Question 2. The people of Caithness are facing a cost of living crisis what measures would you take to help support the most vulnerable particularly the elderly, disabled and young families.
Thurso & Northwest Caithness
We face the worst cost of living crisis since the 1970’s. Locally, I will continue to support the excellent work coordinated by Caithness Poverty Action Group, and all of its members, but at the same time I will apply pressure to politicians in both Edinburgh and London to take the steps needed to deal with the root causes. As always, the most vulnerable suffer the most – often older people, those with disabling conditions, and young families – and real help is needed. Cuts to income tax are essential, as are changes to the tax thresholds, and increasing disability benefits and State Pensions to a realistic level, reducing VAT and Fuel Duty, drastically reducing energy prices (and transmission costs), removing the so-called “Green Levy”,and applying fuel cost caps for those living “off grid”. We were promised a “National energy Company” back in 2017, delivering “at cost” or “low cost” energy to the people of Scotland – it is now 2022. We need a two-pronged approach – local and national, and I will drive both forward.
As chair of Thurso Community council I have attended Caithness Poverty Action Group meetings and heard the scale of the problem. Many are going to have to choose between food or heat. That is unacceptable. If elected I would like to get more actively involved with the Poverty group. I was part of TCDT organising and managing the community response during Covid lock down. I would like to see something similar introduced for this cost of living crisis and would hope all the newly elected councillors would come together and produce some kind of ‘Taskforce’ to support the vulnerable groups. Not everyone, especially those within the vulnerable group, is online, I would be willing to help them access online services like – homeheatingadvice.scot.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have announced a Cost of Living Rescue Plan to help households feeling the impact of soaring bills; I support this plan.
Access to Benefits is becoming a vital part of at least reducing poverty. CAB need support to fully reopen their offices and crucial services. CVG led the way during the pandemic and I believe that the way this was achieved in Caithness was exemplary and is being built on now, as we face surging inflation.
Highland Council needs to stop all non-essential expenditure- especially on the many Inverness centred projects. The new Council needs to do the basics first- in 2021 I resigned as Vice Chair of the Corporate Resources (Finance) Committee because the Council, scandalously ,were proposing a massive reduction in Roads expenditure- even with what is currently being spent the Council’s road conditions are deteriorating- and fast.
Highland Council must start robustly fighting the Scottish Government’s inadequate funding for rural areas, which has been steadily eroded over many years. The Gills Bay independent ferry service shows us how things can be achieved without expensive, politically correct, cosmetic add ons to every project, such as complicated bi fuel engines and electric police cars.
The consequences of this crisis are frightening, and it angers me to think about anyone in Caithness facing the choice of being warm or hungry in the 21st century. The real solutions sit with national government rather than local government. The contrast between Scottish Government policy and UK Government policy is glaringly obvious with the recent SG increase of a further £5 to the ‘game-changing’ Scottish Child Payment – bringing the total payment to £25 per week per child at the end of the year.
This means the SNP Government’s package of five family benefits for low-income families, including the increased Scottish Child Payment, now totalling over £10,000 to low-income families by the time a first child turns 6, and £9,700 for subsequent children. In contrast, families in England and Wales receive less than £1,800 for the first child and under £1,300 for subsequent children.
State pensions levels in the UK are in the lower third of modern democratic countries across the globe and ordinary men and women that have worked all their lives face increasingly difficult choices. So, we need to expect national policy change and that was not forthcoming at the last UK Governments budget statement.
If elected I will be pursuing my recent call to establish a Highland renewable energy group and one simple aim of that will be to reduce energy costs for our Highland communities and businesses.
I will also support local groups such as CAB, Caithness Poverty Action Group, and our Caithness community partnership to combat and mitigate these circumstances in any way possible.
We need urgent action, targeted at those who need it most. This must come from the Scottish and UK Governments but local Councillors should be the ones leading the charge in calling for action. I would like to see an immediate reduction in VAT on energy bills, a cap for off-grid fuel systems and the redirecting of funds from the smart meter rollouts going to discounted energy bills instead.
Although the Highland Council has very limited powers to directly alleviate the cost of living crises, it does have the ability to reduce the pressure on household bills; reducing the various fees and taxes which have been increased every year by the local authority since 2017.
