Scottish Government commits to new fuel poverty strategy and eradication target

fuel povertyAn independent panel of academic experts is to review the definition of fuel poverty after which a consultation will open on a new long-term fuel poverty strategy and statutory eradication target, the Scottish Government has announced.

Last autumn the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group and the Scottish Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force concluded their year-long deliberations and published between them over 100 recommendations for better tackling fuel poverty in Scotland.

Setting out the Scottish Government’s formal response to the recommendations, communities, social security, and equalities secretary, Angela Constance also revealed plans for a pilot initiative which will see 220 rural households offered targeted support to cut their energy bills.

The £300,000 12-month Homecare pilot will see advisers from Home Energy Scotland (HES) visit selected homes in two rural locations to see what more can be done to reduce their fuel bills. Full details will be announced shortly.

The pilot will then be evaluated before a decision is taken on rolling it out to households nationwide.

Ms Constance said both the pilot and the review will inform the consultation on a new fuel poverty strategy and target – which will be published later this year. The previous target expired in November 2016.

Making the announcement during a visit in Edinburgh to the home of Donnah Anderson – the 100,000th property to benefit under the Home Energy Efficiency Programme since 2013 – Ms Constance said: “We have made good progress and significant investment in tackling fuel poverty, supporting people who need help, like Donnah and her family. However, there are still far too many people struggling with unaffordable energy costs. That is why we’re developing a new long-term strategy to tackle fuel poverty and will introduce a Warm Homes Bill to set a new target.

“The HES pilot is about providing tailored support to people in the greatest need – helping them lower their fuel bills and hopefully move out of fuel poverty altogether.

“I’m also pleased to announce a review of the definition of fuel poverty, which will look at whether changes are needed to help us better target our efforts to eradicate fuel poverty in the forthcoming Warm Homes Bill.”

Fuel poverty definition

Drawn up 15 years ago, the existing definition states that a household is considered to be in fuel poverty when it has to spend more than 10 per cent of its income, including benefits, in order to maintain a “satisfactory heating regime”. ‘Extreme fuel poverty’ means a household would have to spend more than 20 per cent of its income on energy use.

However, research for the Scottish Government indicated that more than half of ‘fuel poor’ households would not be classified as ‘income poor’.

In A Scotland without fuel poverty is a fairer Scotland: Four steps to achieving sustainable, affordable and attainable warmth and energy use for all, the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group suggested that a more focused definition would ensure help is targeted at those who need it most, by taking into account factors such as whether households are burdened by mortgage payments and the variation of heating needs between particular age groups.

The independent panel, made up of Professor Christine Liddell MBE, Ulster University; Professor Glen Bramley, Heriot-Watt University; Professor Janette Webb, University of Edinburgh and Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Heriot-Watt University, will report their findings this summer.

The government will then consult on a new long-term fuel poverty strategy this autumn, including proposals for a new eradication target as part of the Warm Homes Bill.

Sector response

The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) commended the government on its announcements and outlined its hope that the piloted support for rural households will become permanent and be rolled out across Scotland.

Mary Taylor, SFHA chief executive, said: “We know from our members’ experiences that support and advice is essential to delivering the real benefit of energy efficiency investment to households.

“It is also welcome news that the government will consult on minimum energy efficiency standards for homes in the private rented sector and phased regulation of other existing buildings to bring them up to higher standards. The SFHA has long called for minimum energy efficiency standards to be set across all tenures in order to reduce fuel poverty.”

Mary Taylor added: “Fuel poverty is a major issue for many households across Scotland. While housing associations have the most energy efficient homes in Scotland, these households tend to have lower incomes, so fuel poverty is still a significant issue for our members and their tenants.

“Housing associations have invested significantly in the energy efficiency of their homes. A study commissioned by SFHA found that loft insulation was present in all housing association homes, and gas central heating and cavity wall insulation was installed in the vast majority of homes where possible.

“The areas that now require further investment are more expensive measures such as solid wall insulation, renewable heating for homes off the gas grid and a solution for the mixed ownership stone tenements that are an integral part of our towns and cities. We therefore call on the Scottish Government to provide grant and zero interest loans to support investment in these properties.”

