Fire-fighting warnings for tough winter ahead

A WARNING has come that Fermanagh residents could be fighting financial fires come winter time if nothing is done to stop the cost of living crisis.
The stark message from citizens organisation, Community Advice Fermanagh (CAF) who provide free help and advice on a range of issues – including energy bills and rent arrears.
Welfare Rights Specialist and Assistant manager of CAF, Samantha Gallagher, says that the recent cap placed on energy bills by the Government has come too late with current utility bills at an all-time high.
Gallagher admits that more and more people are coming to CAF for help with many struggling to make ends meet and that come winter, the financial fires could be too great to be put out.
She said: “This week alone, we have seen a huge increase in people ringing us up worrying about their energy bills. There’s always been a steady increase over the weeks but in this week alone, we are now at a stage where we are seeing frightening levels of phone calls about people panicking over energy bills.
She also touched on increases in private rents in Fermanagh – “a trend that we’re sadly seeing at the minute.”
Couple that with rising bills she felt there is a level of panic in Fermanagh and anticipated that by the winter many people would be ‘fire-fighting.
“For those in work, when we’re say they’re fire-fighting, their wages are not increasing at the same level that inflation.
“Because of that, there are hidden costs such as going out to work –particularly driving there. Given Fermanagh’s unique circumstances where it is extremely rural, a lot of people are travelling a lot of miles in their own cars for return journeys to work, five days a week.
“That would be an area that we consider ‘fire-fighting’ because if you can’t afford to go to work, if your wages are not even allowing you to cover your basics such as food, rent and bills, paying for your fuel to travel to work becomes a big concern.
“The other flip of the coin is for the people who are not working. Their benefits are not in line with inflation and we would have concerns on how Universal Credit operates as a social security measure.
As well as energy bills, increased rents are also a major worry for Fermanagh residents.
“I can only speak for what’s happening in Fermanagh and not the North as a whole,” adds Gallagher, “but a rent freeze for private tenants as has been introduced in Scotland would be welcome.
“I had a gentleman speak to me who has a wife and three young children. Their rent has risen from £430 per moth up to £600. That’s a huge amount of money to be losing.”
As more people seek urgent help, Gallagher concedes that CAF’s resources are stretched to the full and are struggling to ensure everyone who comes to them receives the help they need.
She continued: “We are already operating on a waiting list capacity. So when you telephone our services, we operate a triage system. It’s no longer a first come, first served operation.
“And we haven’t started winter yet. We are doing all we can with the resources that we have – it would be lovely to have more resources as there would be so much more we could do if we had them.”
Electricity suppliers, Power NI and SSE Airtricity were contacted by The Fermanagh Herald to explain the recent high rises in energy bills. Both firms declined our invitation.

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The Fermanagh Herald is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
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