Thousands of low income families missing out due to pandemic and supply issues just as energy prices are spiralling
As thousands on low income struggle with surging winter fuel costs, the Housing Executive has admitted “difficulties” with its Affordable Warmth Scheme.
It has cited lockdown restrictions, delays at UK ports and the global supply chain crisis as why potentially thousands of households have missed out over the last two years.
Grants are issued under the scheme to improve energy efficiency in homes, such as loft insulations.
It is aimed at households that own their home or rent from a private landlord and have a total income of less than £23,000.
Although almost £92m has gone into the scheme since it started in September 2014, there has been a marked decline in the number of households that have been improved in recent years.
Campaigners are now calling for action.
Belfast Green Party councillor Brian Smyth said: “On top of the failures of the Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme, the five-party Executive has demonstrated its inability to effectively alleviate fuel poverty during this winter crisis.”
Pat Austin, director of the local branch of fuel poverty charity National Energy Action, said the scheme was simply insufficient.
Statistics from the Housing Executive show that in the 2020-21 financial year only 1,599 homes were improved.
As of December 31, the number is up slightly in 2021-22, with 2,066 homes benefiting.
However, the figures are disappointing compared to earlier years: 2016-17 (5,069); 2017-18 (4,151); 2018-19 (3,205) and 2019-20 (2,594).
It means potentially thousands of low income eligible households have missed out on cash aid to improve energy efficiency.
NEA has found the average household can now expect to pay up to £2,000 a year for electricity and gas due to rising prices.
On top of the already mentioned causes, the Housing Executive said increased cost of materials and reduced productivity due to Covid cases among staff and applicants, who are required to have their homes inspected, also impacted the scheme.
Mr Smyth said: “Serious questions need to be answered by the Department for Communities about why appropriate precautions were not put in place to ensure that Northern Ireland’s lowest income families don’t lose out as a result of supply chain issues.”
In 2016 the Northern Ireland House Condition survey found there was a fuel poverty rate of 22%. NEA believes that figure is now around 40%.
Ms Austin said: “The government’s response with the winter payment is welcome but not enough. The Affordable Warmth Scheme, which is the government’s statutory response, is not enough and not dealing with the size, scale and depth of the problem.
“The Department for Communities needs to take a strategic approach to this problem and bring forward the much needed fuel poverty strategy to tackle energy inefficient homes and energy affordability.
“We are getting increasing calls for support from households who are quite simply running out of gas and unable to top up their meter. Put quite simply — the cold kills.”
The Housing Executive said: “The Housing Executive has worked hard to ensure services to our customers have been as consistent as possible across our business over the last two years.
“It is widely acknowledged that the ongoing pandemic continues to impact the global supply chain, the construction industry and vital services across Northern Ireland, including many housing services and initiatives.
“Despite these difficulties, in relation to the Affordable Warmth Scheme, between March 2020 and November 2021 we successfully carried out 4,440 visits to eligible households referred by the 11 councils for consideration.
“This has resulted in approvals being issued of nearly £18.2m for energy efficiency measures which, once completed by the householder and their chosen contractor, will improve thermal comfort and help combat the effects of fuel poverty.
“During the same period the Affordable Warmth Scheme also processed grant aid payments for completed work to 3,500 households with a value of almost £14m.
“As we continue to navigate the pandemic the Housing Executive remains committed to administering grant aid as effectively as possible.”
Last Thursday Stormont approved a one-off £200 support payment to around 280,000 households here struggling with rising energy costs.