By Kirsty Morrison, interim CEO of Albyn Housing Society, an organisation that manages more than 3,700 properties in 70 communities across the Highlands.
As inflation rises beyond 6%, the soaring cost of living is becoming a real crisis. Many of our tenants at Albyn Housing Society were last week looking for chancellor Rishi Sunak to use his Spring Statement to announce measures to reduce living costs, rather than instating a price cap that keeps energy prices at rates that some people already cannot pay.
Albyn Housing Society owns and manages 3,700 properties in 70 communities across the Highlands. Hundreds of our customers are struggling with energy costs, fuel and food leading to unprecedented rising living costs across the board. While we welcome any support with these costs, the Spring Statement does little to help our tenants in Highland communities, many of whom live on low incomes.
It could be tempting to assume that everyone is facing these rising costs equally or, to quote the former chancellor George Osborne, “We are all in this together”. However, that simply is not the case, as many residents in the north of Scotland, who are effectively paying the equivalent of a Highland Energy Tax, will testify.
The irony is that the Highland region produces the largest amount of renewable and conventional energy per head of population in the UK. Our tenants can just about see this energy being produced from their doorsteps through renewables and conventional oil and gas production. Despite that, residents here pay the highest energy costs per unit in the UK, up to 4p per unit more and with cooler temperatures, this energy is often needed more to heat and power homes. Most of the area we cover is not connected to gas supplies so our tenants have limited energy choices, which are often more expensive, including electric or oil systems.
At Albyn Housing we are being proactive in our approach to the energy crisis and we are working closely with Cairn Housing to develop joint approaches and initiatives across the region in the coming months. However, we have limited resources and funding, with many of our tenants seeking support. We have allocated funds, but with so many tenants in desperate need, this will not stretch as far as is necessary.
Following this disappointing Spring Statement and given the cost of living crisis which is putting so many of our tenants at risk, we have created a five point action plan to help our residents. Firstly, we are calling on both Scottish and UK governments to prohibit energy companies from disconnecting electricity supplies due to non-payment of bills – at least until energy prices in the market stabilise.
Many of our tenants are clamouring for information on how to heat and power their homes most efficiently. Governments urgently need to provide either the staff or the finances to provide resources for extra energy advice and support within the home. Both these interventions would help residents across the country.
Closer to home, we must also ensure Highland communities are not discriminated against. We therefore want an urgent review into Scottish Government grant allocations and its criteria. Given the fact that rural communities are more geographically dispersed, we do not meet the community grant criteria, despite our services covering up to 70 communities and villages.
As energy is an issue for Westminster, we are campaigning for the UK Government to take action on the charges of power production and unit energy costs in Highland regions to ensure residents are not discriminated against by having to pay higher unit rates than the rest of the UK. In the meantime, we are calling on UK ministers to provide revenue to subsidise Highland residents until a permanent solution can be found.