Heat or treat?

Care and Repair - Councillor Kath Rowson and service manager Anne McDowell
Care and Repair - Councillor Kath Rowson and service manager Anne McDowell
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Step into 79-year-old Edna’s home at South Shore and it feels only marginally warmer than outside.

An icy blast threatens to freeze me on the threshold. It’s caused by a small broken window, smashed by kids last summer. A neighbour’s plywood patch-up job has held ever since but doesn’t keep chills or rain at bay.

The father of the kids offered to replace the glass but Edna knows he’s lost his job. She’s been “meaning to get round to it”. The glaziers are now booked for next week. I booked them. And not a moment too soon.

Cold kills: 120 locally last year, 140 the year before when temperatures plunged. New figures show 300,000 more homes will fall into fuel poverty by Christmas. In Wyre 22.5 per cent of households live in fuel poverty. In Blackpool it’s said to be 25 per cent but likely to be far higher given transience and social deprivation. Both councils urge locals to sign up to their collective energy switching projects to broker better deals for all.

Officially fuel poverty is defined as spending more than 10 per cent of your income - pension or salary - on heating your home. Unofficially, many spend far more. This is a low pay blackspot, many on breadline Blackpool basic minimum wages. It’s further blighted by unemployment.

The correlation between conditions such as heart and respiratory illness and fuel poverty is well documented. What isn’t well documented is just how many pensioners use their winter fuel allowance, cut by £50 by the Coalition, on Christmas presents. It goes beyond the heat-or-eat equation to heat or treat?

Edna has four grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and buys for them and her two sons, both professionals, and daughter, long term unemployed. A reassessment of benefit meant Edna’s daughter asked her for a loan. “I said no, I’d never get the money back. Broke my heart.” Edna last saw the grandchildren three years ago at her son’s Shropshire home for Christmas. Two live in Australia and will “Skype” her on Boxing Day. “My friend sets up her computer for calls. I get my emails there too or at the library.”

Edna’s independent. She could get help if she sought it. She is eligible for Warm Front discount which helps low-income and vulnerable households with energy costs. She’s turned down free central heating, preferring her immersion heater and gas fire. “I don’t want the upheaval.” She’s been widowed 20 years, did her own decorating and diy, and alarms neighbours by balancing on a step stool to get the heavy winter curtains up. One curtain’s wet from where the rain gets in. Mould on the lining indicates it’s long term. This year the curtain runners gave up the ghost, popping like a 10 gun salute, draping Edna in dark blue Dralon. She has since invested in a step ladder, safer than the stool. She’s also fitted a grab rail in the bathroom and by the stairs after a fall at Bury Market. She has a gas fire, but never has it on full.

The Age Concern thermometer indicates she is “in the blue” - the room several degrees under a healthy level of warmth. Edna, who has heart problems, wears four layers, fleece down to thermal vest, and a hat indoors. When we shake hands I notice just how cold - and arthritic - her hands are. Edna says it’s by choice. She prefers an electric blanket to the heater in her bedroom, one of four in the house but seldom used. The last time Edna had it on for any length of time was two winters back, the big freeze. “I never went out. It cost me a fortune.”

Coun Kath Rowson, Blackpool Council’s portfolio holder for adult social care, finds it hard to castigate the Ednas of this world for she’s one herself, fiercely independent, getting by without central heating, in spite of multiple sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a hubby in ailing health.

“It’s a mindset we probably need to change,” she admits. “We’re the get-by generation. I fight for others but not myself. We get by. But for many it’s heat or eat, heat or buy presents. They put other people first.”

The resort’s award winning Care and Repair home improvement service falls under Kath’s remit. Clients come on referral, or self refer, for help for the elderly, disabled and others eligible for aid by dint of benefits or vulnerability. The rest of us may benefit from the safe traders network, or handyman service, at a charge, but priority goes, as it must, to the most at risk. It makes Blackpool’s Care and Repair one of the best, plaudits praising “most impactful” approach to fuel poverty this year after becoming agency of the year in 2011. Other councils beat a path here to find out why it works so well. It’s down to the commitment of Kath, and a closeknit team under the management of Anne McDowell, who battles for funds for the lifeline service. “We make every penny count,” she admits. “We have to. Lives are at stake and will be again this winter. Call us. If we can’t help we signpost to others who can.”

n Blackpool Care and Repair 01253 476659, Warm Front grants for heating, insulationL 0800 0834 333, Blackpool’s energy switch 01253 476843