Orcadian Column, 11 February 2022

Chopping the bottom off classroom doors would be a madcap idea at almost any time, but it seems all the crazier when energy prices are going through the roof.

There is always the possibility, I suppose, that the Scottish Government has a devilishly cunning plan. Project Kindling may yet prove a flagship success with school classrooms kept warm by burning ‘off cuts’ from doors rather than turning on the heating or having to take the blowtorch to desks, chairs and jotters.

Somehow, though, this seems unlikely and perhaps goes some way to explaining why Nicola Sturgeon looked so acutely uncomfortable when trying to defend the policy at First Minister’s Questions last week. There is little dispute that urgent steps need to be taken to improve ventilation in classrooms so that current mask-wearing requirements can be dropped as soon as possible. Yet no amount of re-branding by the First Minister could make the idea of chopping the bottom off doors appear any less hapless.

Worse still, given the obvious potential of creating an increased fire risk within school buildings, it transpires that no prior consultation took place with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service before this proposal was unveiled in a letter from the Education Secretary to parliament’s Education Committee. It’s enough to make even Baldrick blush.

For peace of mind, if nothing else, I’ve written to Orkney Islands Council seeking assurances that we won’t be seeing blokes with saws marching into local classrooms over the February break. However, Nicola Sturgeon and her Education Secretary really need to drop this ridiculous idea and focus instead on investing in proper ventilation in classrooms so that pupils can get back to learning without having to wear masks.

The energy and wider cost of living crisis, of course, is no laughing matter. Ofgem’s recent announcement on the lifting of the energy ‘price cap’ confirmed most people’s worst fears, with average bills for Orkney customers set to go up by a staggering £1,300. In a community that already experiences the highest levels of fuel poverty and extreme fuel poverty in the country, it is little wonder that people are at their wits end.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the energy price rise coincides with a sharp rise in inflation and the prospect of an imminent hike in National Insurance contributions. Even broadband costs are set to balloon. This is a move that will be insultingly ironic to many in Orkney, who pay over the odds at present for an inferior service or have no access at all, and little immediate prospect, despite the Scottish Government’s much-vaunted promise of superfast broadband to every household in Scotland by 2021.

In truth, the response to the current crisis from both Scotland’s governments has been slow and inadequate thus far. The UK Chancellor has offered a £150 Council Tax rebate with £290m coming to Scotland in Barnett “consequentials”. At best, this is intended to spread the pain but is a move that gambles on energy prices going down in the near future. That seems risky, Rishi!

Meantime, both Conservative and SNP governments have rejected proposals for a windfall tax on the inflated profits of oil and gas companies that would certainly allow for a more meaningful package of support. Scottish Liberal Democrats have set out plans that include £300 off household heating bills through a doubling and expansion of the Warm Homes Discount, scrapping the National Insurance hike and targeted support for those most in need, including many in the islands.

The latter currently rely heavily on the services of Tackling Household Affordable Warmth (THAW), a local organisation established to provide a ‘one stop shop’ for help, advice and support to Orkney households in fuel poverty. Astonishingly, given the work it does, THAW’s future is currently in jeopardy due to a disagreement between UK and Scottish governments over how funding is allocated.

In the midst of a cost of energy crisis, this is utterly reckless and threatens to make an already difficult situation considerably worse for many of the most vulnerable in Orkney. Indeed, cutting the ground from under THAW makes about as much sense as chopping the bottom of classroom doors.

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