It's time to end the 'heat or eat' dilemma
06 January 2015

As we settle in to a new year and wait for spring to arrive, let’s hope we are lucky enough to escape any harsh winter weather.

I say this from the perspective of an organisation that voices the concerns of millions of rural families and elderly people who struggle to pay their fuel bills.

The term ‘fuel poverty’ has been with us for decades but we now hear of people who must choose whether to ‘heat or eat’ – something we really shouldn’t have to consider in this day and age.

So why is it still a problem, especially in rural areas? After all, we have huge commitments from energy companies to provide a range of energy efficiency measures, driven by the Government’s desire to tackle the issue.

In May last year, I gave evidence in person to the Select Committee for Energy and Climate Change regarding their watching brief on Green Deal and the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO).

I shared the platform with Holly Sims from Calor UK and was very pleased to see that one of the recommendations the committee later made to the Government was based on our evidence.

The recommendation reads: “Local sources of information that communities are used to turning to and trust will play a vital role in encouraging energy-efficiency installations.”

The Government’s response was positive; “an effective campaign benefits from effective targeting of properties, a good understanding of the local population, promotion through local trusted voices”.

However, whether this intention is followed through and the ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers begin to focus on those homes in most need remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I can’t help but feel that rural communities - in particular those who don’t have a mains gas supply - are still being let down by current energy initiatives, especially ECO.

The Government’s previous energy efficiency initiatives – CERT and CESP – had almost no impact on rural areas due to poor policy design and the focus of the ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers on achieving their targets for the lowest possible cost.

ACRE and others lobbied long and hard for changes and a rural ‘safeguard’ was included to ensure that rural households had a fair share of the energy efficiency measures available. However, despite this ‘safeguard’, the first year of delivery fell woefully short of targets. When this failure was flagged up to the Government, changes were made – again.

We have seen an increase in insulation measures installed in rural homes – but are these the homes that really matter? There is still no effort by the Government to ensure that the families in real need are targeted as the schemes don’t take account of whether a rural home has mains gas or not. As a result, the ‘Big Six’ are able to ‘cherry pick’ the easiest homes to insulate.

So, our message to the next Government - as set out in the ACRE Network manifesto - is this: The rural delivery of the ECO energy efficiency programme must be reviewed to ensure that families and the elderly who don’t have mains gas or who live in difficult-to-treat homes are dealt with first.

It would be a hugely positive step towards ending the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma faced by so many.