Islands face growing fuel poverty crisis

A leading island business owner who is also a member of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has warned that current policies are causing an increase in fuel poverty in the Western Isles, which is already by far the highest in Scotland.

Thursday, 6th January 2022, 8:39 am
Updated Thursday, 6th January 2022, 8:39 am
The islands housing stock is harder to insulate which means Scotland-wide schemes are unsuitable and leads to increased electricity costs

Neil MacKay, whose Stornoway-based construction firm has worked extensively on insulation and boiler replacement throughout the islands, has called for a “bespoke” approach to combating fuel poverty, based on policies appropriate to island conditions.

He said large sums of money have been wasted on insulation schemes that are ineffectual; that electricity bills are being forced up by installation of air source heat pumps in houses that are inadequately insulated and that removal of open fires is depriving fuel-poor households of the cheapest means of heating their homes.

Mr MacKay told the Gazette: “The key to the whole thing is insulation. They have given a lot of people the heat pumps (in social housing) but if the houses have not been insulated properly, it costs a fortune in electricity.

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“I couldn’t believe it when I became a councillor and was called in to look at some of the houses that had been insulated but the people were still living in fuel poverty. A lot of money has been thrown away in the wrong directions”.

Mr MacKay said the fault lay in a scheme designed for Central Belt conditions being applied in areas where it costs substantially more to insulate houses to a proper standard. The Scottish Government’s Green Deal, he said, is “a box-ticking exercise” funded by energy companies to offset their carbon emissions.

“The scheme is designed for brick-built houses which are not the norm in the islands. We are frozen out because it is all concrete and stone. It is a very urban solution but on a Scotland-wide basis it ticks the boxes and politicians who don’t go into the nuts and bolts can say ‘we have done 95 per cent’ and everyone says, that’s great. The problem is that we are the five per cent”.

Mr MacKay said that heat pumps “are only made to work for well-insulated houses” yet many which are not well insulated are having chimneys removed. “When people are deep in debt with electricity,” he said, “they can no longer have an open fire which is by far the cheapest way of heating a home”.

While highly critical of Scottish Government policies and the failure to recognise conditions outside the central belt, Mr MacKay said that things “have gone completely haywire since the Greens came into power”.

He said the Scottish Government has now adopted “a Rolls Royce standard of insulation that is on the verge of being impossible to meet and would cost a fortune for each house – I would struggle to do it for £20,000”. He added: “Basically, all the insulation work has stopped”.

“When people are deep in debt with electricity,” he said, “they can no longer have an open fire which is by far the cheapest way of heating a home”.

While highly critical of Scottish Government policies and the failure to recognise conditions outside the central belt, Mr MacKay said that things “have gone completely haywire since the Greens came into power”.

He said the Scottish Government has now adopted “a Rolls Royce standard of insulation that is on the verge of being impossible to meet and would cost a fortune for each house – I would struggle to do it for £20,000”. He added: “Basically, all the insulation work has stopped”.

As previously highlighted by the Gazette, all grant support for installing or upgrading oil-fired boilers has also dried up under the SNP-Green deal although this form of heating is used by almost half the homes in the Western Isles – more than 7000. Until now, elderly or disabled people could have installation fully funded but that has been stopped.

Mr MacKay said there would be some logic in the new policy if there was a straight transfer from oil to full insulation and heat pumps but there is no prospect of this happening, particularly since many houses in the islands cannot be adapted in that way.

He said that he had contacted the MP and MSP for the Western Isles but they were “not prepared to rock the boat, even a little”. However, Mr MacKay believes that with the threat of soaring electricity bills looming and 40 per cent fuel poverty in the islands “there is a need for a completely new look at how all this is addressed.

“Consultation never goes far enough down the food chain. If they would talk to people who have to do the job in places like this, they might understand that a bespoke approach is required and that one size does not fit the whole of Scotland”.

As previously highlighted by the Gazette, all grant support for installing or upgrading oil-fired boilers has also dried up under the SNP-Green deal although this form of heating is used by almost half the homes in the Western Isles – more than 7000. Until now, elderly or disabled people could have installation fully funded but that has been stopped.

Mr MacKay said there would be some logic in the new policy if there was a straight transfer from oil to full insulation and heat pumps but there is no prospect of this happening, particularly since many houses in the islands cannot be adapted in that way.

He said that he had contacted the MP and MSP for the Western Isles but they were “not prepared to rock the boat, even a little”. However, Mr MacKay believes that with the threat of soaring electricity bills looming and 40 per cent fuel poverty in the islands “there is a need for a completely new look at how all this is addressed.

“Consultation never goes far enough down the food chain. If they would talk to people who have to do the job in places like this, they might understand that a bespoke approach is required and that one size does not fit the whole of Scotland”.

Meanwhile, the Western Isles’ unwanted status as fuel poverty capital of Scotland has been confirmed in another survey, this time by campaign group Energy Action Scotland – 40 per cent of households against a Scottish average of 24 per cent.

Fuel poverty is defined by the Scottish Government as any household spending more than ten per cent of their income on energy after housing costs have been deducted.

The figures come at a time of great apprehension about a likely explosion in energy prices by April due to a global rise in the cost of gas from which around 50 per cent of the UK’s electricity is generated.

Angus McCormack, chair of the Outer Hebrides Poverty Action Group said: “The present and growing fuel crisis will impact severely on the Western Isles where yet another report states that we have the highest rate of fuel poverty at 40 per cent.

“What appals me is that I, and others, have brought this matter to the attention of Ofgem, SSE, Scottish and UK governments and little is done to resolve the problem. None of these organisations seem to care. Electricity prices need to be reduced at least so that they are on a par with the Central Belt in Scotland”.