Montgomeryshire Liberal Democrat Senedd Candidate Alison Alexander and Brecon and Radnorshire Senedd Candidate William Powell have raised their concerns over the impact of the pandemic on fuel poverty in Powys. UK energy regulator Ofgem warned last week that energy prices will rise for millions of people across the UK in April, as the price cap for default domestic energy deals is raised to cover suppliers' extra costs. The typical gas and electricity customer is likely to see their bill go up by £96 to £1,138 a year.
The price cap, set twice a year by the regulator, affects 11 million households in England, Wales and Scotland who have never switched suppliers or whose discounted deals have expired. That accounts for about half of all UK households. The remainder are on so-called fixed deals, which will not be affected.
Alison said: “The lush countryside of Powys is perhaps not the first place a visitor may associate with poverty, and yet it continues to blight our communities, often in a way that’s hidden from public view. This has become especially concerning throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, where many families have begun to experience significant financial problems, often for the first time. One of the areas this seems to be most prevalent in is that of energy costs.
“Even prior to the pandemic, a vast number of residents struggled to afford heating and electricity. Powys County Council’s Wellbeing Assessment in 2017 found a staggering 9,500 of the 59,600 households in Powys lived in fuel poverty. This of course is over three years before the start of the pandemic.
“With most people working and studying from home and having to spend more money on heating through the winter, particularly during the latest cold snap, there is a real danger many people’s income is being stretched to the limit. Usually, employers and educational providers would cover these costs for a significant portion of the day/week.
“This is further compounded by many people either having lost their jobs or having had their income levels reduced as a result of COVID. A large number of people are having difficulties making ends meet, many for the first time.
Research carried out by the Citizens Advice Bureau in December 2020 showed 2.1 million UK households were behind on their energy bills, a rise of 600,000 compared with before the start of the pandemic.
William, who served as an officer of the National Assembly Cross Party Group on Fuel Poverty from 2011 – 2016, added: “While these developments are putting pressure on households across the board, I’m particularly concerned about groups that could be more vulnerable to the impacts. People on the lowest incomes and in low-quality housing are likely to be hit the hardest. Poorly insulated homes cost around £50 a month more to heat than a well-built home. The elderly are also at particular risk with an estimated 12,000 people dying each year from health conditions arising or worsening from having a cold home. A rise in fuel poverty could see an increase in the cases of pneumonia and similar illnesses, which is devastating for families and adds yet more stress to the NHS.
“The news that price cap for default domestic energy deals will be raised coincides with the removal of assistance for recipients of Universal Credit, as well as other Government financial support schemes being wound down by the Tory government. Taken together there is a real risk of increasing fuel poverty and debt.”
Last year the not-for-profit company Warm Wales was appointed to run a fuel poverty scheme in Powys. They are now responsible for assessing applications made for energy efficiency measures including new central heating systems, heating upgrades, and ground and air source heat pumps.
“We are now calling on the Conservative-Independent Cabinet of Powys County Council to issue an update on how the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) 3 Scheme run by Warm Wales has been performing, in addition to carrying out an up-to-date assessment on the number of residents living in fuel poverty.”
“At a national level, we in the Welsh Liberal Democrats are seeking to make the retrofitting of homes a key priority of the next Welsh Government as part of our commitment to provide £1 billion in funding per year from both public and private sources to tackle climate change. The retrofitting of homes with better insulation and heat source pumps will not only cut household bills and help Wales meet its climate goals, but create employment opportunities. With a January report by Nationwide Building Society showing that Llandrindod Wells had some of the least energy-efficient homes in England and Wales, this investment is desperately needed.
“We also need to consider more ways to provide help for elderly people looking to switch their energy provider as high levels of digital exclusion for some of the older generations means that they are less easily able to find alternative offers or deals.