Fuel poverty will only ever be eradicated in Northern Ireland if a focused and single-minded strategy is put in place to deal with it.
That was the message conveyed to representatives from businesses, trade unions, voluntary organisations and consumer groups at an election manifesto launch meeting yesterday.
The Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition — comprised of around 100 groups — gathered at the Ulster Hall in Belfast to discuss how to eradicate the problem, which now affects one in two households here.
Figures from the 2009 Housing Conditions Survey revealed that 44% of all homes (302,000) were living in fuel poverty; this is one of the highest rates in northern Europe.
It is also three times as high as the rate in England, and almost double that of our Scottish counterparts.
Conference attendees also heard there were 1,000 deaths last winter due to the cold weather, while 5,384 individuals were admitted to A&E wards as a result of cold-related illness.
Launching the election manifesto for the forthcoming Assembly vote, Pat Austin, director National Energy Action NI, said the objective was to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016.
“Research clearly shows that fuel poverty can damage quality of life and health as well as impose wider costs on the community, as cold homes increase the likelihood of ill-health,” she said.
“The 100-plus organisations that make up the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition are calling on the new Assembly to set in place measures to tackle fuel poverty before the cost of energy becomes simply unaffordable for the vast majority of households in Northern Ireland.”
Anne O’Reilly, CEO of Age NI, revealed that 76% of people aged over 75 in Northern Ireland are fuel poor — up 55% since 2006.
In March 2011, the Department for Social Development (DSD) launched a new fuel poverty strategy for Northern Ireland aimed a tackling the problem as a matter of urgency.
Outgoing DSD minister Alex Attwood attended yesterday’s meeting.