Northern Ireland’s shocking levels of fuel poverty will come under sharp scrutiny today at a high-profile event in Belfast.
Representatives from businesses, trade unions, local councils and consumer groups will be among those who descend on the Ulster Hall to discuss the contentious issue — which is now believed to affect a staggering one in two households here.
Acting under one umbrella group — the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition — their main objective will be to find ways to eradicate the problem.
Statistics from the latest Housing Conditions Survey showed that in 2009, 44% of households (302,000) were in fuel poverty.
Not only is this one of the highest rates in northern Europe, it is three times as high as England and almost double the rate in Scotland.
However, it is now estimated that with rising fuel prices, the recent cold winters and the current economic climate, fuel poverty levels have risen above 50%.
Northern Ireland households also face higher annual energy bills than anywhere else in the UK, spending, on average, almost £350 more.
Most of them are also hugely dependent on home heating oil and therefore subject to wild price fluctuations of up to 40% (or £161).
Today’s event represents the official launch of the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition’s Election Manifesto for the Assembly Elections.
Its aim is to provide a platform for key messages, as well as an opportunity for Assembly candidates to share ideas with coalition members.
Pat Austin, who is the director of National Energy Action NI, said urgent action is needed to deal with the worsening problem of fuel poverty.
He added: “Research clearly shows that fuel poverty can damage quality of life and health as well as impose wider costs on the community, as cold homes increase the likelihood of ill health.”
Around 100 organisations have signed up to the new group and they are urging the new Assembly to act before the cost of energy becomes simply unaffordable for the vast majority of households in Northern Ireland.
A range of topics will be discussed at the event, by various guest speakers, including those from National Energy Action NI, Age NI and Church Action on Poverty (NI).
Macmillan Cancer Support and the Age Sector Platform will also be represented.
In March 2011, the Department for Social Development launched a new fuel poverty strategy for Northern Ireland, committed to its eradication.
If you would like to sign up to the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Coalition, visit www.fuelpovertycoalition.org.uk