As the statutory target to eliminate fuel poverty in Scotland has come and gone, will a new strategy do any better?
The Scottish Government has published a consultation paper on a new fuel poverty strategy for Scotland. The consultation looks at the existing approach and legislative framework and sets out proposals for a new Fuel Poverty Strategy in Spring next year. Targets will be enshrined in a Warm Homes Bill later in 2018.
The number of households in fuel poverty fell slightly in the latest Scottish House Condition survey thanks to falling fuel prices. However, still almost one third of homes suffer under the current definition and the numbers are likely to rise again with the latest fuel price increases.
The new definition excludes housing costs and is intended to focus attention on low income households, rather than the 47% of the current fuel poor who are not income poor. There will still be challenges in reaching the standard heating regime because households self-disconnect, due to low incomes. Cuts in social security will exacerbate this. While the new definition is certainly more complex, it does target efforts on the right group. Although with insecure work, varied incomes are more common and many households are likely to fall in and out of the definition.
There are three main elements to tackling fuel poverty - the price of fuel, energy efficiency/use and household income. The first is largely reserved, although energy policy is a factor. Energy efficiency is devolved and household income has devolved and reserved elements, including social security.
This means the strategy rightly has a focus on energy efficiency. Ambitions are fine, but investment is better. The Scottish Government cut funding to £45m in 2007/08; largely because they thought the problem had been resolved. It has now recovered to £129m, although this is well below the £200m Energy Action Scotland warned was needed to meet the 2016 target.
There are some particular challenges in Scotland. Not only are we a cold country, but fuel costs in rural areas are significantly higher. Typically, £2,200 in remote rural areas, compared to £1,400 in the UK as a whole. There are particular challenges in island communities. We also have large areas off the gas grid, which matters for heating.
It is also important that we retain efficient area based schemes that strengthen communities, rather than just micro targeting individual households. The proxies used to identify fuel poor households generally work, but need to be flexibly applied to reflect local needs.
The consultation paper is again strong on ambition. Objectives like 'Households are able to enjoy a warm home' is hard to disagree with. Achieving this apparently requires plenty of partnership working and linking in to other strategies. While this is probably true, it does feel rather process driven - hard targets, programmes and investment are in short supply.
A number of the organisations currently working in 'partnership' complain about short term funding. They build up expertise and services and then the funding comes to an end. Publicity, online and telephone services have their place, but for hard to reach households it requires an advisor in the household. There has been an improvement in skilling staff like social workers and community nurses, since some of the early schemes UNISON did with the Keeping Scotland Warm partnership. However, we could do more in signposting people towards specialist advice. Local authority services are under particular pressure due to cuts.
The new statutory target is to eliminate fuel poverty (new definition) by 2040, with a review at 2030. There is considerable scepticism of the description of this as 'ambitious', given the long timescale. We should have learned a thing or two during the past 16 years, to make another 23 year target a bit excessive.
The problem is that achieving this target depends on a range of variables, particularly fuel prices and incomes. None of these are likely to be addressed without a serious political commitment to eliminate poverty more generally.