Up to three-quarters of elderly people living in rural areas of Scotland are suffering fuel poverty and are “falling through the cracks” in government policy, according to an expert report to be launched tomorrow.
Growing numbers of old people on the islands and in countryside regions are struggling to meet escalating bills for heating their homes. They are much worse off than old people in urban areas, with many having to cut back on food, transport and other essentials if they want to stay warm.
The risks to people’s health can be “catastrophic”, experts warn, leading to thousands of extra deaths every winter. Cold, damp homes can cause hypothermia, and make many illnesses worse, including arthritis, respiratory and circulatory conditions, they say.
A comprehensive new analysis by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) also reveals a myriad of linked problems facing some rural areas. Young people are leaving, transport costs are high and affordable housing can be in short supply.
The report by SRUC shows that nearly 60 per cent of the over-60s in rural areas are in fuel poverty, compared to 45 per cent in urban areas. “Rural households in which the highest income householder is aged 60 plus are more likely than not to be living in fuel poverty,” it concludes.
The highest levels of fuel poverty endured by the old were on the islands: 76 per cent in the Western Isles, 75 per cent in Orkney and 69 per cent in Shetland. This compares to levels of under 40 per cent in Glasgow, Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire and elsewhere (see table below).
Scottish households are officially defined as being in fuel poverty when they have to spend more than a tenth of their entire income on fuel. Levels of fuel poverty have grown as prices of gas, electricity and other fuels have increased.
“Fuel poverty is an extremely serious issue in rural areas,” said Dr Mandie Currie, who manages Argyll, Lomond and the Islands Energy in Oban, a charity seeking to combat fuel poverty. The problem was ritually underestimated in national studies, she argued.
“The prevalence of older ‘hard to heat, hard to treat’ dwellings, together with high fuel costs, higher living costs generally, lower average incomes and harsh weather conditions all combine to push people into fuel poverty,” she told the Sunday Herald.
“The fact that most of the area is not on the gas grid forces people to rely on more expensive fuels such as electricity and oil. Older people in particular are more likely to experience fuel poverty because they often have more limited incomes and because they tend to spend more time at home.”
Currie thought that the problem was getting worse, despite a raft of government interventions. Fuel poverty was “an urgent health issue” that required action to increase incomes, cut fuel costs and improve the energy efficiency of homes, she said.
She was backed by the fuel poverty charity, Energy Action Scotland, which pointed out that people in rural areas had often not benefitted as much as those in urban areas from schemes meant to tackle the problems. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations called on policymakers to “demonstrate more recognition of the fact that higher fuel costs hit rural people particularly hard.”
According to the editor of SRUC’s new report, Dr Sarah Skerratt, rural poverty often remained hidden because it was missed by national policies and measures. “The cost of household heating is just one area of poverty in which there is an imbalance between rural and urban Scotland,” she said.
Fuel poverty was often tied to a series of other problems afflicting rural areas, she argued. Food costs were 10-40 per cent higher, more was spent on vehicle fuel and in almost half of rural local authority areas 50 per cent of the people earning less than £15,000 a year had no access to a car.
“Policies for rural Scotland do not demonstrate the same level of interconnectedness as the issues faced by rural residents,” Skerratt contended. “In order to address this we believe there must be an over-arching vision and strategy for rural Scotland.”
The report says that many more 18 year-olds are leaving the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland than are arriving. But the net migration of older people aged 26 or 30 was often positive.
The report also highlights housing shortages faced in some rural areas because not enough new houses are being built. Perth and Kinross is said to be facing an annual shortfall of over 500 new houses, while Stirling, Highland and Angus have smaller deficits (see table below).
The housing charity, Shelter Scotland, pointed out that housing shortages were generally worse in rural areas, while costs were higher and conditions poorer. “Below the surface of the rural idyll, there are long-term housing crises driving poverty, social exclusion and local tensions,’ said Shelter’s Alison Watson.
Rob Gibson, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and convener of the Scottish Parliament’s rural affairs committee, called for a “policy revolution” to help local people access local resources. “Affordable land for affordable homes, local control of forests, rivers and inshore waters can all play a part in a vibrant rural future,” he said.
