Households struggle to meet costs as fuel poverty income gap widens by £200
Westcountry householders struggling with energy costs face a gap of more than £500 between their bills and what they can afford to pay – an increase of almost £200 on a decade ago.
A new measure for fuel poverty, highlighting families facing both high energy bills and low incomes, showed 211,000 households in the South West were struggling to meet costs, down from 252,000 in 2003.
The new system records fewer households in fuel poverty than the previous measure, which highlighted those who had to pay more than 10% of their income to heat their homes properly.
Under the old measure, numbers of fuel poor more than doubled from 139,000 in 2003 to 336,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available.
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Both methods show a drop in fuel poverty between 2010 and 2011.
But the gap between what people can afford to pay and their actual fuel bills has jumped alarmingly since 2003. In the South West it stands at £507, up from £306 in 2003, the second highest figure in the country behind the North West, at £554, and significantly higher than the national average of £438.
Pensioners' campaigner Bob Turner, from Exeter, said: "Year after year, irrespective of the profits the companies are making, we just end up paying more and more and more.
"It is right across the board. People on low incomes are finding it increasingly difficult to manage. Peoples' standard of living, their quality of life, is steadily being eroded.
"There is little or no help out there and everything else, like food, is going up as well. The old adage of 'eating or heating' is becoming increasingly true for many, many more pensioners who are also facing another few years of low interest rates on what little savings they may have left."
The old 10% measure shows the number of households struggling with energy costs in England stands at 3.2 million. It also showed the greatest pressure was on people aged between 60 and 74 with more than a quarter classed as being in fuel poverty.
Under the new measure, the number in fuel poverty has stayed roughly constant in the past decade, at around 2.4 million or 11% of households,
St Ives Lib Dem MP Andrew George said people were "cynical" of any government which "adjusts its statistical base to come up with a less uncomfortable figure".
He said the Government had taken action to try to address the issue by keeping winter fuel payments and introducing the Warm Homes Discount and Green Deal. Energy companies were also being forced to making their billing and tariffs clearer.
But he added: "In rural areas like ours, the problem is also the price of heating oil and bottled gas for those who aren't on the main system for which they pay through the nose. There may be households who are not on the poverty line but are forced below it because of their astronomical fuel bills."
Energy Minister Michael Fallon said the new "better targeted definition" would help to "support to the most vulnerable in society".
He added: "Two million households received cuts to their bills last winter under the Warm Homes Discount, and the budget will continue to increase each year, up to £320 million for 2015-16.
"We are pressing the big six to make sure the poorest households aren't stuck on expensive tariffs, to simplify their rates and make it easier to switch."