23 Mar 2023
This blog was originally posted on 8 August 2022 by Rural Community Network's policy officer Aidan Campbell on the additional challenges faced by rural dwellers when trying to heat their homes.
Last August (2021) during Rural Homes Week it was the pandemic, the lockdown and how that was impacting on rural communities and rural housing. This year (2022) the issue at the forefront of most people’s minds and at the top of most news bulletins is inflation, the cost of living, and the impact on households who are so hard pressed that they can’t cut back spending any further. The winter just gone was tough but as the Autumn and Winter of 2022/23 comes into view a grim season is ahead.
The cost of living payments announced by then Chancellor Rishi Sunak in May and confirmed by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey in June will give welcome short term relief for households. People in receipt of the qualifying income related benefits, disabled claimants and pensioners will receive up to £650 and most eligible households should have received their first instalment. At current prices £650 will buy just over 700litres of home heating oil. So, it will be a help but will, realistically, be used up in 3 to 4 months. Older people or people with a health condition are more likely to spend more time at homes and need to run their central heating for longer. If prices spike back up again or its exceptionally cold during the winter then that £650 won’t go as far. The discount on energy bills for all households which is worth up to £400 has funding set aside for Northern Ireland but details of how these payments will be made here have yet to be agreed.
Fuel poverty is worse in rural communities due to our reliance on home heating oil (its estimated that over 80 per cent of rural homes are heated by oil and prices, on an upward trend for the past year have spiked since the war in Ukraine started. Rural homes are often older so are less well insulated. There are also more older people in rural communities living on fixed incomes and 12 per cent of pensioners in rural communities live in absolute poverty. People in rural communities may be less likely to shop around as they may be more likely to know their local oil supplier and want to remain loyal to them as a way of supporting local business.
So what can be done? In the short-term housing providers should assess the levels of insulation in their homes. Any problems that can be addressed within current budgets e.g., retrofitting additional loft insulation should be prioritized. Assessing what will need additional investment, such as replacement double glazing or cavity wall insulation also needs to be done so that a case can be made for that. As well as being a way of addressing fuel poverty any future retrofit schemes will contribute to reducing carbon emissions as we now have a net zero target established by the Climate Change Act. Social housing providers will need to continue supporting tenants in rent arrears through the implementation of appropriate and realistic repayment plans, as well as helping tenants access support through Housing Association’s Hardship Funds, or through external channels such as food bank referrals and welfare rights advice.
In the medium term we need to plan for deep retro fitting across the whole of our housing stock, looking at both insulation and de-carbonising central heating. It has been estimated that bringing Northern Ireland’s housing stock up to Energy Efficiency band C would cost £2.4bn. However, most of that investment is reckoned to be needed in the private sector with only 7% of properties in the social rented sector requiring this investment. When we have a detailed understanding of the scale of the issue, we can then work out how much of that work can be supported from the NI block grant and how much will require a comprehensive investment from the UK government. Simultaneously the NI Executive will still need to focus on short term help to low income households to get over the winter fuel poverty crisis and budget for additional fuel payments and where possible additional social security payments. All of this will require a functioning Assembly.
At Westminster level the UK government needs to start addressing the issues of fuel poverty and de-carbonising home heating if it is to hit its net zero targets. The New Economics Foundation’s Great Homes Upgrade campaign is asking the Government to commit to funding the upgrade of 19 million homes by 2030 to a decent level of energy efficiency (at least EPC rating band C), skilling up the workforce required and providing low-cost finance to enable home owners to upgrade. It’s this type of intervention across the whole of the housing system that will be required to ensure everyone can live in a warm home.
Aiden Campbell is the policy officer for Rural Community Network.
This blog was originally posted on the RCN's website, 8 August 2022.