Islands home energy bills rocket by 240%
The new figures have given rise to calls for more to be done to equalise energy costs throughout the country and to recognise the particular circumstances of island and other peripheral rural communities.
Councillor Angus McCormack, who chairs the Western Isles Poverty Action Group, told the Gazette: “I am really, really worried. We think we do our best to help people who are in dire need but I fear we are now in danger of being overwhelmed”.
He said that energy bills is “the only subject on people’s lips” and that there is a real sense of fear in the community about people being unable to pay the bills that are descending upon them. These concerns are backed up by the latest stastics.
Energy Action Scotland – which campaigns to end fuel poverty in Scotland – monitors how much disposable income individuals and households are required to spend on keeping warm and lobbies for energy efficiency initiatives.
In their latest findings, they report that the average fuel bill in the Western Isles has gone up from £1754 last year to a staggering £4212 – a 240 per cent increase, the second highest hike in the whole of Scotland.
Electricity unit costs in the islands are higher than on the mainland and there is greater dependence on electricity because there is no access to mains gas which is a far cheaper form of domestic fuel.
In addition, 60 per cent of households have some degree of dependence on oil boilers as a source of domestic fuel.
Councillor McCormack said that whereas the longstanding figure for Western Isles households in fuel poverty has been 40 per cent, the local calculation is that it is likely to rise to 80 per cent.
The definition of fuel poverty is if a household spends more than ten per cent of its income on fuel costs and the remaining household income is insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living.
In addition to national measures, he said Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has found £475,000 to help meet the crisis.
He said that they had “a pretty good handle on those most in need” and to whom support will be prioritised.
“There are many community organisations which have this information and I am aware of at least 12 foodbanks throughout the Western Isles.
"In addition, many communities are looking at opening up facilities to provide warm spaces for people to go to.”
However, he said that local actions could only limit the damage and that governments must do more. From the bills he has seen, unit costs are at least doubling no matter which tariff customers are on while standing charges cost £180 a year “even if you don’t use any electricity”.
He said that both unit costs and standing charges are higher in the islands than in the central belt and this has been a long-running issue which now has to be looked at afresh in view of the latest statistics.
Councillor McCormack said: “I am extremely concerned about the likely consequences for Western Isles residents unless a lot more is done. Both the Scottish and UK governments will have to do much more to support people or there will be serious implications.”
On top of all the other factors, insulation work in the Western Isles has ground to a halt.
A key home insulation scheme had to be abandoned in the summer due to a change of rules by the Scottish Government leading to the loss of 14 jobs at Tighean Innse Gall, who had been overseeing the initiative.
The scheme was particularly beneficial for households with elderly individuals as increasing the efficiency of homes helped drastically reduce heating bills, particularly in the winter.
The change in rules was to increase requirements for ventilation in homes, but was entirely unsuitable in an island context due to weather conditions and the often older construction profile of croft homes.
Discussion has been ongoing at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in the intervening period to identify a suitable replacement scheme and it is hoped a formal announcement is imminent.
A comhairle spokesperson said: “We’re hoping to go out to tender shortly to appoint a new managing agent.”
The issue of fuel poverty in the islands and how families and businesses are dealing with the huge rise in bills is to be the subject of BBC Eorpa documentary to be shown tonight (Thursday).
Speaking to the programme, Cllr McCormack said: “Traditionally, fuel poverty in the Western Isles stood at 40%, the highest in Scotland. We are anticipating, with this rise in cost of fuel, that it will reach at least 80% this winter, which is extremely worrying.
“Electricity costs here are far more than they are in mainland Scotland as it is. In addition to that, most recent studies estimate costs in the Hebrides are 15-34% higher for individuals.”