'How am I going to be able to heat my house?': Dark days ahead for gas customers in Northern Ireland

·4-min read

There's a warning that "there are dark days ahead" in Northern Ireland, with energy bills set to rise sharply this winter.

In some areas gas prices will go up by as much as 35% from tomorrow, prompting warnings that people will simply self-disconnect.

Both of the companies that supply homes in Northern Ireland have put up prices for their customers in response to soaring global gas prices.

The increase coincides with the end of furlough and the end of the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit, with charities warning families are facing "the perfect storm".

National Energy Action Northern Ireland says around a quarter of households rely on gas, the majority using pay-as-you-go meters.

Among them is Victoria McClements, 40, a mother of two who works in a special needs school in Belfast.

"I'm scared, scared how I'm going to be able to heat my house," she told Sky News.

Her youngest daughter, Emily, is six.

"Her room would be the coldest room in our house," Victoria said. "She goes to bed with hot water bottles and fleecy blankets.

"There are times I've done without food to heat the house. The kids are fed... I can do without a dinner."

Even before the price goes up, they've had times when the money in the meter has run out.

"It's happened a couple of times when she's about to get a shower and it's run out and I've had no money," Victoria said.

"You can't shower your kids, you can't wash your dishes, because your gas is your main heating and hot water supply."

The price increases were announced earlier this month with Firmus Energy due to charge customers 35.15% more from 1 October in its Ten Towns Network.

The area includes Antrim, Armagh, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Coleraine, Craigavon (including Lurgan and Portadown), Limavady, Derry/Londonderry, Newry, and more than 25 other towns and villages.

SSE Airtricity, the other domestic gas provider, announced its prices will rise by 21.8% from tomorrow.

There is no energy price cap in Northern Ireland. Instead, price increases are scrutinised by a regulator.

Commenting on the announcements, chief executive of Utility Regulator John French blamed an "unprecedented increase in the cost of wholesale gas, coal, oil and carbon on international markets".

He added: "This unfortunately has an impact on consumers' bills, as around half of a final gas bill is made up by wholesale gas costs."

Pat Austin, director of National Energy Action Northern Ireland told Sky News there are concerns some people will be forced to switch off their gas altogether.

Figures published by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive showed that in 2016, some 22% of people in Northern Ireland were living in fuel poverty. She believes the current figure could already be 10% higher, even before the price increase.

"People can self-disconnect very quickly" she said.

"This is the perfect storm: ending of furlough, ending of the universal credit uplift and these eye-watering increases to the gas prices and indeed to oil, where we have 68% of households reliant on home heating oil.

"There are dark days ahead and we need an urgent intervention from government to assist low income households."

Shops where people can top up the cards for their gas meters have seen an increase in people keen to buy whatever they can before the price goes up.

"There's just been a lot of customers coming in, topping up their gas because they're panicking due to the increase, and a lot of them just through COVID, they just don't have much money at the minute," said Lynsey Scott, who works in a shop in south Belfast.

Among her customers is Lorraine Pollins, 64. Since her husband had to give up work to have treatment for cancer they've struggled to get by on her wages from the care home where she works as a cleaner.

"Every penny you earn it's just going on food and bills," she said. "You've nothing left over".

"You're just really getting by from month to month."

They're already rationing their heating.

"We'll just leave it off during the day and put it on at night because you couldn't afford to burn it during the day.

Both gas companies acknowledged the impact the hike in prices will have on their customers.

Michael Scott, managing director of Firmus energy, said: "We are very sorry to have to make this announcement as the last thing we want is to have to increase our prices. However, given the massive increases in the cost of purchasing natural gas on the global markets, it is simply unavoidable, as these costs are totally beyond our control."

Andrew Greer, SSE Airtricity general manager (NI) said: "We are aware of the impact this increase will have on our customers and this decision has not been taken lightly.

"SSE Airtricity has a longstanding history of working with our customers and, as we have done in the past, we will look to lower our prices as soon as it possible to do so."

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