many other problems.

They should act fast. Far from going away or even being contained, fuel poverty in this region is increasing. Statistics which are currently merely scandalous will shortly become, on present trends, unacceptable in a civilised European country.

Call for action to tackle fuel poverty