Power bills bring hard winter for the poor

JACK MONTGOMERIE
Last updated 12:25 14/08/2014
elderly

STRUGGLING: People seeking help from Timaru Budget Advisory Trust have rent and power bills taking 75 per cent of their incomes.

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Electricity prices are putting the squeeze on some South Canterbury household budgets again.

Timaru Budget Advisory Trust co-ordinator Don Macfarlane said high winter power bills were a perennial problem in the region "and it's always the most vulnerable people that it hits".

Macfarlane said a considerable number of the people who asked the trust for help had rent and power bills which reached 75 per cent of their incomes, which he said was "significantly more than five years ago".

He was also critical of the state of the electricity market: "Power prices are a gouge."

Macfarlane said the trust has partnered with local charity the Cosy Homes Trust to lend energy efficient heaters and dehumidifiers to people in need.

Jane Ferguson of the Salvation Army's Timaru community ministry said electricity and heating bills represented a "huge chunk" of household expenses for people who sought help from her organisation.

The Salvation Army worked with poor clients to ensure they received their welfare entitlements from Work and Income New Zealand, and sometimes helped people to make arrangement with power companies if they could not pay their bills on time. Ferguson believed wages had not kept up with living costs.

St Vincent de Paul's Timaru branch has also seen a "steady number" of people having difficulties with their electricity bills according to welfare officer Noeline Brennan.

The branch usually gave people food to free up money for the bills. Brennan said high electricity bills and rents "can be the real killers" for people.

The branch said some people were having difficulty paying bills between the time they lost their seasonal jobs and the end of WINZ's two week benefit "stand-down" period.

Offers of cheap winter fuel are quickly taken up. DB Breweries' Washdyke brewery logistics manager Chris Gavan said the brewery gives away worn out pallets for free once or twice a week. The untreated wood pallets can be chopped up and burnt to provide extra heat.

"They go fairly quickly," Gavan said.

Rangitata MP Jo Goodhew said she believed the cases cited by MacFarlane were "unusual".

She said there could be hundreds of dollars of difference between retail providers' charges "so people should definitely shop around".

Goodhew said national figures showed a decline in electricity prices, excluding line charges, in the June quarter.

Labour Party candidate Steve Gibson said "the only way people are going to pay less for their electricity is to use less."

However, Gibson also said that his plan to establish a single wholesale buyer of electricity was "certainly going to make people's power prices lower".

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- The Timaru Herald

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