Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) agriculture spokesperson, Tom Elliott MLA, has called for a review of regulation on fuel services provision as he seeks to raise awareness of the fuel poverty challenge that exists in rural areas of Northern Ireland.

“With the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, it would not surprise anybody to know that rural communities reliant on heating oil are being disproportionately hit,” he said.

“Around 82% of the population who reside in rural areas are heavily reliant on heating oil, which trades in an unregulated market.

“This is further exasperated due to the size and age of some rural buildings which are less fuel efficient, therefore this leads to more costs for the rural community.”

Elliott claims that this will negatively affect the local economy of rural areas, as less spending power by the consumer leads to less money being put back into the local economy.

Rural fuel poverty

Elliott continued: “It is important that government should review regulation of the fuel services provision to ensure that severe spikes in fuel costs can be avoided.”

The rate of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland currently stands at 22%. There are three factors coming into play – income, the cost of energys and the domestic energy efficiency of houses.

There are two schemes currently operating, both managed by the north’s Department of the Communities, which specifically addresses the challenge of fuel poverty.

The Boiler Replacement Scheme is for owner-occupiers whose total gross income is less than £40,000 and is to help with the cost of replacing boilers which are 15 years old or older with new boilers.

The Affordable Warmth Scheme is the Department for Communities’ scheme for addressing fuel poverty in the private sector.

It is delivered across Northern Ireland on behalf of the department by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and 11 local councils. Households that have a total gross annual income of less than £20,000 can apply.

Measures are also in place to temporarily increase the Winter Fuel Payment lump sum available in Northern Ireland by £300 for winter 2023/2024.

Normally, people aged 66-79 receive lump sums up to £200 as a winter fuel payment, and people aged 80 or over receive up to £300, depending on their circumstances.

However, last November saw the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer announce further support to help with the cost-of-living crisis. This includes an increase of £300 to winter fuel payments for the winter of 2023/2024.