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Nicky Marr: Westminster energy payment ignores Highland climate

By Nicky Marr

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Nicky Marr, Westminster in London
Nicky Marr, Westminster in London

Chilly, isn’t it? There are times, fleetingly, when I wish I was an osprey. Not just so I could fly, get rid of my kids after three months of parenting, and live in a house/nest with spectacular views over Loch Affric, but so I could fly south for the winter and escape the harshest aspect of living in the Highlands – the weather.

To be honest I find very few downsides to living in the north. That’s why I’ve been here for over 25 years and intend to stay. But the thought of feeling the sun on my skin from October to April is alluring. Even a few degrees warmer would do.

Does 27C warmer sound tempting? Hold that thought.

Right now we’re in the grips of the lambing snow. Here in Inverness we haven’t yet had the inches of snow cover that were forecast, although temperatures have been low. Way low. But that’s all part of Highland life; we’re bred to cope with it, aren’t we?

Well yes… and no.

A cold, crisp walk, crunching through frozen puddles on a blue-sky winter’s day, can be one of the most restorative, cobweb-blowing ways to regain perspective after a week at the laptop.

But if you are elderly, infirm, unable to leave the house, or caring for someone with limited mobility who struggles to stay warm, our chilly Highland temperatures are hardly a cause for celebration.

Really cold spells can be life-threatening, especially during this current fuel-price crisis. Sub-zero days and nights mean we need to keep the radiators on, but we all understand the awful choices being made by some households between heating or eating.

As Kate Forbes has said often during the current SNP leadership race, one in four children in Scotland is living in poverty and will go to bed both cold and hungry tonight.

The reasons for that are complex and many and won’t be solved with one change to one policy. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. But it is shameful.

As I write, I’m warm. I’m in Inverness, sitting in front of an open fire wearing four layers. The central heating will kick-in again at about 4pm.

Today’s outdoor temperatures didn’t even reach the 4C inside my fridge, and they are forecast to drop well below zero in the Highland capital overnight. I’ll make sure my electric blanket is on before I head up to bed. I’m taking no chances, but it’ll be double digits below zero in rural glens.

And while these temperatures are not in any way unusual for us, they are impacting harder than ever before, given the astronomical prices we are paying for gas, electricity, and oil. And – not for the first time, perhaps – they draw into sharp focus another difference between north and south; our climates.

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Last Wednesday night, the temperature in Altnaharra in Sutherland was -16C. By contrast, in Newquay in Devon, it was a balmy 11C. I can’t remember the last time we felt 11C here during the day, never mind at night.

I don’t expect our elected leaders to be able to change the weather, but I do want them to pay attention to it. Because despite the 27C difference in overnight temperatures last week, the UK government thinks it can counteract our nation’s sky-high fuel prices with an across-the-board £400 through its Energy Bills Support Scheme.

Don’t get me wrong, the £66-a-month we’ve all received has been welcome, but it hasn’t really touched the sides of the increase in my own heating bills, nor in yours either, I expect. The £400 was applied universally, so regardless of income. And the same sum was offered to the relatively few residents in Altnaharra, as to the residents of Newquay… all enjoying the considerably milder climate.

To add insult to injury, there is no mains gas in Altnaharra, so the cost of heating homes by oil – if you can even persuade someone to come and fill up the tank – is even higher than with gas.

I wonder whose house they used, as a benchmark for working out whether £400 for the winter was adequate compensation? Not mine, not yours, and certainly not one in Altnaharra.

In our diverse nations of the UK, one size does not fit all. Again Westminster is selling the north of Scotland short.

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