The level of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland has been revised downwards following a Department for Social Development-commissioned study. The University of Ulster study revised the 2009 figure of 44 per cent figure to 13 per cent (75,000 households), using a new method of calculation.
Previously, the threshold was set at twice the median amount of household income that families in England spent on heating their homes in 1991 (10 per cent of household income), to maintain an acceptable temperature in their home. The study says 23°C for living rooms and 20°C for all other occupied rooms is recommended, with higher temperatures advised for the elderly and vulnerable.
It concluded that with the median amount of money spent in Northern Ireland on heating at 9 per cent of household income, applying a local twice-median (18 per cent), meant that 13 per cent were in fuel poverty in 2009. It also found that 33,499 households need to spend at least 25 per cent of their income on light and heat.
A UK-wide threshold shows that Northern Ireland has an acute problem. In 2009, the House Condition Survey found that Northern Ireland’s 44 per cent proportion contrasted sharply with 16 per cent of English households. Fifty-three per cent of those between 60-74 years of age and 76 per cent of those 75 years or older were in fuel poverty. The Registrar General’s annual report for 2010 found that there has been an average of 910 excess winter deaths (difference in the number of deaths in winter and the four month periods before and after) over the past 33 years.
According to the DSD, households in Northern Ireland spend approximately 60 per cent more disposable income on energy than the UK average, due to lower household incomes, greater heat needs and dependence on oil. Northern Ireland’s annual average fuel bill is £2,114. The Executive has allocated approximately £23 million for a one-off fuel allowance payment in February, for cancer patients and benefit claimants.
In March the then Social Development Minister Alex Attwood launched a fuel poverty strategy, Warmer Healthier Homes, which identified four key areas for action:
• targeting of resources;
• improving energy efficiency;
• achieving affordable energy; and
• building “strong partnerships”.
It included a target of achieving at least a 15 per cent average energy efficiency gain in homes assisted by the Warm Homes scheme; more energy efficient standards in the Code for Sustainable Homes; and a smart meters pilot to conclude and be evaluated by 30 September 2012. A DSD spokesman told agendaNi that the 12 month pilot commenced in November. The University of Ulster is expected to complete a project evaluation within six months of it finishing.
The draft Programme for Government commits to introducing “a range of initiatives aimed at reducing fuel poverty”. It promises full double glazing in Housing Executive properties by 2014-2015.
Northern Ireland’s Fuel Poverty Coalition, which includes Age NI and Save the Children, said that “tackling fuel poverty presents clear benefits across a number of key priority areas included in the draft Programme for Government” and that there should be a “detailed and costed action plan to eradicate fuel poverty” in the final document. A spokesman admitted that eradication is not possible in the short term but that it can be eventually achieved with a co-ordinated response.
The Fuel Poverty Coalition proposes energy brokering schemes in which the purchasing power of the Executive’s estate would be used to negotiate lower fuel and electricity prices for fuel poor households. The DSD has said it will introduce a test scheme for social housing providers by the end of March 2012.
The Energy Saving Trust administers Northern Ireland’s Sustainable Energy Programme, which is funded by an energy efficiency levy. It has a range of schemes to improve energy efficiency, and targets 80 per cent of its funding at alleviating fuel poverty.