Marjan van de Weg is the senior data consultant with Changeworks, Scotland’s leading environmental charity delivering solutions for low carbon living. She recently worked with Citizens Advice Scotland on the ’Mind the Fuel Poverty Gap’ report, which explored how the eligibility for the Warm Home Discount scheme fits with the Scottish Government’s recently amended fuel poverty definition.
In this interview we ask Marjan how fuel poverty affects homes in rural Scotland and what needs to be considered if we are to ensure existing rural housing stock remains fit for purpose.
RHS: What are the main differences between fuel poverty in urban and rural Scotland?
MvdW: Typically rural fuel bills are higher because rural housing stock is less energy efficient, so homes need to more energy to heat them. Many properties are not connected to the gas networks and so use fuels that are more expensive than gas. The costs of living in general are higher too, which puts pressure on the household budget. Rural fuel poverty is more driven by high fuel bills whereas urban fuel poverty is driven more by a low expendable income, often caused by higher housing costs.
RHS: Does this have an impact on the efficacy of current Scotland-wide measures to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency in our homes?
MvdW: When we analysed the Scottish Household Survey data for report we found that the fuel poverty gap (the amount with which the fuel bill needs to be lowered or income needs to be increased so as not to disadvantage households) is almost twice as high in rural areas.
This means that fixed fuel poverty rebates are less effective in helping people out of fuel poverty, because rural households need more funds than urban households to close the gap. Of course, households welcome existing benefits, but there is a case for adjusting heat-related benefits and discounts so they take into account the larger rural fuel poverty gap.
As for energy efficiency, having a less energy efficient housing stock with costly fuel types means that there is a large potential for reducing fuel bills in rural Scotland, technically speaking at least. However, those upgrades need to be funded somehow, either by homeowners or through subsidised government schemes and loans, which remains a challenge.
RHS: What are the specific challenges which need to be considered for rural areas when looking to close the fuel poverty gap?
MvdW: Installing insulation or new heating systems can be expensive for remote properties if there is no opportunity to be part of a larger area-based scheme. These schemes lower the costs through economies of scale. Difficulty in transporting materials add costs, and ferries can be booked up a long time in advance before an installer can come to do their work. For some more innovative technologies it might be harder to find competitively priced installers or skilled workers.
There is also a group of fuel-poor households that miss out on fuel poverty related subsidies and grants, like Warmer Homes Scotland, because they do not receive any qualifying benefits or pension. Proportionally this group is larger in rural areas.
RHS : How do the challenges vary across Scotland’s diverse rural landscape?
MvdW: That diversity can be challenging when planning a fuel poverty strategy. Lots of planning is data-informed, but high-level statistics can ‘hide’ poverty and deprivation when the overall averages include more affluent households as well. For urban areas with housings schemes and blocks with similar housing types, the population is relatively more uniform than in non-urban areas.
Likewise, with the various property and wall types in remote areas it can be harder to plan for area-based grant schemes, particularly when the property types need bespoke solutions. What works well in urban areas in terms of planning fuel poverty schemes does not always translate to rural areas and targeting fuel poor households is harder.
RHS: How could reducing fuel poverty and increasing energy efficiency in rural homes impact on individuals and communities?
MvdW: Fuel poverty affects people in many ways. Not being able to warm your home can have a large impact your both your physical and mental health. We know for example that particularly respiratory problems are made worse by cold homes. Paying high fuel bills can also mean giving up on social activities and leisure, or even not being able to buy necessary items.
As a ‘data person’ my work at Changeworks tends to focus on statistics, averages and numbers of households falling into a definition. But I know through the social research we do how badly fuel poverty affects the quality of life for those experiencing it. Overall, more energy efficient rural homes mean healthier and more comfortable homes. It also means households having more disposable income, which can benefit the wider local economy.
Interview with Marjan van de Weg conducted Monday 24th August 2020.