I have to admit that, reading the various reports on the prospects for household finances, my blood runs somewhat cold. If, like me, you’ve been paying attention to the data on household financial resilience, you’ll know that there are already alarming numbers of households where something like a boiler failure would send them into debt. The prospects of finding thousands of pounds to pay heating bills will add two or more million households to that group, and any extended period of high gas prices will add more and more.
And, whilst attention has turned to energy costs, households are also facing food inflation which feels higher than the already painful 10% as reported. The loaf of bread from Tesco that cost £1.10 not so long ago is now £1.40. Worse still, all the evidence points to food inflation rates being higher for the poor than the rest of us, with rates of up to 18% reported.
One of the things about living in a small, somewhat remote, village is that we don’t actually have mains gas - we evidently weren’t worth connecting up - and so mostly rely on heating oil for heating and hot water. That might be somewhat to our relative financial advantage over the coming months but, up and down the country, village communities are going to face problems.
We’re already hard hit by the increased cost of petrol - many households run more than one car by necessity in the absence of meaningful public transport - and for those villages that do have mains gas (and 85% of all households have gas heating), the older your house is, the harder it is likely to be to keep it warm. Village halls and what public facilities remain will be more expensive to keep warm, whilst retail and small businesses that are already marginal will struggle to keep going. And, once your village butcher has gone, you probably aren’t going to get them back.
As a Parish councillor in a micro-Parish, my problems are inconsequential compared to some of our neighbouring villages. We don’t have a building and, fortunately, our aging streetlights are all due to be replaced with brand new, highly energy efficient, LED lights imminently. But I deeply suspect that colleagues elsewhere would welcome support to enable them to open up village halls as “heat banks” for elderly residents, or to improve energy efficiency and/or insulation for these key community assets.
We may also need to think more strategically about solar farms in rural areas. They are seldom popular, with accusations of agricultural land being lost and landscape blight. But solar energy is going to become an essential part of the diversified energy mix needed to keep the lights on at a price we can afford, and there’s going to have to be a little more give and take, especially if we want to improve self-sufficiency in energy. It may not help this winter, but it will eventually.
In addition, many rural homes are suitable for solar panel installation - we’re mostly detached or semi-detached, with roofs open to the sun. Not only can we potentially supply much of our own electricity needs, but with the right incentives, some of us can supply power back to the grid. We’ll need some to power our electric vehicles, but even so, it’s a good investment all round.
There’s a crisis coming, and it’s going to be grim. But, in solving the immediate problems, we shouldn’t give up on planning for the future…