This blog was contributed by David Terrace, Energy Programme Manager, at Age UK.
One cannot escape from the scrutiny on fuel poverty this winter, and rightly so, it’s an epidemic. However, one element of fuel poverty that is often ignored is the plight of those in rural, off-mains gas areas. For Age UK, this is particularly important as there is twice the percentage of retired people in rural areas than urban, and there are around 1.5million older people living off the gas grid.
So what we are doing about? During the cold winter we highlighted the issues that are facing older, isolated people in rural areas. Age UK achieved this through considerable press coverage with articles appearing in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. This raised awareness of older people in terrible housing stock, paying a great deal more for their heating but not receiving the help that they need.
There was more to do than just talk about it, it needed tangible action. The spark was provided by the Department of Energy and Climate change announcing its Cheaper Energy Together fund in November. We knew we had to the opportunity to ‘show not tell’ on rural fuel poverty, albeit with a very short timescale (start in January, finish before Easter!)
The small scheme was based around collective oil purchasing on a local level, using grass roots organisations and partnerships to engage people and attempt to increase community resilience around heating. Working with local partners in West Cumbria and Northumberland we were looking to help 200 people in each area to reduce their bills through collective oil purchasing. We included all the community not just older people, as the local decision makers yield considerable influence. However, unlike other schemes, we wanted to offer a more holistic service, with eligible older people receiving energy checks and benefit entitlement checks.
The scheme is in full flow, so what have we learnt? Firstly, oil heating is a huge expense (could be around £2,000) so people are understandably risk averse. However, a co-ordinated approach with local organisation using mixture of mediums (direct mail, events, drop in sessions) is an effective way of engaging. The feedback so far is people want local schemes where they know the people they are buying with – lesson that could be applied to other cost-reducing energy measures, insulation, renewables etc.
The scheme is illustrating that local action is the most engaging. We don’t know whether we are going to reach our targets but we do know that we will have an evaluation report that could shape future action on rural fuel poverty. Keeping people warm and safe in their homes is our number one priority and we will not ignore the rural areas, just because they are ‘hard to reach’. We need to empower communities to take action, and help those in need.
Find out more about Age UK’s Spread the Warmth campaign and why we need to protect the health of older people in winter at www.spreadthewarmth.org.uk