The Existing Homes Alliance said any new commitments to eradicating fuel poverty must be backed by stronger policies and called for the vast majority of homes to be upgraded to EPC C standard by 2025.

Chair of the Alliance, Lori McElroy, said: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitments to consult on a new statutory fuel poverty eradication target and strategy. However any new fuel poverty goal will remain out of reach unless it is backed up by stronger action and a target to improve the energy efficiency of Scotland’s homes, alongside other actions on income, managing energy and energy prices.

“The commitment to put in place minimum energy performance standards in the private rented sector and a phased regulation of other existing buildings will really help improve housing conditions for vulnerable tenants and reduce fuel bills.

“It is however disappointing that the Scottish Government has chosen to ignore expert recommendations to set a clear target to insulate fuel poor homes to an EPC C standard by 2025 where possible. This lets down those who can least afford to waste money heating the air outside their leaky homes, with those in low energy performing homes still 3.5 times more likely to be in fuel poverty than those in energy efficient homes.”

The Existing Homes Alliance believes that upgrading the vast majority of homes to the recommended EPC C standard by 2025 would be an important milestone towards warm, affordable and low carbon homes and is critical to reducing ill-health and reducing excess winter deaths.

Lori McElroy added: “We have the technologies and skills we need to do this but just lack a clear goal. Insulating homes to the maximum level possible would help to protect the most vulnerable, save the NHS millions of pounds, reduce fuel bills and create up to 9,000 quality jobs right across Scotland. This approach has widespread support across the Scottish Parliament and is backed by more than 50 business and civic organisations in Scotland.”

National fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland, which sat on both advisory groups, said it is important that the Scottish Government’s report underlines its on-going commitment to making homes in Scotland more energy efficient while recognising that “eradicating fuel poverty requires more than investment in energy efficiency”.

It also welcomed the recognition that fuel poverty impacts on various aspects of life including health and income and so involves various government departments such as housing, the economy, jobs and skills, and social security.

Norman Kerr, director of Energy Action Scotland, said he hopes that cross-ministerial input to tackling fuel poverty would become a regular occurrence.

He said: “The Scottish Government has stated in its response that it remains committed to eradicating fuel poverty and this is to be welcomed.  Its pledge to tackle the range of causes of fuel poverty is an important factor, as is the recognition of the cross-cutting nature of fuel poverty, for example it involves action on housing and incomes and can impact on the health of those affected.

“Making sure that assistance to help people get out of fuel poverty is delivered across the country is important and this is recognised in the new report. The Scottish Government’s plans to pilot new ways of helping rural areas will be looked at carefully, as households in rural areas have generally experienced more barriers to date in tackling fuel poverty.

“This is a set of plans that will need to be well-monitored and will need a corresponding budget over time in order to deliver measures that can make a real difference to Scottish households.”

The HES Homecare pilot project was particularly highlighted for praise by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS).

Craig Salter, energy spokesman for the Consumer Futures Unit at CAS, said: “Locally-delivered, bespoke, face-to-face advice can be one of the most effective means of reaching and supporting the most vulnerable and remote consumers. We hope that this pilot will help to develop and strengthen energy outreach services in rural Scotland, and support home-delivered services to achieve affordable warmth, particularly for vulnerable consumers.

“The establishment of an independent panel to review the definition of fuel poverty is also a step towards ensuring those struggling to pay their fuel bills receive the support that they need, and we look forward to engaging with the panel on this. However, it is important that any new definition is backed up by robust action on energy prices, increasing incomes, energy efficiency and energy use.

“The Scottish Government’s response to the reports of the Rural Fuel Poverty Taskforce and Strategic Working Group on Fuel Poverty is welcome. It is clear that positive and robust actions are being taken forward. However, there are still areas where a more ambitious approach is needed.

“This builds upon the work of the Taskforce and Strategic Working Group – of which the CFU was a member – and signals steps towards ensuring that consumers, particularly those in remote areas, receive the advice and support that they need to heat their homes and use energy affordably.”