MP calls for an end to fuel poverty in Devon and Cornwall
A Westcountry MP has called for an end to the dominance of big energy companies as the "shameful" extent of fuel poverty in the region was laid bare.
Figures from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) revealed almost one in every five households (17.3%) were defined as fuel poor – when more than 10% of their income is spent on heat and power.
The latest statistics showed 125,364 householders in Devon and Cornwall struggled to pay their fuel bills, down a fraction (0.1%) on the previous year.
The highest rate of fuel poverty was in West Devon (22%), followed by Torridge (21.4%) and the South Hams (19.6%). The figures, from 2011, come as thousands of the region's most vulnerable residents face an agonising choice every winter between fuel and food.
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Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw called on the Government to ease the financial burden on the region's pensioners – thousands of whom live alone in isolated parts of Devon and Cornwall.
"Labour would break up the dominance of the 'Big 5' energy companies to drive down prices and abolish the regulator Ofgem, replacing it with one that stands up for the consumer," said Mr Bradshaw, a former cabinet minister.
"We would also require companies to put over-75s on the lowest tariff, reducing their bills by up to £200 a year."
The price of household energy has outstripped the rise in incomes in recent years, leaving tens of thousands in the region struggling to pay back huge arrears on their energy bills.
Mr Bradshaw said: "People's incomes are being squeezed while energy prices have soared. It is shameful that in a country as rich as ours so many people still can't afford to heat their homes and we're going backwards after the progress made with the last Labour Government."
Leading figures in the renewable energy industry have warned the South West faces a doubling of electricity bills as Government incentives to produce clean energy drive up the price of burning fossil fuels.
Merlin Hyman, chief executive of industry body RegenSW, said "most people" in the industry expect energy prices to increase by 100% over the next few years.
Sarah Newton, Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth, said green power would halt the soaring pace of energy bills in the long term.
"If we are to liberate households from rising energy prices, we must first liberate our energy supply from the international carbon market.
"To do this we must develop a comprehensive domestic energy package, drawing on a range of renewable technologies," she said.
A collective buying scheme designed to drive down energy bills was launched in February following success of a similar scheme in Cornwall last year.
The Duchy scheme generated total savings of £160,000, with participants making savings of around £135 each.
Age UK estimates there are approximately 3.5 million people aged over 60 in fuel poverty in the UK – around half of all fuel poor households – with numbers remaining "stubbornly high".
Colin Fletcher, chief executive in Devon, warned further price rises would be a "huge burden" on older people and would cause "serious hardship" for many.
Michelle Mitchell, Age UK's charity director general, said: "Behind the statistics lie many stories of real human suffering as people face the misery of not being able to afford to keep warm."
"The solution to fuel poverty has to be in making our homes more energy efficient so we get real benefit from the fuel we use."
The Government figures showed the number of nationwide households struggling to pay their energy bills dropped to its lowest level since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008.
DECC said there were 4.5 million people in fuel poverty in 2011, down from 250,000 in the previous year.
Energy and climate change minister Greg Barker said: "I am very encouraged by this modest fall in the number of households living in fuel poverty.
"But there is absolutely no room for complacency. There is still an unacceptably high number of people living in cold, damp, unhealthy conditions."