The year-on-year increases for all Council services and the hikes to your Council tax, supported by the Lib Dem, Labour and Independent Administration have forced more and more households into financial difficulty, particularly those on fixed incomes.
It is never acceptable that people make the choice to heat or eat and I will work with every party, government and agency to reduce the pressure on families and provide greater financial certainty during this painful time.
There are many others disadvantaged groups, such as middle-aged single men or the low-income workers.
Plus, the price squeeze is going to affect everyone. I am a regular attender of forums and stakeholder group meetings, and it is anticipated that come this autumn many people who previously did not require assistance now suddenly will find themselves doing so.
It is essential we start preparing for this. Promotion of support networks and more clear signposting of assistance will be required.
Wick & East Caithness
The cost of living is now taking us into a place we have not seen since the 70’s and it requires action to ensure that people are claiming everything they may be entitled to. The council already runs a welfare benefits checking set up and it is imperative that it is used to maximum effect to ensure any income that can be claimed is not missed in tandem with the Citizens Advice Bureaux we should be able to make sure nothing is missed. This may require more resources and staff time being allocated to deal with the crisis as it worsened. The Caithness community has already shown it can act when called on as it did recently for the pandemic and it wil take all of us working together to try to make sure people do not drop through the cracks.
I will plead to the Scottish Government to intervene and take stock of the depressing situation we have confronting ourselves and act accordingly to get these families a decent standard of living.
The Council has significant powers to help people with the cost of living crisis. Operation of the Welfare Fund being just one. I do know that Council budgets are stretched so we need to look at new ways to raise revenue in order to distribute it to those most in need. We can also work with Community Funds from wind farms for example and look to put funds to good use to help people facing fuel poverty. We need to look at ways in which we can help draw down funds available for insulation and take a proactive approach to reach out to people struggling, recognising that they will be least able to do that for themselves at this time.
By promoting more powers to the local councillors this will enable councillors to support, funding and access more facilities/benefits/training and services to allow more groups, charities or projects to have the skills and funding to help alleviate the pressure of the cost of living increases in Caithness. I will also work closely with MP Jamie Stone and local groups to campaign for a price cap on oil and tank gas to bring down people’s energy bills.
Most of the pressures people face from the cost of living are outwith the control of the Council, but there is still a lot Councillors have a direct impact on. At every Council Budget, the Scottish Conservatives have always brought proposals to keep the council tax increase under the rate of inflation. The Lib Dems, SNP and the Independent Party of Councillors have voted us down every time. In 2021, we even proposed a Council tax refund because the Council increased the tax to fund road repairs which never happened and amassed reserves in the bank of over £40m.
It is heart-breaking that many of the most vulnerable in our community continually face challenges in meeting the cost of living. So many are having to chose between eating and heating.
A large contributor to the cost-of-living issues that our communities face include rising costs of fuel and energy, and rising costs of food. Inflation is at its highest rate since many years. We need to see action on fuel and energy costs. It remains painfully unacceptable that we produce a huge amount of energy here in Caithness yet we are subjected to some of the highest tarrifs in the UK with the highest connection costs for grid access. Rising food costs should also be a focus for government in respect of controlling inflation.
At a local level, I’ve been looking to see how we can expand the district heating system in Wick which is one of the cheapest heating systems available to the most vulnerable in our community. If I’m re-elected I will continue to push this forward. I’m also committed to investment in local power generation including solar panels on the council’s housing stock. I’ve been involved in groups that support the most vulnerable in our society to see what we can do to improve accessibility to support funding to improve accessibility, aids, adaptions and adaptations – that includes Highland Council and I’ve been working with the community planning partnership and the Caithness Poverty Action Group to support work that looks to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. I’ve been involved in the tenant forums listening to and acting on the issues they highlight which affect the most vulnerable in our society. I’ll continue to do all of this if I’m re-elected.
At a Council level, I’m commited to implementing anti-poverty strategies that will focus on the needs of the most vulnerable within our communities and help community planning partnerships meet their legal duty to reduce socio economic inequality in specific localities including Caithness. I’m committed to working with the Council and NHS Highland to improve adult social care support at home where most of the members of our community want to see it being delivered – this includes all aspects of community home help and welfare support. These measures are all part of mitigating the cost-of-living crisis and essential support necessary for the most vulnerable in our communities.