Experiencing fuel poverty
When Joan Matthews, an 89-year-old pensioner who lives near Lairg in Sutherland, was told that she would have to pay £374 more every month for her electricity, she was shocked.
“They said that the money would be taken from my bank and I didn’t have to do anything,” she said. “That really infuriated me.”
Her power supplier, SSE, told her she had arrears totalling £1,850 from last winter and she protested. “This is crazy,” she told the Sunday Herald. “They keep fobbing me off.”
Matthews said she couldn’t afford to pay as much as SSE was demanding, and questioned whether her meter was faulty. She lives in a single-storey, three-bedroom converted barn at Inveran, with six electric radiators.
“I lived through the war so I know how not to be extravagant with everything,” she said. “I use the dishwasher every four days and the washing machine every 10 days.”
Her home had been well insulated with the help of government grants, but that didn’t seem to help. “They tell you the things you should do and you do them, but still the bills go up and up,” she said.
SSE insisted that Matthews’s meter wasn’t faulty, but said that an energy efficiency advisor would be visiting her this week to see what could be done.
“In the meantime we've kept Ms Matthews’s payments at the lower level to enable us to look at how we can support her further,” said an SSE spokeswoman.
“We understand that many older people, as well as their families, friends and neighbours, worry about keeping their homes warm, particularly in winter,” she added. “We will not leave anyone in the cold and ask any of our customers that are worried about their energy bills to get in contact so we can help.”
A recent survey in Shetland by the local Citizens Advice Bureau found that a third of the 468 people that responded were struggling to pay their fuel bills. More than half had cut back on essentials like food and children’s clothes to help pay for fuel, and more than a third had borrowed money from friends or family to pay fuel bills.
One woman in her mid-60s told the survey that she had to pay £1,100 for electricity and £1,500 for oil every year. “I own my house and don't have a mortgage to pay, but still it is extremely difficult to keep up with costs,” she said.
“There is a problem with damp and all the heating needs replacing. My house is drafty and the heating inadequate. Quite often I wear extra clothing or use hot water bottles in bed to add to the warmth.”
Fuel poverty suffered by the elderly
Rural local authorities / people over 60 in fuel poverty
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar / 76%
Orkney Islands / 75%
Shetland Islands / 69%
Dumfries and Galloway / 63%
Scottish Borders / 61%
Highland / 61%
Argyll and Bute / 59%
Moray / 58%
Angus / 56%
Aberdeenshire / 54%
Stirling / 52%
Perth and Kinross / 51%
South Ayrshire / 50%
East Ayrshire / 40%
Urban local authorities / people over 60 in fuel poverty
South Lanarkshire / 60%
East Lothian / 54%
West Lothian / 54%
Fife / 53%
North Ayrshire / 53%
East Renfrewshire / 53%
Edinburgh / 50%
Midlothian / 50%
East Dunbartonshire / 50%
Aberdeen City / 42%
Dundee City / 42%
Inverclyde / 40%
Glasgow / 38%
Renfrewshire / 36%
Falkirk / 36%
North Lanarkshire / 35%
West Dunbartonshire / 34%
Clackmannanshire / 29%
local authority / average annual shortfall of new houses
Perth and Kinross / 513
Stirling / 131
Highland / 71
Angus / 26
source: Scotland’s Rural College
The Scottish government's response to the SRUC report
by Richard Lochhead MSP, rural affairs secretary
Scotland’s rural and island communities are a significant part of our nation, culture and economy and there is no doubt that rural Scotland is a fantastic place to live, work and do business.
Just over £32 billion was produced in the rural regions of Scotland in 2011, which is approximately 30% of total output from the Scottish economy.
However, because many of the functions and services necessary for rural communities and businesses are administered in Westminster, insufficient weight is given to the needs of rural Scotland. As a direct result, people who live outside of our urban centres are often poorly served by the market when it comes to delivery of the sorts of services that are vital to modern society.
Full fiscal flexibility would provide an independent Scotland with greater freedom to tailor capital investment decisions to meet wider policy objectives, including the Scottish Government’s commitment to connecting communities and developing local and national economies.
Gaining control over postal services, rural broadband and mobile telecoms licencing, and the ability to introduce a fuel duty regulator, would all provide the Government of an independent Scotland with ways to better deliver the economic opportunities that everybody should be able to expect, no matter where in the country they live.
