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42% Households in NI are affected by fuel poverty

Opinion Piece byNigel Brady, Director, Bryson Energy

Northern Ireland has the highest level of fuel poverty in the UK and one of the highest in the European Union, with current estimates indicating that 42% of households are affected.

A household is considered to be in fuel poverty if, in order to maintain a safe and healthy level of heating (21O C in the main living area and 18O C in other occupied rooms), it is required to spend in excess of 10 per cent of its household income on all fuel use. Fuel poverty assesses the ability to meet all domestic energy costs including space and water heating, cooking, lights and appliances (NIHE, 2013). Fuel poverty is primarily caused by three factors: living in a home that has poor quality insulation and heating systems; living on a low income and the high cost of heating and electricity.

Fuel poverty is a problem that has severe consequences. These include restricted use of heating, cold and damp homes, debts on utility bills and a reduction of household expenditure on other essential items. In addition, fuel poverty is not only associated with excess winter deaths, but with a wide range of physical and mental health illnesses, such as depression, asthma and heart disease (Marmot Review, 2011). Each year, an average of around 25,000 more people in the UK die during winter than in summer. Most of these excess winter deaths are attributable to a combination of indoor and outdoor cold, with fewer excess winter deaths occurring in homes that are well heated and insulated (Wilkinson et al., 2011). Across the regions of the UK, the rate of fuel poverty is at its greatest by far in Northern Ireland.

The main reason for this is a combination of our climate, lower incomes, higher fuel price and a high dependence on oil. In Northern Ireland oil is the most common home heating fuel. Around 68% of households use oil and this rises to over 80% of households in rural areas. This over-dependence on one unregulated fuel means fuel poverty initiatives in Northern Ireland need to address a unique set of challenges which do not exist in other regions of the UK.

The Department for Communities, formerly Department for Social Development NI has run a fuel poverty programme since 2001 which has assisted over 120,000 households at a cost of £150 million. Despite this investment, fuel poverty has increased steadily since 2001. It is clear that a much wider intervention is needed.

Informed by many years’ experience of developing and implementing fuel poverty initiatives Bryson Energy firmly believes it is time for a ‘whole house’ approach to tackle fuel poverty here in Northern Ireland. This should involve partnership working, trusted delivery partners and targeting to ensure that those most in need are identified. It should also feature a one-stop shop approach including advice and handholding services around energy saving, fuel budgeting and brokering, switching, income maximisation and debt management.

Importantly it also includes a ‘whole house’ approach in terms of the dwelling itself. Identifying and installing a range of measures that will go some way to ‘fuel poverty proofing’ the house, rather than the installation of part measures as many schemes have done in the past. It is time to look at retrofit solutions. This will require a large level of investment and development of a costed plan involving all key stakeholders if it is to be carried out on any meaningful scale.

I am the Director of Bryson Energy which is part of the Bryson Charitable Group of Companies. Bryson Energy is the regional Energy Agency for Northern Ireland and is one of some 420 energy agencies operating across Europe. I am also a past Chairman of the Association of Irish Energy Agencies and the founder and Chairman of Drumlin Wind Energy Cooperative, NI’s first Wind Energy Cooperative. Looking to the future, I am particularly interested in fuel poverty solutions and the role of energy efficiency and renewable energy in reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels.

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