Highland Council’s fuel and food support heralded a success

Thousands of Highland households are benefiting from the Highland Council’s local fuel and food support schemes.

The fuel support scheme was launched in the latter part of January last year.

Using COVID-19 funding from the Scottish Government, this non-repayable grant provides a £60 payment per household for those who have been awarded council tax reduction and are having difficulties paying their fuel bills.

There is also a discretionary element to the grant to enable payments to be made in some other circumstances. In the initial three-week period of this important scheme, the council received more than 4,500 applications and worked at pace to ensure this financial support quickly reached households.

At yesterday’s corporate resources committee, elected members welcomed this local fuel support fund and agreed to extend this help to March. Members also welcomed the number of households who opted to take advantage of energy health checks provided by Citizens Advice across the Highlands and praised Council staff for the speed of implementation and efficient ongoing administration of this fund.

To help mitigate the persistent uncertainty and challenges arising from the pandemic, the Highland Council continues its humanitarian support, in partnership with the Community Food Initiative North East (CFINE), which operates FareShare Scotland in the north of Scotland.

With funding from the Scottish Government and donations from supermarkets and food suppliers, FareShare, the Highland Council, local community groups and the Third Sector have adopted a collaborative and co-ordinated approach to food support for the wellbeing of households across the Highlands.

Since the initial lockdown began in March 2020, FareShare has provided approximately 374 tonnes of quality food to the Highlands, which is estimated to be equivalent to over 900,000 meals. The 277 tonnes received by the council continues to be delivered to individual households, with the vast majority being distributed across the network of community groups and used to provide cooked meals and food supplies within local communities.

The council’s partnership with FareShare was first established in February 2019 to alleviate food insecurities for Highland households. At that time, as well as providing doorstep deliveries to individual households, the council began to develop partnerships with a network of faith groups, charities and other support groups that were all involved in food distribution.

This model enabled the council to provide the network with food supplies so that hot meals and food parcels were available for local residents. As a result of the pandemic, this model has been expanded to enable the combined resources to support increasing need within communities.

Commenting on the fuel scheme, Councillor Matthew Reiss, vice chair of the corporate resources, said: “There has been a tremendous response from across the Highlands for this important fuel support grant. This £60 grant was put in place to help mitigate the costs of winter and the growing pressures on family incomes and finances, increasing unemployment and the uncertainty that lies ahead.

“Today’s decision means that the council will automatically make these March payments, increasing the total grant payment to £120. The scheme will also remain open for new applications to ensure that this support can still be accessed.

“So far, 5,400 households have applied for this fuel support and application forms continue to be received. Of that, 900 have opted for a home energy health check from their local Citizens Advice. These energy health checks are so important as the energy expertise within Citizens Advice means that the help that is available for individual households is identified and accessed. This includes energy switching, reducing fuel bills and obtaining grants to improve the fuel efficiency of individual homes.”

On the food support programme, he added: “Here in the Highlands, unemployment is increasing and there are around 14,300 furloughed employments. This co-ordinated response therefore ensures that food support can be provided when needs arise.

“The retail value of the supplies provided for the Highlands by FareShare is estimated to be valued at around a staggering £500,000 which is most welcome. However, it reinforces the social and economic impacts that the pandemic has had on people’s daily lives and underlines the ongoing need for council teams to continue to collaborate with communities and the Third Sector to provide a steady supply of quality food.

“There are many excellent examples of collaboration working to achieve positive outcomes for individuals and families across the Highlands. For example, our two local suppliers of household goods for those who have been awarded a community care grant, also distribute and provide food support for our citizens.”

He concluded: “I would encourage those impacted by the pandemic to make use of the expertise within the Council’s Welfare Support Team (Freephone 0800 090 1004) and Citizens Advice for help and advice about the support that is available, including the benefits that are currently unclaimed.”

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