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FUEL POVERTY: Council chiefs developing combat strategy

FUEL POVERTY: Council chiefs developing combat strategy

Image: LDRS

A major plan to combat fuel poverty in South Tyneside is being developed by council chiefs.

Fuel poverty relates to households that need to spend a high proportion of their household income to keep their homes at a ‘reasonable temperature.’

The issue is often related to income, fuel costs and energy consumption – which in turn can be affected by the energy efficiency of the dwelling itself.

According to data revealed to councillors this week, around 8.7% of households in South Tyneside are living in fuel poverty, equating to more than 6,000 households.

Vulnerable groups such as elderly people, or families with young children or a disabled family member, are also more likely to fall into this bracket.

While South Tyneside’s percentage of ‘fuel poor’ homes is broadly in line with  North East levels, housing bosses are currently drafting a plan to drill down into the issue locally.

“We have decided to develop a fuel poverty strategy,” said Anna Milner,  housing strategy operations manager for South Tyneside Council.

“It’s quite early days at the moment and it’s only in draft form but our main objectives of the strategy would be to maximise household income wherever possible to reduce the costs.

“And that would be by improving the energy efficiency of homes because not only are people often not able to afford their fuel bills, they’re living in very drafty homes or homes with poor insulation or poor heating systems.

“Then also to look to reduce household energy consumption, that’s about education and getting the message out about how they can best use new heating systems or what is available to them in terms of keeping the right rooms warm at the right times.

“Quite minimal improvements can [also] be made to properties to tackle some of that.”

The draft strategy was discussed at the council’s People Select Committee on Tuesday (February 16) as part of its ongoing Poverty Commission.

Councillors were told that the ‘coldest homes’ in South Tyneside were more likely to be linked to areas of deprivation.

Priorities in the plan include making improvements to council housing stock, benefit support advice, investing in new technologies, working with social and private landlords and exploring funding opportunities.

Another priority includes developing policies within the council’s local plan around energy efficiency for new housing developments.

The aims of the strategy were welcomed by councillors on the scrutiny panel, including Green Party councillor David Francis.

“Obviously warmer homes and lower bills mean arguably more money in local residents’ pockets and that’s particularly important for the most vulnerable but it’s important across the board because that is then money that gets spent in the local economy,” he said.

Cllr Francis also asked whether the council could set a requirement in the council’s new local plan for new build properties to meet the ‘zero-carbon homes standard.’

While admitting there may be “push back from developers”, housing bosses said the standard would be something the council would “need to aim for.”

Ms Milner said: “I think we need to be quite clear with the developers that actually this is what our priorities are and whether we do it area based or whether we do it across the borough.

“But we need to make sure we have got very robust evidence in place as well, where [councils] have done this kind of policy in other areas, so that we’re not open to challenge when we take the local plan to inspection.”

Cllr Francis added: “I believe there are local authorities that have taken steps like this, so that’s definitely worth looking at.

“Ultimately to me, my overly simplistic way of looking at it is, either we’re here to do the right thing by the people of our borough or we’re here to make life easy for developers – I know which one of those I would lean towards.”

At this week’s meeting, Labour councillor Pat Hay also asked how energy efficiency improvements would be prioritised in terms of council properties.

Council officers said this could be based on a number of factors,  including whether local housing priorities fit the criteria of Government funding streams.

The council’s arms length management organisation, South Tyneside Homes, also has a delivery and investment plan to upgrade council housing stock.

Cllr Hay added: “I know with the council housing that we have, we have gone a long way but I think more can be done.

“We don’t get all of the money from Central Government but working in partnership with other agencies, we can bring money into the borough to enable us to do that.

“I think it’s something that we should be moving forward with just so residents aren’t paying exuberant fuel costs because they have got a drafty window or there’s a gap in the door.”

Future challenges for the council around tackling food poverty include resources, the cost of upgrading older properties, the lack of up to date information on the private rented sector and engagement with private landlords.

Other potential difficulties include the impact on supply chains post-Brexit and restrictions around the use of Government funding.

To progress the food poverty strategy, the council will establish a ‘cross-departmental working group’ alongside launching a consultation with residents and stakeholders.

In addition, officers plan to map out the support available to residents to help ‘find the gaps’ in services while working in partnership with the third sector.

Words: Chris Binding, Local Democracy Reporter

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