Cold comfort for Eastbourne’s elderly as fuel bills go up

THOUSANDS of vulnerable pensioners face a daily struggle to heat their homes after the Government slashed annual winter fuel payments by 25 per cent.

There are currently an estimated 4,834 households here in Eastbourne which fall under the heading of living in fuel poverty – meaning almost 11 per cent of the town’s population cannot afford to heat their homes.

And that figure is almost certain to rise after the Coalition cut its financial support to pensioners by a quarter – with fuel grants dropping from a high of £400 to a new maximum of £300.

It also means that for many elderly people who rely on the cash to top-up their pensions, the looming winter months could lead to tough choices over whether to heat their homes or cut back on other vital outgoings, like food.

For some it may be even more serious.

Eastbourne sees 22 per cent more deaths between December and March than the previous four months (August to November) which is way above the south-east average of 17.8 per cent.

That means that this time last year, 121 more people died during winter than autumn – with local charities arguing these figures are influenced by the large elderly population in Eastbourne and the dangerous impact of cold weather on their general health.

And the controversial decision to cut back the winter fuel payments has been met anger from many of the town’s pensioners.

However, Stephen Lloyd, the MP for Eastbourne, refused to accept that his party and their Conservative bedfellows had let down the elderly and the vulnerable.

Defending the drop in winter fuel payments he told the Herald that all the Government was doing was sticking to a pre-election pledge, “What we are doing, despite the economic climate, is keeping our promise to retain them at the levels that Labour said they were going to have them at.

“They were put up by Gordon Brown as a one-off.

“I appreciate that from people’s perspective it is a cut.

“We have the price of heating fuels going up and this must be disappointing for many elderly people but I am glad that despite the economic challenges the Government has retained a non-means tested fuel allowance.

“I hope and believe many old people will realise this has been a very difficult decision for the Government and appreciate that while it may be £300 not £400, it is still a big help.

“A few years ago they got nothing.”

His comments are unlikely to go down well locally, particularly because the cut comes at the same time as energy bills have jumped again – leaving already up-against-it pensioners facing having to make less money pay for more expensive fuel.

National estimates suggest that for every one per cent increase in fuel prices, an extra 40,000 people are pushed into fuel poverty,

One local charity is doing its best to help pick up the slack left by the drop in allowance.

The Sussex Community Foundation has launched its Surviving Winter appeal, in which it asks well-off pensioners to donate their fuel payments to be redistributed to those in most need.

It has already been backed by the likes of Dame Vera Lynn. The former Forces favourite told the Herald, “It is a shocking fact that fuel poverty effects many thousands of older and vulnerable people in Sussex.”

The charity’s chief executive, Kevin Richmond, added, “It is vitally important to help the most vulnerable members of our community to get through the winter with dignity.”

l To donate to the appeal, visit www.localgiving.com/survivingwinter or call 01273 409440.

Anyone experiencing troubles heating their homes should ring the same number for advice and support.