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Election 2021: We asked the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross candidates what they would do tackle fuel poverty in a region that is known for producing a huge amount of renewable energy?

By Scott Maclennan

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In our final edition of our series asking the candidates about the key issues affecting the north ahead of Thursday's election to the Scottish Parliament we hear how each of the Holyrood hopefuls would tackle fuel poverty in the Highlands.

Tensions over on-shore wind turbines in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency have been mounting in recent years. The area produces a huge volume of renewable energy but locals have been over-charges as it is reimported to the region at greater cost.

On top of that prevailing weather conditions mean the region is generally colder so the need to switch on the heating is higher while being more expensive despite so much of that power being generated within a stone's throw of many households.

Marion Donaldson, Scottish Labour Candidate
Marion Donaldson, Scottish Labour Candidate

Marion Donaldson, Scottish Labour Candidate

I came into politics as a foodbank team leader, someone who has always been driven to help improve life chances for all, and it is to Scotland’s shame that in such an energy-rich nation more than a third of households are suffering the inhumane degradation of having to choose between eating or heating their homes.

At the same time, the governments leading our Nordic neighbours have managed to all but eradicate this scourge. As a former pharmacist, I am extremely interested in health and we all know the consequences of fuel poverty are misery, discomfort, ill health and debt.

The Scottish Government had said it will publish a fuel poverty strategy in 2020. However, the Government webpage states its development has been paused due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Will it continue to be paused while the slabs are being laid to pave the way for another Scottish independence referendum? Scottish Labour can unite the nation and do so much more including a commitment to eradicate fuel poverty by 2032.

I can do so much as your MSP if I am given the opportunity. I care about what happens in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, I am following my heart in standing for election in the Highlands where I was born and brought up, and if elected I will call for the further devolution of power and opportunity from the governments in both Edinburgh and London to the Highlands and Islands – because councils have a vital role to play in ending fuel poverty.

Scottish Labour will set up a National Housing Agency to coordinate the roll out of insulation, double glazing, boiler replacement and renewable heat; doubling the number of homes renovated annually to 80,000.

We will give grants to low and middle income households and provide interest free loans to others to pay for upgrades up to £18,000 targetting fuel poor and rural homes first.

That means the householders here in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross who need it the most will be among the first to be targeted with green energy systems and housing initiatives which will create up to 7500 jobs, reduce energy wastage and save Scots, up to thousands of pounds a year on their heating bills.

Struan Mackie, Scottish Conservative Candidate
Struan Mackie, Scottish Conservative Candidate

Struan Mackie, Scottish Conservative Candidate

Energy policy in this country broken. Something I have repeated all too often when representing my Far North Council Ward. Like many issues raised during this campaign, responsibility lies at every level of government and we desperately need joined-up thinking on how this nationally important issue can be tackled on the ground.

For decades, energy production was concentrated around industrial cities and metropolitan centres, but in recent years that has reversed. Our nation’s energy production whether wind, wave, tidal or nuclear now overwhelmingly takes place in rural communities and additional energy transmission costs are now demonstrably unfair. It is unacceptable that residents living a stone’s throw away from where power is created can live with some of the highest prices in the UK.

I have always called out my own side when not enough is being done to make the lives of my constituents better. Constraint payments (the payments made to companies to not produce electricity) are a national scandal and successive Westminster governments have failed to get a hold of this issue. It will require both the UK Government and the sluggish energy regulator Ofgem to recognise that rural areas are being short-changed and act now to create energy policy that is fit for the 21st century.

But high energy costs form only one part of the equation for the rise in fuel poverty with far too many homes being poorly insulated and having a heating system has reached the end of its useful life. Whilst there was an early rush to install air source heat pumps into Council and Housing Association homes a number of years ago, these systems were often far more costly and more unreliable than the back boilers they replaced.

We need to be more pragmatic about replacements and be mindful of the most cost-effective heating source for tenants. Having a heating system that has wonderful green credentials is meaningless if it costs the world to heat your house.

But every home is different, and as stated before a one-size-fits-all policy seldom works for our Far North communities. Instead, locally delivered schemes will look to find tailored solutions for our most inefficient homes. To that end the Scottish Conservatives are pledging a £2.5bn package to ensure that homes are kept warm, with an additional fund for rural homes that will ensure new-builds are too.

Molly Nolan, Scottish Liberal Democrat Candidate
Molly Nolan, Scottish Liberal Democrat Candidate

Molly Nolan, Scottish Liberal Democrat Candidate

Fuel poverty is a pervasive Highland issue that requires a multi-level response from both the UK and the Scottish Governments.

The Scottish Government has been unambitious in its fuel poverty strategy – it does not even go so far as to attempt to pull everyone out of fuel poverty – so the first step needs to be going back to the drawing board and analysing how we can be inclusive of all households in the drive to eliminate fuel poverty and reduce carbon emissions.

In Highland, that will mean a drive to insulate older homes and move people across to more efficient heating systems – both of which will require serious investment. One important part of the puzzle is making sure we have robust quality assurance in place across the country – this means training insulation fitters to operate with quality in mind, rather than encouraging them to meet unattainable targets.

The UK Government, meanwhile, needs to immediately end the practice of charging Highlanders extra for their electricity.

It is particularly unjust given that the region as a whole is a net exporter of renewable energy. Energy policy in the UK is fundamentally broken, and the only way to fix it is to work together.

As an MSP, I see it as my role to get all relevant government stakeholders round the table – the Scottish Government, the UK government and the Highland Council – to highlight these issues and chart a sensible and sustainable path forward.

Maree Todd, SNP Candidate
Maree Todd, SNP Candidate

Maree Todd, SNP Candidate

The energy system is broken.

In the Highlands & Islands we have long been penalised by an unjust charging regime that fails to account for our significant contribution to green energy, instead we subsidise the rest of the UK.

This area is reserved to Westminster. Ofgem’s justification against a national pricing regime is that it would see 1.8 million households face higher bills and only 0.7 million see a reduction.

This response inspires little confidence or indication for future change. Instead, the Highlands is expected to stick with the status quo.

The SNP in Government has been tasked with mitigating the consequences of this system, which has been a direct cause of rising fuel poverty rates in our rural communities.

We have provided support to those struggling to pay fuel bills through our Winter Support Fund and we have implemented the Energy Efficient Scotland programme to improve the use and management of energy across the country.

We have already introduced some of the most ambitious and comprehensive fuel poverty legislation in the world but we will go further. In eliminating poor energy efficiency as a driver of fuel poverty once and for all, we will invest 1.6 billion over the next Parliament to decarbonise the way we heat our homes and other buildings.

We will focus efforts on a new national public energy agency. This will work to accelerate the delivery of heat and energy efficient work, educate the public on the changes required, provide expert advice to national and local government and work with the public, private and third sectors to deliver transformative change.

The injustices of energy prices are yet another example of how the Union is failing us in the Highlands. I want to see fuel poverty as a thing of the past. If elected to serve Caithness, Sutherland & Ross, I will demand better for my constituents. I will fight for a fairer, more equal Scotland where no one is left behind.

Harry Christian from the Scottish Libertarian Party and Tina McCaffery from the Freedom Alliance did not submit a response to this issue.

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