The fact we are facing a fuel poverty crisis is undeniable. This winter is harsh, the cost of living is increasing, energy prices are rising exponentially, and things are set to get worse, not better.
From April 1, the energy price cap will rise by 54 per cent, compounding the impacts of fuel poverty for those already living with it, and exposing a further 210,000 Scottish homes to its far-reaching negative impacts.
By this point, the facts are well-versed, but no less terrifying; for the average household, energy prices will rise by just under £700, a figure that may well increase again in October following the next price cap review. For those with old, inefficient and often rural homes with no mains gas connection – the kind we see all over Scotland and cherish as part of our national identity – the price rise will be well over £1,000, the equivalent of paying for a whole second heating season.
Together with the stagnation in real-term wages, the Bank of England’s warning that inflation will hit 7.25% in the next few months, and the rising cost of food, fuel, and services, we are seeing a perfect storm for the fuel poor and vulnerable that demands rapid, systematic policy action.
This isn’t simply a case of putting on another jumper or throwing another windfall log on the fire, either (although both may help to some degree, even if just to provide psychological comfort). For those in the grasps of fuel poverty, the evidence suggests it can lead to substantial mental and physical health problems, particularly for the most vulnerable in society: the elderly, disabled, those living with long-term health conditions, those with childcare responsibilities, or the tens of thousands of Scots in precarious jobs, to name but a few. Even if you and I are fortunate enough not to be in fuel poverty, we almost certainly know someone who is.
To cope, many voluntarily disconnect, turning off their energy systems and reverting to living with damp, cold and mould in an attempt to afford other necessities. For those unfortunate enough to experience energy debt, they are often placed on pre-payment meters – the most expensive way to purchase energy that prevents individuals and households from spreading their energy costs across the seasons. Clearly, this
isn’t just a crisis of energy bills, it is much, much more. The price cap signals potential destitution for millions.
What we are currently experiencing isn’t a temporary blip, either. Energy prices are set to remain high and even if they do decrease, millions will remain in fuel poverty, and Scotland’s homes will continue to have some of the lowest energy efficiency standards in Europe. We need much more ambitious, long-term and systematic policy action, and we aren’t seeing it yet.
Current policy discourse revolves around a “heat now, pay later” sticking plaster that masks the immediate financial burden but does nothing to tackle the underlying causes. The promised £200 loan isn’t large enough; it assumes energy prices might fall, not increase; and uses a council tax rebate that is notoriously ineffective for targeting those most in need. There are suggestions, even, that those in receipt of a council tax discount they don’t need should donate the sum to frontline fuel poverty charities – sending it, in effect, to where it was needed in the first place.
And to be clear, there are policy options, and the Scottish Government isn’t entirely flagging.
Its’ Fuel Poverty Strategy, based in part on the testimony of those living through it, contains many ambitious and necessary steps. But I believe we can do more, quicker.
This isn’t the point at which we put our feet up, wait for the media attention to die down, and get on with trying to pay eye watering bills.
Driven by fluctuating gas prices, increasing demand as lockdowns end, low wind speeds, supply bottlenecks, and geopolitics, the current energy crisis shows clearly that the solutions to fuel poverty must include energy security, energy pricing and energy efficiency. Much more effective policies than
a temporary grant or rebate.
Increasing the energy efficiency of our leaky, poorly constructed and sometimes hard to retrofit housing stock is an under-emphasised first step, with direct wins: increasing comfort, off-setting wholesale energy prices, and increasing health, wealth and sustainability. National Energy Action suggests we also require
a combination of more generous bill rebates, debt repayment schemes, stronger advice for struggling households, and exemption from the proposed claw back on loans.
The potential measures do not stop there. In the same months the fuel poverty crisis has hit, some of the largest energy companies boasted billions in profits, whilst others crumbled.
Clearly, as other countries have done, we must be bold enough to cap dividends or profits and protect people. Rural areas, coasts and islands are now at the centre of a renewable energy boom, in some cases producing more than they can use, yet our Scottish islands pay some of the highest energy prices, have the highest rates of fuel poverty and lack the sub-sea connections to feed energy into the mainland grid. And, of course, rapidly deploying renewables and low-carbon heating alongside domestic baseload energy (that which remains stable even when the wind does not blow) is needed to reduce our reliance on volatile gas supplies.
Can any of this be achieved by an independent Scotland? There are certainly gains to be made, risks to be considered, and many questions left unanswered. In the context of the current crisis, it is clear Scotland’s efforts are largely directed by Westminster. Scottish Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport Michael Matheson has pointed the finger squarely at the UK Government, arguing he does not have the “levers” to help Scots in a more radical way. Others claim that without independence there is little the Scottish Government can do to allocate funding where it is needed and to control large market players; this despite the fact the Scottish Government has pledged a £1.8 billion investment into heat and energy efficiency programmes, and supports the ambitious introduction of renewables at a scale far outpacing developments south of the Border.
For me, at least, the jury is out. Scotland’s departure from the UK would give it greater freedom to develop our resources, encourage fair energy pricing and extend a radical suite of polices to retrofit our homes and protect the most vulnerable. Yet an independent Scotland would need to get to grips with severely curtailed finances, an energy grid that cannot cope well with intermittent technologies, and huge uncertainties around an integrated GB energy market and costs sharing models for electricity transmission.
This is precisely why the independence debate should not just be based on abstract rhetoric about the Scottish identity, but on hard facts and clear policy pathways – pathways that recognise and fight for the individuals all across the country who, tonight, will turn off the lights or turn down the thermostat to save a little more money.
Kirsten Jenkins is a lecturer in energy, environment and society at the School Of Social And Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh