North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb calls for tighter energy industry regulation to ease fuel poverty
Campaigners have joined an MP in calling for more transparency and tighter regulation in the 'off-gas' energy industry to ease crippling fuel poverty in rural Norfolk.
A seminar named Fuel Poverty: Fact or Fiction? was hosted by the Norfolk Rural Support Network and held at Anglia Farmers' offices at Colton, near Norwich, earlier today.
About 30 representatives from councils, charities and voluntary groups were told that more than 60,000 Norfolk households were currently in fuel poverty – defined as spending more than 10pc of their income on maintaining an adequate heat.
But they said the problem was most acute in rural areas, where the population is older, incomes are lower and many houses are not connected to the gas network.
The meeting was chaired by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who said it was 'outrageous' that no energy companies had accepted invitations to the seminar.
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He said with huge variations in the price of heating oil, 'sustained pressure' must be exerted on regulators to simplify complex tariffs, make it easier for customers to change suppliers and to ensure a fair and competitive market place.
'In answer to the question posed by this conference, I can give you a very simple answer – and that is that fuel poverty is a fact,' he said. 'People are having to make really difficult judgements on whether to spend their money on food or heating their home. As a result, too many people in this country die of hypothermia in winter. And that is the real scandal, because the number is more than in countries like Sweden where they have harsher winters but their homes are better insulated.
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'If you are relying on heating oil, the price is often exorbitant, and there has been work done with the Office of Fair Trading to see if the market is working or not. There are very few players and the costs are very high.
'It is outrageous that none of the energy companies are here. It is not hard for these organisations to come and talk to you about what you can do to keep the energy bills down and what they could do to help you.'
Mr Lamb highlighted government initiatives including the warm home discount scheme and the 'green deal', which could help domestic users with energy bills and insulation costs.
Marion Morse, training manager for the Citizens Advice Bureau, said more than four million households across the country were not connected to the gas grid, and 1.6 million used heating oil.
'It is very clear that the issues are about availability, cost and energy efficiency,' she said. 'We should actively pursue the idea of regulating the off-gas suppliers in the same way we regulate gas and electricity suppliers. Those customers deserve the same protection.'
Linda Gill, information and advice manager at Age UK Norfolk, said more than �50,000 had been donated since November to the Surviving Winter Appeal, backed by the Bishop of Norwich, the Norfolk Community Foundation, Age UK and the EDP.
Of that sum, she said about �30,000 had already been awarded to more than 200 vulnerable households to help with energy bills. William Burton, eastern regional director of the Countryside Alliance said 17pc of rural households were 'fuel poor', compared to 12pc in urban areas.
'Rural households are much more likely to be fuel poor than those urban areas,' he said. 'Every time we get to these statistics the rural households seem to be twice as worse off.
'We recognise that fuel poverty is one of the greatest challenges facing rural households in this financial climate. For many, the consequences of fuel poverty are ill comfort, ill health and debt.'