Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

A well-oiled scheme can save us from fuel poverty

Oil clubs could be the answer to the four-in-10 households here that are unable to afford to keep warm, says Anne Donaghy

The definition of fuel poverty is where a household has to spend more than 10% of its income on fuel in order to maintain an acceptable level of temperature throughout the home.

In short, fuel poverty means being unable to afford to keep warm. It means older people going to bed when they aren't tired, because it's too cold to stay up.

It means children doing their homework in a cold house and entire families suffering from poor health because they are living in damp conditions.

According to National Energy Action, a shocking 42% of households in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes.

If support is given to households in fuel poverty, the benefits can be both immediate and life-changing.

If this support involves collaboration between the relevant agencies and local government, it can be an ideal way to tackle social problems.

The Mid and East Antrim, Causeway Coast and Glens cluster group, of which I am chair, recognises the role that poverty can have in determining the quality and length of people's lives.

We knew we needed to identify what is required to address fuel poverty in our area and complement the Department of Social Development's fuel poverty strategy.

In my experience, the local community knows both the problems and the solutions. The power of local government is to engage and enable communities.

Councils have an opportunity to act as a catalyst and facilitate an inter-agency approach.

In this particular case, we spoke to local people in the area in an attempt to find practical steps to address the barriers they find when trying to heat their homes.

Our findings were clear: local people told us that they are largely dependent on oil and that they struggle to afford to fill their tank, often paying over the odds when forced to buy oil drums.

Fortunately, Glenravel Community Association also had fuel poverty on their agenda. With the help of the association, the cluster of councils, Northern Group Systems and the Public Health Agency, our pilot scheme - Glenravel Oil Club - was born.

The club, which started just over three months ago, is an oil bulk-buying scheme, meaning people can save money even when ordering smaller quantities.

Although it's in its infancy, the success of our club is unambiguous and encompasses the essence of community planning.

It is only when we work with the local community that we can identify needs and ensure that public services fit. That's what this pilot is all about - working with the community and local oil suppliers to make sure that people can better afford to keep warm.

Last week, the scheme was officially launched at a Tackling Fuel Poverty Together event at Stormont, addressed by DSD minister Nelson McCausland, the minister responsible for tackling fuel poverty.

The true success of the scheme is that each participating household has saved £100 in just three months. This means extra cash in the pockets of families who need it.

Low-income families have been saved from the decision of either heating or eating.

Powerful partnership working, involving local government, health agencies and people on the ground, is how we will move forward.

The funding used to set up the club will also be used to fund two other pilot schemes, an education outreach scheme and an energy-efficiency service, which uses thermal imaging to identify where heat is being lost throughout the home.

Learning from all pilots will be shared across councils, which means together we can create and share innovative initiatives that result in fewer people waking up in homes that aren't warm enough.

This is when we can make a real difference to people's lives.

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