The issue of rural fuel poverty is an important area of research for EAGA Charitable Trust. In 2001, the Trust and the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) had co-produced a conference on this theme, which was further developed in a position paper by the CSE that outlined an overarching research agenda. However, considerable work remained to be done to understand in detail the character of rural fuel poverty, particularly in different areas of the UK. Ensuring that learning is shared and publicised is also essential.
Key research Question
The majority of the presentations at ‘Hidden Hardships’ focused on aspects of rural fuel poverty in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Speakers presented evidence of the nature of fuel poverty and the particular governmental and legislative requirements in the two countries, as well as highlighting specific local schemes designed to address some of the challenges and the role of national programmes.
Summary of activity
The report outlined the proceedings of a conference on rural fuel poverty organised by the Western Regional Energy Agency and Network, which took place in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland in 2002. It summarised the presentations given by each speaker and subsequent question-and-answer sessions, as well as the welcome speech and plenary discussion.
The presentations were grouped into three areas: 1) Outlining Rurality and Fuel Poverty, 2) Targeting Rural Communities – Examples of Action and 3) Finding Solutions to Rural Fuel Poverty. A wide variety of information was shared.
Research indicated that around 170,000 households in Northern Ireland were living in fuel poverty and 12% of rural homes were deemed unfit. The province had a relatively underdeveloped energy infrastructure, particularly for gas, leading to an overreliance on oil, which was not a regulated resource. Government programmes such as the Warm Homes Scheme (introduced in 2001), the Northern Ireland Energy Efficiency Levy and the Home Energy Conservation Act 1996 had had an impact on rural poverty. While rural housing in the Republic of Ireland displayed similar characteristics, it was noted that the funding available for efficiency projects was lower than that obtainable in Northern Ireland.
Examples of research and practical initiatives were highlighted, such as the Armagh and Dungannon Health Action Zone (which surveyed the energy efficiency of around 400 properties and the health of their residents before promoting practical measures such as new heating or double glazing) and Energy Action Dublin’s package of improvements in Monaghan and elsewhere in the Irish Republic.
Speakers contended that government should introduce legislative targets for eliminating fuel poverty in Northern Ireland and establish a ministerial task force. Although efficiency improvements were welcomed, low incomes must be addressed in tandem. Some felt that the extension of the natural gas supply to more rural areas would help decrease reliance on more expensive types of fuel. In addition, the scope for renewables and district heating schemes to play a major role in the future energy mix should be investigated.
It was suggested that more advice services for rural communities, better multi-agency working and enhanced community-level training were needed in the Irish Republic.