Over 2,000 Derry & Strabane homes to get new Council costs crisis money

Residents in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area in need of support this winter due to soaring energy prices will be able to get £100 towards their home heating oil, an electricity top up and two £49 top ups for gas if they meet certain criteria.

There was unanimous support from all parties for the new Council-led scheme, with members agreeing that council should do all they can to help those in need.

A new Hardship Fund of £258,000 is scheduled to open in the week beginning October 17 and anyone in need of assistance can contact local support organisations in their areas, any of the three advice service partners with the council or self refer to have their eligibility checked against criteria approved by the Council’s Health and Community Committee.

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If a household meets the criteria, it is sent to Council’s Fuel Payment Partner for processing. A charity partner will then secure the energy for the household so no one will be given £100 cash.

Councillor Sandra Duffy, Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council hosted a public rally in Guildhall Square on Saturday to highlight the Cost of Living Crisis. Picture Martin McKeown. 24.09.22

Aontú councillor Emmet Doyle felt, that having spoken to a number of support organisations and campaign groups, that the criteria outlined was ‘very broad’. He added: “It was felt by some that rather than the full list of criteria we have, we should keep it to households with an income under £40,000 because effectively that covers everything else and the last thing we want to do is confuse people.”

The eligibility criteria is any one or more of the following: (i) A member of the household is entitled to Free School Meals; (ii) The household is in debt with an energy provider; (iii) There is a vulnerable person in the household; (iv) A member of the household has recently become unemployed; (v) A member of the household is on a zero hour contract; and (vi) The gross annual income of the household is less than £40,000.

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Responding to councillor Doyle, Oonagh McGillion, Director of Legacy said: “The whole idea of having as much criteria is to make  it as discretionary as possible because of the situation we find ourselves in for an emergency. On that basis I would propose all the criteria be kept because it’s the referral that’s coming forward so the individual themselves don’t have to define which of the criteria they best fit. It will be the advice service providers who will assist identifying if they are eligible or not.”

Calling out Stormont and Westminster for their lack of support, SDLP councillor Rory Farrell offered his party’s full support for the recommendations: “It’s very clear that families across this city and district are feeling the impact of the cost of living crisis. Inflation is rampant, the cost of food and fuel and energy is going through the roof and the support from Westminster has been negligible, support from Stormont has been non existent so it’s important that  we as a council do as much as we can with the limited resources that we have at our disposal.

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Councillor Sandra Duffy, Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council hosted a public rally in Guildhall Square on Saturday to highlight the Cost of Living Crisis. Picture Martin McKeown. 24.09.22

“We’ve spent a lot of time developing this. We’ve had committees, we’ve had a Hardship Working Group and we’ve got here. Is it perfect? No. Is it going to help people? Most definitely.

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“The scheme that we have is going to help about 2,500 households across our city and district but we have to accept that there are powers out there in Stormont and in Westminster that have much deeper pockets than this council and they aren’t doing enough to help people who are facing fuel poverty, that are trying to survive through this cost of living crisis.”

DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney spoke about the importance of getting the £100 to those in need, as Alliance Rachael Ferguson raised her concerns for some constituents.

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“We are looking at a dire winter and I don’t know how some families are going to cope with the increase in costs of gas, electric and home heating oil,” she said. “Again council is stepping into the void from the political Assembly not being up and council are trying to do what they can.”

SDLP councillor Brian Tierney asked officers to check if news that Choice Housing are offering all tenants help and support was correct. He said: “I’ve been made aware that Choice Housing are offering £100 towards electricity, £98 towards gas and 200 litres of home heating oil. If this is something that is genuinely coming from Choice Housing then I think council should be doing all we can to promote that and making sure we are spreading the word and getting it out to Choice Housing tenants because it will inevitably take some pressure from our Hardship Fund. Can we check if it is genuine?”

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The officer agreed to do so before the recommendations were unanimously agreed.

The approved recommendations are that: (i) £50,000 is allocated to Advice Service Provision to include any additional support required in the delivery of the Discretionary Emergency Fuel Support Programme; (ii) £258,000 is allocated to the Discretionary Emergency Fuel Support Programme which will be delivered through a referral system with support provided by the Advice Service Providers in receipt of an SLA with the council; (iii) Quotations are sought for the appointment of Fuel Payment Partner; (iv) Any changes to the listed eligibility criteria in Section 3.6 can be approved by the Hardship Fund Working Group; (v) The council should write to all energy companies seeking financial donations to local charities to assist with the cost of living crisis; (vi) The council should write to the Department of Communities and the Department for Education to seek concessionary travel for school pupils.

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By Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter