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Pat Austin - A modern day blight: fuel poverty in Northern Ireland

Pat has been Director of NEA NI for eight years. She has worked with Government sitting on the previous Fuel Poverty Advisory Group and the now Cross Sectorial Fuel Poverty Partnership Group where she chairs the Affordable Warmth Thematic Action Group. Her experience has covers a wide range of disciplines, such as Strategic Planning, Conflict Resolution, Project Management, media and leadership skills. Below, she highlights the problems with fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

Government’s Response to Date

Ending Fuel Poverty: A Strategy for Northern Ireland was launched by the Department for Social Development (DSD) in November 2004 when the level of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland was 24%. Even then, it was a ridiculously high number but at the time the answer was pretty much one of energy efficiency improvements. By 2006 the tide began to turn and we witnessed an unprecedented increase in the price of energy which has continued to cripple the Northern Ireland consumer leading to the level of fuel poverty increasing to almost 44%.  

So, when the new strategy Warmer Healthier Homes was launched in March 2011 we had high hopes of a new and reinvigorated strategy which would be a ‘root and branch’ reform that the authors claimed.  Our hopes where quickly dissipated with what was a disappointing document that really provided us with an energy efficiency scheme. One would have hoped that, with the size and scale of the problem almost doubling, the DSD’s response should have had more ambition and drive to ensure that the key departments should be required to come to the table to drive forward action. 

Upfront discussions with the DSD prior to the 2011 strategy referred to “alleviation” of fuel poverty. However, following the consultation “eradication” was restated as a commitment from the DSD.  Incidentally, having just returned from our annual conference in England where their fuel poverty level is 15% and a conference in Scotland where their level is 25%, the respective Departments responsible for fuel poverty in those jurisdictions are still aspiring to the “eradication” of fuel poverty.  And so it is also worthwhile restating the fact that despite much disagreement about how we measure fuel poverty across the UK, Northern Ireland significantly outstrips every other region, yet our social protection and welfare system treats us all in a homogenous fashion.

With 68% of households in Northern Ireland reliant on oil, any strategy that attempts to deliver without action on oil is doomed, yet in essence the government’s approach to fuel poverty is simply an energy efficiency strategy.  While energy efficiency is an essential plank to any fuel poverty strategy it alone will not cut the mustard.  That said, the DSD is carrying out some ground breaking work through a second Affordable Warmth Pilot which is attempting to overcome the targeting problem through maps produced by the University of Ulster.  These maps in turn should guide Councils to cluster areas of fuel poor households to blitz the problem.  A full examination of the outcomes from the pilot will also help guide the future consultation on the Warm Homes Scheme going forward post June 2014.

The Fuel Poverty Coalition

Despite some good work being carried out there continues to be a sense of paralysis around the size and scale of the issue, and a fear that the lack of joined up government will exacerbate the problem.  As a consequence of this, the Fuel Poverty Coalition was formed in November 2010 bringing together over 150 organisations across the private, voluntary and community sectors.  The Coalition, Chaired by NEA NI, is calling for

  • A detailed and costed action plan to be developed that will set out how and when fuel poverty will be eradicated in Northern Ireland, and
  • The provision of continued support to households in severe fuel poverty to stay warm until fuel poverty is eradicated.


Pat has also told us what her wishes would be if granted 3 by the housing genie - read them here.

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This article was written on 28 November 2013. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.