Spend some time to save some money, Norfolk households urged

Families across the region are being urged to shop around to increase their disposable income and ease their financial woes with a New Year price war under-way between the Big Six energy providers.

Yesterday E.On become the fifth of the big six energy companies to announce price cuts for either gas or electricity in the past few days.

EDF Energy were the first major supplier to announce a price cut on Wednesday, shortly followed by British Gas, Npower and then Scottish and Southern.

The drop in prices will be a welcome relief for household budgets in Norfolk and Waveney which were stretched to the point of collapse following rate increases in 2011.

But the decreases will not come close to cancelling out the large double-digit price rises for both gas and electricity that were introduced last year by major energy suppliers (see table).

Figures released by independent price comparison website uSwitch have also revealed nearly four in 10 people will be financially worse off this year with almost half seeing their disposable income reduced.

It comes as the AA branded 2011 as the 'year from hell' for fuel prices and does not foresee any improvement in the situation this year.

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Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, said: 'Now that three of Britain's biggest energy suppliers have moved to cut their prices, the rest of the big six will be feeling the pressure to follow suit.

'Households can help to mitigate the impact of higher bills by shopping around for a cheaper deal and cutting back on the amount of energy they use by being more energy efficient.

'Moving to dual fuel, paying by direct debit and signing up to a competitively priced deal will save you up to �420 – far more than price cuts will give you based on today's evidence.'

Household budgets were hit hard by price hikes in energy and water bills last year as well as increases in VAT and fuel duty. A year of rising inflation also heavily impacted family life.

Lynda Pither, from the charity Home-start, which supports parents across Norfolk, said: '2011 was very difficult for families and it was tough for them to even make ends meet.

'They are struggling financially, are worried about being made redundant and concerned about the loss of jobs across the country.

'Families don't see things are going to get any better anytime soon and are fearful of what might happen this year, which would make it tough for them to keep going.

'One thing we noticed last year was the amount of families who have either gone down to one car or have had to get rid of their car or cars because of how much it costs to run a car nowadays.'

She added: 'Looking to the future, parents with teenagers are worried about the current level of youth unemployment and how their children are ever going to be able to find work.'

The increases and rising living costs continue to heavily impact on some of the region's elderly.

Edith Pocock, president of the Norfolk and Norwich Pensioners' Association, said: 'A lot of pensioners are very worried about what might happen this year after last year.

'The VAT and fuel duty increases had a massive impact on pensioners, particularly with things like travel and getting about and I noticed there weren't as many outings by coach for pensioners in 2011.

'Things are getting very expensive and it has got to the stage where people are having to really consider whether to buy things they need or get things repaired which they never used to. People are also worried about what might happen to council rates.

'At one time we used to have regular meetings and people would drive from across the county to get to them. Now we find we can't hold meetings because people can't afford the petrol or even to run a car and the rates have gone up for the halls we used to use.

'For a lot of the pensioners in Norfolk in their 80s and 90s, look at what they went through with the second world war and the shortages after it. Surely they deserve a good retirement.'

VAT rose from 17.5pc to 20pc in January last year with petrol, food and phone bills the hardest hit. The 0.76p a litre hike in fuel duty was the third increase in less than a year when it came into force.

Households were also hit by a rise in Insurance Premium Tax from 5pc to 6pc — charged across all insurance products. The rise added �2.09 to the average buildings insurance policy and �1.11 to contents a year. Car insurance also rose by more than �10.

Business leaders have also spoken of a tough year for retailers, but feel 2012 could be good for businesses with plenty of opportunities in Norfolk to help them grow.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: 'It was very difficult for businesses and retailers last year.

'For retailers, the rate increases and general rise in living costs meant people were thinking twice before buying. They shopped around more and did more of their shopping online, but businesses are determined to battle through and make it work for them despite how tough it is.

'It's not easy and getting financing is still a major problem but there are significant opportunities for businesses in Norfolk going forward.

'We are also holding an event called Opportunity 2012 in March where we will bring together opportunities for businesses under one roof at Norwich City Football Club.'

Sarah Cordey, from the British Retail Consortium, said: 'Last year was very difficult for retailers because there was very little growth despite heavy discounting.

'At the start of any year we would expect people to tighten their belts having just enjoyed Christmas but we are seeing the continuation of high level discounting and promotion.'

But she added: 'There are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic this year. It is widely regarded that inflation is on its way down with no VAT rise and the government postponing the first fuel duty levy increase. Global commodities are also going down in price which will help keep prices down.

'What we really need to see this year is the improvement in consumer confidence, which is a hard thing to manufacture.

'But if people are happy with their finances and their jobs and see evidence of the country's economy improving, consumer confidence will rise.

'We need more talk about growth and investment this year and less of the talk of cuts that we heard in 2011.'

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