Orkney consistently comes out top of the league in surveys of the best place in the UK to live. It is something people in Orkney take justifiable pride in, but not to the extent that it blinds us to the challenges that island life can and does bring.
By way of illustration, Orkney also comes out on top when it comes to charting levels of so-called ‘fuel poverty’. While some take exception to a phrase they see as attaching stigma, there is no escaping the fact that a higher proportion of households in Orkney spend 10% or even 20% of their overall income on heating than anywhere else in the country. Consequently, they qualify as being in fuel poverty or extreme fuel poverty respectively.
Depressing though this undoubtedly is, in some senses, the reasons should surprise no one. Orkney is off the gas grid; our cost of electricity is higher; we have longer, harsher winters; and many of our stone-built houses cannot readily be fitted with cavity wall insulation and so are harder to heat.
On the upside, perhaps because of these challenges, we have a decent track record in coming up with innovative ways of tackling fuel poverty. Over the years, efforts have been made to plug gaps between government and energy company programmes that, however well-intentioned, rarely manage to reflect the specific circumstances we face. Tackling Household Affordable Warmth (THAW) epitomized this approach and now a new Orkney Fuel Poverty Group has been established that should help deliver a joined up approach locally and ensure best use is made of the resources available.
In terms of those resources, I saw for myself last week the benefits they can deliver during a visit to the home of a couple who recently had a new boiler installed under the Warmer Homes Scotland scheme. The elderly gentleman, who has a high level of disability, and his wife told me of the dramatic difference these measures have had on their quality of life.
The couple also lavished praise on the local business that had carried out the work, a message I was able to pass on personally when I visited RS Merriman later in the afternoon. That discussion at Merriman’s offices in Stromness reinforced my firm belief in the importance of ensuring local firms are accredited to carry out the work under such schemes in future. This helps build customer confidence, develop skills and support the local economy. A win, win, win.
Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that the wrong lessons are being learned, thereby making progress more difficult going forward. The Housing Minister seems intent on ignoring some key recommendations coming out of his own Rural Fuel Poverty Task Force. In a draft strategy that conspicuously diluted the ambition on eradicating fuel poverty, a new definition was proposed that could artificially ‘deflate’ the number of households affected by around 20%.
An income threshold for future support schemes that ignores the difference in the cost of energy between rural and urban areas is also a serious concern. So much so that I moved an amendment to the government’s Islands Bill in the Rural Economy Committee last week demanding a rethink. In response, Islands Minister, Humza Yousaf promised a meeting with me and the Housing Minister to discuss how the forthcoming Warm Homes Bill can avoid becoming the first piece of supposedly ‘islands proofed’ legislation that is patently not island-proofed.
Without a change of heart, the risk is that Orkney could find itself rooted to the top of the league for fuel poverty.