Derry reps warn cost of living ‘spiralling out of control’ as oil, gas, food prices soar

Households across the north west are being severely impacted by huge hikes in bills with further oil and gas price rises imminent, local Councillors have warned.

The soaring cost of energy has left many people forced to make the choice of whether to ‘heat or eat’ and the news that gas prices are to increase again, and are likely to remain high for at least 36 months, saw Sinn Fein councillor Conor Heaney state that ‘the cost of living crisis is out of control’.

The Foyleside Councillor was speaking following a presentation to the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee by Mr John French, Chief Executive, and Mr Kevin Shiels, Retail Director, of the Utility Regulator. 

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Colr. Heaney’s concerns for constituents in Derry and Strabane were echoed by all committee members.

Households are feeling the effects as oil and gas prices continue to rise.

Firmus Energy has now announced its prices will increase by more than a third. The 33.57% increase will take effect from February 24, 2022 making it Firmus’ fourth increase since last spring.

Addressing the chamber, Mr French said: “None of us want to be here but I think we need to be very frank about where the projections are going forward. It is very clear this is a crisis many of us haven’t experienced in our lifetime. The last time there was something similar to this was the 1970s oil crisis.

“We are in a period of really high prices which is going to affect people on benefits, the working poor and businesses and it’s upsetting to see the impacts that this will have.”

Mr French went on to explain the Regulator’s role was to ensure the market works effectively and efficiently.  “We do work with the companies, we do check their figures,” he said. “The companies in terms of Firmus, SSE Electricity  and Power NI, cannot put price increases through willy nilly, they’ve got to prove to us that they are running the business effectively so we look at every part of their business.” 

Following the presentation, councillor Conor Heaney described the situation as ‘depressing’.

He said: “It’s clear this cost of living crisis is out of control. All of our constituents and all of the people we represent are really, really suffering and struggling at the minute.

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“It was a bit depressing that this is likely to continue for the next 36 months and that is without a further escalation in this crisis that’s happened between Ukraine and Russia, largely out of our control and not being helped by the West in terms of ramping the situation up.”

Laying the blame at the door of Stormont for not dealing with the issue, Aontú Colr. Emmett Doyle said: “We have seen in recent months the inability of the Executive to address these issues by supporting people rather than giving money back to the centre.”

Colr. Doyle then asked Mr French: “Have you at any time been approached by, for example, the Department for Communities with regards to the support that they might provide to people? Have they approached you in any way to help model out how they are going to assist people?”

Mr French responded: “In terms of the NI Executive, we have been briefing everybody. Some of these price increases could have been seen from July/August going forward. We’ve been very clear with them that this is occurring and this isn’t a blip. The £55m Energy Payment Support Scheme will help some consumers through this winter period. We recognise that it doesn’t help all, especially the working poor. We are fortunate we have had a mild winter but going forward this is going to last at least 36 months so we need to start working together in partnership to see how we can look towards the next winter and the following winter. Some of these prices are starting to increase for delivery for next winter so the increases are here to stay. So we need to look at what can be done so we aren’t jumping from crisis to crisis.”

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Mr Shiels added: “The conversations are live and the new energy strategy released by the Department for Economy (DfE) and the action plan just last week was clear that there needs to be much more joined up work on energy affordability between DfC, DfE and the other stakeholders in NI.”

Proposing council call on the Communities Minister to accelerate the roll out of the Energy Payment Support Scheme, SDLP Colr. Rory Farrell spoke of the ‘crippling effect’ the spiralling energy costs were having. He said: “Stormont has a role to play in this and whilst I welcome Deirdre Hargey’s announcement about the £55 million for the Emergency Energy Support scheme that’s going to help households on means tested benefits right across the north, my honest assessment of that is these payments are coming out in mid-March and this next price hike is happening on February 24.

“The payments need to go out sooner. I also have concerns about the scheme itself. Households right across the north who are not on means tested benefits don’t benefit from the scheme but they face the same price hikes, they face the same pain in terms of funding energy bills but they have been forgotten about by this scheme, they are exempt.”

PBP Colr. Shaun Harkin described the situation as ‘alarming news’. DUP Alderman Maurice spoke of his ‘worry that we are moving into a very serious crisis with households’.

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UUP Ald. Ryan McReady added: “We are in a dire situation and unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to get any better. What’s on the table and being offered by the relevant departments in Stormont is welcome but it’s only a sticking plaster.”

By Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter