Heating grants for low income families, pensioners and the disabled have been suspended this week after the Government blew the budget. When the scheme is restored next year, its budget will be drastically smaller.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change confirmed that it had suspended payments after the £345 million annual budget for the Warm Front scheme was allocated to 170,000 households. Warm Front, the only government-funded scheme to tackle fuel poverty, pays out up to £3,500 – or £6,000 where there is oil central heating – to households that need help with insulation and heating. [more] Any applications that were made before December 15 will be granted and new funds will be made available in the new tax year beginning April 6, 2011. However, of the allocated grants 76,000 have yet to have had the work done and may have to wait until spring.
Campaigners are worried that those who will be without help to keep their homes warm will be faced with the choice between heating and eating this winter – likely to be the coldest in decades.Energyhelpline, a price comparison service, estimates that households will see December gas bills increasing by 47pc, leaving many struggling to make payments. Mark Todd, director of Energyhelpline, said: “January and February are traditionally higher usage months so bills are likely to soar – a chilling prospect for millions of households facing New Year VAT rises and general economic uncertainty.” Jenny Saunders, the chief executive of National Energy Action, the charity, said the timing of the announcement could not have been worse. She said: “This is extremely worrying, especially given that we are continuing to see sub-zero temperatures throughout the UK, which can be potentially fatal for the most vulnerable.” Michelle Mitchell, Age UK’s charity director, said that with an estimated 3.5 million older people living in fuel poverty, the cutbacks were a huge concern for many frail and vulnerable older people who desperately needed help. She said: “A better targeted scheme is well-needed and we are keen to find out more about the redesign of Warm Front when it reopens to new customers next year.”
In addition to the suspension in grants for this year, the Warm Front budget has been reduced for the next financial year to £110 million and for 2012/13 to £100 million. This could leave thousands of vulnerable households unable to get help under the scheme. Derek Lickorish, the chairman of the Government’s fuel poverty advisory group, called news of the cuts a “hammer blow” at a time of extreme cold weather and energy price rises. He called on the Government to “redouble its efforts to assist those most in need at this very difficult time”.
He said: “Funding cuts for the next two years mean there is going to be a serious shortfall in meeting the demand for help from thousands of vulnerable households. The poorest households need help now.”