League tables can be deceptive (and that’s not just the Burray footballer in me talking). Some, though, intuitively have the ring of truth to them.
Take, for instance, those surveys that regularly place Orkney proudly at the top of the list when it comes to quality of life. All bias aside, that just feels right.
By the same token, Orkney’s place at the top of the tree when it comes to the proportion of households living in ‘fuel poverty’ is a source of no pride but is nonetheless difficult to dispute. According to the most recent statistics, just under two out of three households in Orkney spend more than 10 per cent of their income on heating. Numbers in extreme fuel poverty, where 20 per cent of household income is spent on heating, are also disproportionately high in our islands compared to elsewhere in the country.
The reasons for this are pretty obvious. We are off the gas grid, making heating options more limited and expensive; our winters tend to be harsher and people need to keep their heating on for more of the year; our housing stock is generally harder to heat; and average incomes are lower.
All this combines to create a situation which ensures that while fuel poverty blights every community, it is particularly acute in rural and island areas.
Driven by four main factors: household income, fuel costs, the energy efficiency of homes and how energy is used in the home, fuel poverty has defeated the best efforts of successive governments of different political hues.
Faced with the prospect of falling well short of meeting its target to eradicate fuel poverty by the end of this year, and in a bid to address the specific challenges in rural areas, the Scottish government established a task force to look at these issues and come forward with recommendations. Under the chairmanship of Dai Alexander, a long-standing and respected advocate on housing issues in the Highlands, the group spent over a year taking evidence before publishing its findings this week.
It is a good report, based on sound principles of fairness and targeting resources where they are most needed. It also makes the case for enshrining the target of eradicating fuel poverty in law. The actions it proposes to meet this target will require joint working between housing and health services, but they are deliverable and hold out the prospect of achieving real progress.
I am particularly pleased to see a clear call for priority to be given to areas that are off the gas grid. This echoes calls I made in the last election for ‘catch up zones’ to target more support at those areas, such as Orkney, that suffer the highest levels of fuel poverty.
To be effective, however, this action must be tailored appropriately. In Orkney, Tackling Household Affordable Warmth is already doing excellent work trying to stop people falling through the gaps between national programmes. We desperately need more flexibility, though, to fashion solutions that meet national objectives in ways that take proper account of our local circumstances.
Building regulations are a prime example. Currently these risk locking in a ‘fuel poverty legacy’ in Orkney by discouraging use of insulation measures. That makes no sense.
Equally hard to understand is the unwillingness of most households to consider switching energy supplier. All the evidence shows that this can deliver significant savings but the information available to customers needs to be more transparent and the process easier to navigate. Dai Alexander’s group make some helpful suggestions in this regard.
Having spent the last year denying it would miss its target on eradicating fuel poverty, the Scottish government now has the route map it needs to step up its efforts. While it cannot control the price of energy, in every other respect it has levers at its disposal like never before.
In 21st century Scotland, people should not have to choose between turning on their heating or putting food on the table.
For Orkney, it would be nice to cement our place at the top of the quality of life league table by relinquishing top spot in terms of fuel poverty.