Rising energy bills are also a huge concern for this government, and fuel poverty is an absolute scandal in an energy rich country like Scotland. The cost of heating a home has risen significantly and fuel poverty is a challenge for communities across Scotland, particularly in our rural areas. It’s main driver is high energy prices, but by working in partnership with others we aim to reduce the number of people living in fuel poverty in Scotland as much as possible by November 2016. However, with full control over the welfare system and the regulation of energy companies an independent Scotland could do so much more to address this issue.
We have also set up the Island Areas Working Group which has now met several times and is looking at the potential for further devolution of powers for Scotland’s islands and the opportunities that independence could open up for our island communities, including energy, renewables, transport and the Crown Estate.
Fuel poverty/energy efficiency
Everyone in Scotland should live in a warm and safe home that doesn’t cost the earth to heat. Our main approach to tackling fuel poverty is to improve energy efficiency of the home. More than 400,000 Scottish homes benefitted from cavity wall and loft insulation measures in the four years to the end of 2012. And through our Home Energy Efficiency Programmes we have given a share of £55 million to every local authority in Scotland to make sure homes in their area are warmer, more environmentally friendly and easier and cheaper to heat. This investment is targeted at fuel poor households and is being used for the installation of energy efficiency measures such as solid wall, cavity and loft insulation.
The Scottish Government is committed to the provision of affordable housing across Scotland – working flexibly in partnership, and using innovative approaches to maximise investment.
Funding for the 30,000 affordable homes over the lifetime of the parliament is on track. In the four year period April 2012 to March 2016, we plan to invest £1.3 billion in affordable housing. At least 20,000 of the 30,000 target will be affordable social rent.
We fully recognise that rural housing provision needs specific solutions and Resource Planning Assumptions have been allocated to each Local Authority Area to provide affordable housing with local partners. Higher subsidy levels are available in rural areas where a 3 person equivalent house in West Highland, Island authorities and remote rural Argyll can be subsidised up to a level of £72K per unit as compared to £62 K in urban areas, for a house meeting higher energy standards.
We have also provided to £4 million of loan funding to the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust for a “Rural Rent to Buy Pilot Scheme” in Highland aimed at supporting first time buyers on modest incomes to fund the deposit on a new home while also stimulating the affordable housing market, which other areas are investigating as a useful rural housing solution.
And we have the Croft House Grant Scheme which provides grant assistance for the construction or improvement of croft housing. The CHGS budget of £1.4 million for 2013-14 enabled 60-70 croft housing units to be constructed or refurbished.
The Scottish Government is currently leading the roll-out of the £410 million Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband partnership.
BT engineers are currently working to enable fibre broadband connections to 30,000 properties in Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders, Dundee, Fife, Stirling, Perth and Kinross, Angus as well as South and East Ayrshire by summer 2014.
This programme will lay the foundations of a world class digital Scotland, by extending fibre broadband access to remote and rural parts of Scotland that wouldn’t otherwise be served commercially.
The scale of the challenge of delivering fibre broadband into rural Scotland outstrips any other part of the UK and will generate significant economic benefits, including new jobs and increased productivity.
This is an important step towards ensuring that Scotland has world-class digital connectivity by 2020. Our investment, and that of our partners in the project, will extend access to superfast broadband across Scotland. This will be a key factor in ensuring Scotland’s long-term economic prosperity.”
The Scottish Government continues to support healthy population growth through working closely with a range of organisations, including Argyll and Bute Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to promote sustainable economic growth in Argyll and Bute. That helps to ensure strong and thriving communities across the area that will retain and attract people. Population growth is a key driver of sustainable economic growth, as our Government economic strategy makes clear.
Improving economic opportunities is critical to boosting the population. In a range of areas in the Highlands and Islands, the roll-out of digital connectivity—that is an on-going priority for the Government—has boosted business prospects significantly, as have other measures that we have taken, such as the small business bonus scheme, which is used extensively across Argyll and Bute.
We are focussed on ensuring that the infrastructure in rural Scotland—whether it is transport infrastructure or broadband connectivity—is appropriate to attract businesses and to support and encourage population growth.