The Big Freeze


Being Scottish we take a perverse pride in the weather. It’s too cold. It’s too wet. It’s too sunny. And that’s just in a morning. Made in Scotland. It’ll never last is the common refrain. That’s just about right. We do however take a particular delight in snow. Kids love it, for ten minutes. Adults love to moan about the state of the roads. Everybody’s happy because they are unhappy. This week it’s meant to stay below zero. Ho. Ho. Ho. We say. And turn the heating up.

In my day, of course, you’d do no such thing. The electric fire in the living room had, theoretically, two bars. One bar was for everyday living. The other bar was for when the Klingons attacked and you needed to get up to warp speed. That might have happened in every episode of Star Trek but in my house cold was never interplanetary cold enough. Double glazing was when you had ice inside the windows. It was the old school – if you’re feet are cold put a pair of socks on and thank god you’ve got toes.

There was, of course, another school were you could use the negative on your wedding photos, or some old first communion photos, inserted in the gap between casing of the electrical meter in the hall, which acted as a pin and slowed down and stopped your bill going up and up and up. In such a school you could turn on two bars with impunity or even put the oven on. Heating rooms of course was still needless extravagance that only the super-rich and needlessly wasteful could afford.

No matter which school you went to a simple rule of thumb was no energy company could cut off electricity to the vulnerable and those with children. Those were the good old days.

Smart meters were smart because energy companies no longer had to worry about cutting off their consumers. They would cut themselves off by having no money to put in their meters. What is more those least able to pay would be charged more than better-heeled neighbours. The majority would in effect subsidise the minority. And at the very top, shareholders, the richest members of society, would gain increased dividends.

Energy apartheid is made worse by poor living in the poorest quality housing. Housing most likely to lose heat and consume more energy. Higher bills by those least able to pay it. My 1970’s house, for example, was a metal shell with a roof and no insulation. The Government’s recent Green Deal gives money to richer homeowners to help make the changes they need. A growth industry based around green certificates and assessments and cashback schemes. In schemes and housing estates there is no cash back guarantee. But there is also a growth industry in bailiffs and sheriff officers coming to cut off those that have not paid their bill and to install pre-payment meters. So who can you expect at your door when this happens.

Firstly, a representative of the energy company. They will not be directly employed by them, but in the fertile soil of high-cost debts, one of the many debt-collection agencies. The debt collector will have a legal right to enter the named property. A lock-smith and dog handler will be on hand. A police presence can called upon. Here’s a wee trick that energy companies and debt collectors love. Cut a person’s power off and put the power back on again. Even if it’s only for five minutes. Kerching. A simple letter to the criminally poor can cost £150 extra onto the existing debt. Kerching. All these people who attended the call-out need to be paid for. Kerching. Higher fuel bills, indefinitely, but the powers on.

You’d expect those receiving such call outs to be outraged. But here’s the rub. Having spoken to someone whose job it was to enforce this debt payment she said in most cases they were grateful. Not really sure what was happening. Glad of the company. Glad to get it sorted. The pitiful of society on which we have no pity.

We expect adults to make rational choices between heating a house, eating and paying household bills. But when the poorest in society start the day with a deficit in one sphere that feeds into every other sphere and keeps growing and spiralling out of control we punish not only them, but the millions of children that do not have the luxury of an adequately heated home. We store up problems for the future, but hey, the rich get rich and the poor get poorer that’s a growth industry. When it’s cold the rich get rich. When it’s hot the rich get rich. They’re the one group, the 1% weatherproof guarantee, but you won’t get your money back.


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