This article was published as part of our 16-page Manniefest special edition. Click HERE for more information and more articles setting out a vision for the Highlands and Islands after independence.

AS many of us in Scotland find better things to do than celebrate the jubilee, let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that Liz Windsor does have one thing in common with many Highlanders – she’s technically fuel poor. That’s because the most common definition, including the one used in Scotland, assumes that she’s occupying and heating all the empty rooms in Balmoral and the rest of her properties. I wonder if she claims the Winter Fuel Payment?

But Liz excepted, the mediocre attempts of the Scottish Government to tackle fuel poverty (meant to be eradicated by November 2016) mean the condition remains rife and far worse in some areas than others – Na h-Eileanan Siar (40%), Highland (33%), Argyll and Bute (32%), Moray (32%), Dundee City (31%), Shetland Islands (31%) and Orkney Islands (31%). Spot a pattern? The renewables-rich Highlands and Islands experience the worst fuel poverty and pay the highest standing charges for their electricity in Europe.

These figures gloss over two other uncomfortable realities. The proportion of elderly people in fuel poverty in the Highlands and Islands is even higher and, as proven by Glasgow Caledonian University’s research back in 2016, when we used real data to study the extent of fuel poverty – as opposed to the modelled “data” favoured by the Scottish Government – the true extent of the urban/rural divide is even higher than those official figures. Thanks to that work, the Scottish Government included a financial uplift for householders in remote areas in the 2019 Fuel Poverty Act, but as a recent report by the UK’s Climate Change Committee noted, this won’t go far enough to help them. And that’s before we get to the impacts of the energy price rises coming this October.

So, what can we do about this, and how much could independence benefit the fuel-poor in the Highlands and Islands? First of all, there is an oft-repeated mantra that energy is a reserved matter. This is true insofar as the Electricity Act is reserved, and one of the first things the government of an independent Scotland must do is legislate to reduce those standing charges and ensure those living closest to sources of renewable energy actually pay less. It is simply not fair that dwellers in the Central Belt and wealthier urban areas are effectively subsidised by the rural poor.

We would also have to establish our own energy regulator and agree terms for trading electricity with rUK and Europe. I’m taking it as read that we would seek to rejoin the EU and should expect those negotiations to be largely positive, but as a small country with renewable energy, we must be careful not to sell it off quickly to the highest bidder. Sadly, the ScotWind debacle gives me little confidence that such care would be taken under the current administration.

However, dealing with Westminster could be much harder. Ofgem may be completely toothless as a regulator but it has already made a successful power grab for regulating heat (a devolved competence) north of the Border, and we should expect Westminster to play hardball. We should have already established a regulator to govern the aspects of energy that are already effectively devolved, particularly heat networks, to build up capacity among civil servants as a preparatory step to building a new country. Heat networks, along with the development of supply chains for sustainable biomass (another area of energy policy that could benefit rural communities), nuclear and fracking can largely be directed through planning law – but it is only on the latter two that the Scottish Government has taken any substantive action. This is one reason why Common Weal proposed the establishment of a Scottish Energy Development Agency (SEDA). Backing for SEDA has been dropped by both the SNP and Greens in favour of a vaguely defined “public energy agency” due to be launched, virtually, this August. We will continue to argue the case for going further.

I could go on at length about how the Scottish Government could do more on energy with the powers it already has – but I want to finish on a positive note.

The National:

The people of the Highlands and Islands have a long and proud history of managing land for the benefit of their communities. Harnessing that human capacity and reclaiming that land are essential for getting us over the line to independence. With a bit of help, those communities could see a burgeoning of community-based, and community-owned, renewable energy projects.

Back in 2008 I co-authored a report that led to Alex Salmond announcing a plan for thousands of new micro-hydropower projects – it was front-page. Much of that potential remains unexploited, but it’s still there and it’s that sort of thinking and leadership we’re going to need – coming from the people, not Holyrood.

So, as many of us celebrate an alternative jubilee where we look forward to throwing off the shackles of a colonial power, let’s draw on the strength of our communities to end fuel poverty and rural deprivation by bringing our most valuable resource back into public ownership.

Energy – for all.

Dr Keith Baker FRSA is a research fellow in Fuel Poverty and Energy Policy at the Built Environment Asset Management Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, a co-founder of the Energy Poverty Research initiative, and a board member of Common Weal, and convenor of Common Weal’s Energy Working Group