thousands of Larne households enduring winter in the grip of fuel poverty are to be offered an initiative that helps to spread the cost of home heating oil.
An oil saving stamps scheme which has spared pensioners and families all over Northern Ireland the choice of turning up the thermostat or doing without other essentials will soon be available in Larne.
The scheme enables people to buy £5 stamps to help meet the spiralling cost of oil and it is overdue in a borough with some of the highest levels of fuel and pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland.
It is reckoned that the rate of fuel poverty locally is well above the 43 per cent of households quoted in 2009 for Larne, Carrickfergus and Ballymena. Households in fuel poverty are those that need to spend more than 10 per cent of income to keep their home in a satisfactory condition.
Age NI estimates that more than 2,100 Larne people aged 60 and over are living in poverty – the third-highest rate in the Province.
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There are no statistics that tell exactly how many people in the borough are living in cold, damp homes because they cannot afford to heat them, but the numbers are certainly rising given the effects of recession on the three main factors that drive fuel poverty - income, energy cost and energy efficiency of homes.
Newer homes will have been fitted with energy-saving features, but they account for a small proportion of housing. Around £37 million is available annually for improvements in older properties, whether they are privately-owned or Northern Ireland Housing Executive stock. However, despite grants like the DSD-funded Warm Homes Scheme and the NI Sustainable Energy Programme in the private sector and the Housing Executive’s Heating Replacement Scheme, fuel poverty is still rising in Northern Ireland.
The oil stamp saving scheme presently helps people in Carnlough, Glenarm, Ballycarry and Islandmagee to budget for heating oil and it is proposed to extend it to Larne town and areas such as Glynn and Millbrook. Larne Borough Council has received £1,500 from the Public Health Agency to expand availability locally by helping to identify new retail outlets and printing card and stamps.
The scheme will be administered by the St Vincent de Paul charity which already operates it successfully in Carnlough and Glenarm and recently carried out a pilot scheme in Whitehead, Ballycarry and Islandmagee.
People in the Antrim, Newtownabbey, Moyle, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Cookstown and Magherafelt areas use fuel stamps and Carrick council is set to launch a scheme covering the whole borough.
Last week, the Assembly agreed a £26 million package to fund one-off winter fuel allowance payments to 250,000 people in the new year. People in receipt of pension credits, and those receiving or recently in receipt of cancer treatment will get £100 each; those on Income Support, Job Seekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance will receive £75 each.
Meanwhile, the Larne Poor Coal Fund, operated by the council over many years to help small numbers of local people in winter, will not pay out this year.
The charitable fund depends on annual dividends, which have decreased in value substantially since 2006. Minutes of a confidential council debate reveal that it has been resolved to withhold the issue of vouchers this year and officials are to “review the situation and examine how the fund could be used most effectively in the future”.