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Eat or heat? Highland Council finance papers reveal stark reality of rural poverty

By Andrew Dixon

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Glenurquhart Road council headquarters. Picture: Gary Anthony.
Glenurquhart Road council headquarters. Picture: Gary Anthony.

Councillors branded rural poverty a “catastrophe waiting to happen this winter” following figures provided in a finance meeting today.

Highland Council’s corporate resources committee met this morning, with a series of reports outlining overspends in the welfare budget, escalating fuel poverty and the inadequacy of current national data.

It set out in stark terms the human experience behind the budget lines, with chairman Jimmy Gray calling it a “startling” paper.

The council’s welfare budget is overspent by £270,000, as services struggle to cope with the financial fallout of the pandemic.

Fuel poverty rates in the Highlands are well beyond the national average. Around one-third of Highland households face fuel poverty, compared to a quarter in the rest of Scotland. A staggering 22 per cent of people are living in extreme fuel poverty – almost double the national average.

Highlanders also pay more for their fuel, with average annual bills totalling £1759 for dual fuel and £2276 for electricity only. The figure for dual fuel nationally is £1138 – a cruel irony according to Councillor Raymond Bremner, since the Highlands contributes the lion’s share of energy.

“This is one heck of a statistic,” Cllr Bremner said. “One that anyone living in an energy-rich nation such as this would want to correct.”

Cllr Bremner asked for a report detailing the underlying trends in fuel poverty and some options on how the council can help. Referencing council leader Margaret Davidson’s calls for a Highland energy fund, Cllr Bremner accepted that the council cannot fix this alone, but urged members to “do our bit”.

Other members said that fuel poverty is a particular risk for rural areas without access to mains gas.

“Until we can offer something affordable their houses will stay cold or they will continue to light coal fires,” Councillor Bill Lobban said. “If they keep throwing heat up the chimney they’ll never cope and we’ll never catch up.”

Cllr Lobban called on the council to build more energy efficient homes and retrofit existing houses.

Councillor Alasdair Christie, the general manager of Inverness Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), says energy costs are now “right up there” in CAB queries. In the past, CAB would have helped residents to access cheaper tariffs, but Cllr Christie says these no longer exist.

“Imagine what that’s like for people on the poverty line,” he said. “It causes them to become ill, and to make decisions like not to eat. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Councillors also heard that the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) does not give a true picture of rural poverty.

Cllr Lobban said: “SIMD doesn’t work in rural communities, where you could have a large group of well-off people living in one area, right beside people who are living in abject poverty.”

Councillors thanked the welfare team at the council for all their efforts to support Highland communities.

Sheila McKandie, the council's head of revenues and business support, said the local authority is looking at sustainable solutions. A report will be brought to the December meeting of the full Highland Council.

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