Highland Council is to consider a £3.2million package of proposals to help ease the impact of the cost of living crisis on its residents.
In the latest published figures from the Scottish Household Survey Report 2019, 33% of households in the Highlands were fuel poor, compared to a Scottish average of 24%.
And 22% of Highland households were in extreme fuel poverty, compared to a Scottish average of 12%. This survey predates the current energy price crisis, so the current scale in Highland is likely much larger.
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Members will be asked to allocate one-time funding of £3.223 million from the council’s unrestricted reserves for the provision of direct support and community-led initiatives, under a number of recommendations at next week’s Highland Council meeting.
Using these unrestricted reserves, it is proposed to make one-time payments of £145 each to approximately 17,400 council tax payers who benefit from some form of reduction in their council tax bills through a reduction of means-tested municipal tax or exemptions from municipal tax, depending on personal circumstances.
Members will also be asked to agree to an extension of free school meal payments to cover weekends during the remaining school holidays until Easter 2023.
The Highland Council also intends to learn from the experiences of the pandemic and proposes to establish a Highland-wide grant fund to help communities respond to the cost of living crisis.
Community-led support allows for a local response to meet local needs that will complement any individual support payments.
Grants of up to £10,000 per organization would be made available for the purpose of this grant fund to enable community groups to provide local activities and support.
The criteria proposed for the fund are as follows:
- Provide community support initiatives that provide food/activities
- Improve existing supply by extending local opening hours or introducing/increasing food supply
- Adapt the existing offer to meet identified local needs
- Reinforce or establish pantries or catering tables
- Members will also be asked to approve a recommendation to provide one-time funding of £0.050 million to FareShare to purchase food for distribution in the Highlands.
As well as the social services provided by the council’s social support team, the local authority funds Citizens Advice to provide advice on income maximisation, debt and housing. The council is also engaging with COSLA on the impacts of the crisis and considering the options available to local authorities to help.
Many municipal tenants in Highland are among the lowest income households, but face the highest energy costs due to utility company policies that limit social tenants to prepaid meters.
Preliminary work has taken place to model some of the potential measures to achieve efficient targeting of resources and the use of new technologies for heating. In the meantime, the Housing and Property Committee has approved the use of HRA balances of up to £160,000 this year to fund additional support to help tenants directly with special independent energy advice and access financial support.
Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner said: ‘One of the main aims of the wellbeing proposals presented in this report is to enable communities in the Highlands to eat, keep warm and continue to live in safety. in their homes.
“The proposals are intended to help alleviate significant pressures affecting households across the Highlands. We do not have the legal or fiscal powers to decide on the necessary legislative and structural changes, or financial support programs, to alleviate or remove the cost of living crisis for Highland residents. However, we will seek to work with the Scottish Government, with a view to engaging with utility companies to seek more preferential energy tariffs for social tenants in Highland.
He continued, “The board is also experiencing a cost crisis. We are under significant pressure on our finances, primarily due to the effects of the current surge in inflation. While we do all we can to care for the most vulnerable people in our communities, we also need to consider how we can cut our own purse strings to make ends meet.
“We are facing a potential overrun of £9.6m on the current year revenue budget and the report to the board projects a budget gap of £40.9m for 2023/24.
“Given the broader economic uncertainty, no absolute figures are provided for fiscal deviations in subsequent years, but deviations are expected to be large and of a similar magnitude to 2023/24 if high inflation persists.”
Measures already underway to deal with rising costs include reducing the board’s asset base and therefore reducing energy consumption. Rationalization of assets and a reduction in energy consumption will also help the local authority achieve its statutory net zero targets.
The council will continue to monitor the supports available from the UK and Scottish Government, fluctuations in the rate of inflation and wider factors which impact the cost of living for our residents and the council and further reports to the council will be provided in the coming months. .