Northern Ireland’s fuel poverty strategy was launched in 2004, with the objective of reducing what was then the UK’s highest rate of fuel poverty.
At that time, one in three households in the province had to spend more than ten per cent of disposable income on energy.
This week’s meeting of the Assembly’s Social Development Committee heard that figures to be published soon will show that 50% of households now live in fuel poverty, with 13% spending more than 20% of disposable income on energy.
Our local politicians cannot be wholly blamed for this increase. Not all causes of fuel poverty are under the control of the devolved institutions. The minimum wage and level of benefits are set at Westminster and energy prices are largely determined by global markets.
Meanwhile, as the committee heard on Thursday, some good work is being done to reduce the energy costs of vulnerable households, and to ensure that benefit uptake is being maximised.
However, much more can be done to tackle the three causes of fuel poverty – high energy prices, low incomes and high energy consumption.
Obviously, there is little Northern Ireland can do to reduce the cost of fossil fuels and electricity generated from them. Even if the Executive gives the go-ahead to the destruction of the Fermanagh countryside for shale gas extraction, the amount of gas extracted would make no difference to global prices.
We need more support for people generating their own energy through small-scale renewable and wholehearted commitment to the development of large scale renewable developments like offshore wind, tidal and wave power that offer the prospect of greater price stability as technology matures.
With the Welfare Reform Bill due to be introduced to the Assembly this week, there is a very real prospect that the next set of fuel poverty figures will be even more depressing than this. Up to now, DSD has been adamant that it has no option but to follow every social security reform made by Westminster. The department may be correct, but the Northern Ireland Act is not 100% clear on this point. Our legislators must not take even more money away from those with least unless they are absolutely certain they cannot do otherwise.
Likewise, while the Assembly cannot control the level of the minimum wage, it can make an impact on the incomes of a significant number of low paid workers by ensuring that everyone directly employed by the public sector is paid a living wage and that companies awarded public contracts are obliged to pay a living wage to staff working on that contract.
Finally, and most significantly, the Executive can reduce fuel bills across Northern Ireland by funding a mass home insulation scheme. Other parties pay lip service to the Green Party’s flagship policy in the last Assembly election, but none has fully embraced it.
As well as ensuring comfortable homes for everyone, a province-wide insulation scheme would have positive economic and environmental impacts, creating thousands of jobs in the depressed construction sector and reducing Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Initial investment will be required, but plenty of money can be saved by suspending road building schemes, or raised by lifting the DUP’s cap on rates for owners of the most expensive houses or ending dithering over levying rates on vacant properties. Some of the public money spent will then be recouped through higher tax receipts due thanks to the employment created and materials purchased.