The Scottish Government has recently announced a pilot project to help tackle fuel poverty in rural areas of Scotland. This will be particularly welcome in Orkney, which currently tops the national fuel poverty league table – not a position to celebrate.
With 63% of households estimated to be in fuel poverty – 85% of pensioner households – according to the Scottish House Condition Survey, any moves to reduce Orkney’s figures must be welcomed. And that is what the pilot, which will be run by Home Energy Scotland (HES), is designed to do. Advisers from HES will visit selected homes in rural areas to see what more can be done to reduce their fuel bills. The £300,000 12-month Homecare pilot will be evaluated before a decision is taken on rolling it out nationwide.
As I write this the two rural locations that the HES Homecare pilot will take place in have not been announced. However, I will certainly be making the case for the Highlands & Islands, including Orkney, to be included, as some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in Scotland can be found in these off-gas grid areas.
Of course people in Orkney may recognise the type of work to be carried out by the pilot – home visits rather than phone calls or letters – as very similar to that already being done by fuel poverty charity THAW Orkney. I visited THAW’s office in Kirkwall’s Victoria Street when I was in Orkney in January and was encouraged to hear of the hundreds of households they have been able to help over the past year or so. Hopefully the HES pilot can be similarly successful in reaching those most in need, and this kind of work can become part of longer term plans to help households in Orkney and across the Highlands & Islands.
And as this valuable work continues, we must also ensure that it is not undone through the unintended consequences of other actions. This is a distinct possibility when it comes to the requirement by Scotland’s National Marine Plan for Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) to consider how its submarine electricity cables are laid and protected on the seabed.
The cost of supplying electricity via cables to Scotland’s islands is supported by electricity consumers across the north of Scotland as part of their energy bills, due to the way distribution costs have to be recovered in rules set down by the UK energy regulator Ofgem.
In Orkney, consultations are due to take place this week in Kirkwall, Westray, Stronsay, Shapinsay and Rousay ahead of SSEPD applying for a Marine Licence to replace three cables – Orkney Mainland to Shapinsay, Shapinsay to Stronsay, and Rousay to Westray.
It has not yet been made clear by SSEPD how much might have to be added to the electricity bills of consumers in Orkney and across the north of Scotland as a result of the cable replacement programme, and it may be worthwhile to go along to these events if you have any concerns over this. I will certainly be asking SSEPD for assurances that it can minimise the impact on people in the north of Scotland, many of whom are already struggling to pay their bills.
This is a regular fortnightly column by local SNP MSP Maree Todd
The dates, time and places are:
• 14/03/2017 Kirkwall, St Magnus Centre, 10am until 4pm
• 14/03/2017 Westray, Höfn Youth Centre, 12pm until 2pm
• 14/03/2017 Stronsay, Stronsay Fishmart, 1pm until 3pm
• 15/03/2017 Kirkwall, St Magnus Centre, 10am until 4pm
• 15/03/2017 Shapinsay, Shapinsay Community School, 12pm until 2pm
• 16/03/2017 Rousay, Rousay Community School, 12pm until 2 pm