Page last updated at 23:44 GMT, Wednesday, 25 October 2006 00:44 UK

Rural struggle without mains gas

By Martha Buckley
BBC News

Trethurgy sign
Trethurgy is one of many villages without access to mains gas

Every time rising gas prices make news headlines, the residents of the Cornish village of Trethurgy heave a sigh.

It is not that they are unsympathetic to those struggling with rising prices - in fact it is a scenario they know all too well.

For while gas has become more expensive, it is still far cheaper than the alternative faced by the millions in Britain who are not connected to mains gas at all.

In England, 2.8m mainly rural households are off the mains network. And 14% of them are defined as fuel-poor - a situation described as "a significant problem" by campaign group National Energy Action (NEA).

In Cornwall, almost a quarter of residents are fuel-poor and half the county's households are off the network, with connection an unlikely prospect for most.

Picturesque but isolated

The county is among the most deprived in Britain with average wages of 18,992 a year - 4,000 below the UK average.

What I begrudge is the amount they expect us to pay
Sarah Mears

In picturesque Trethurgy, no-one has mains gas. Although just a few miles from the town of St Austell, the village is relatively isolated, with a sparse bus service and no mains sewerage either.

Sarah Mears, a 30-year-old PA, and her partner, Mark Truscott, a 35-year-old engineer, have lived in their three-bedroom cottage for about five years.

Like many off-network households, they rely on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for fuel.

Sarah and Mark rarely use their heating apart from in the evenings and have double-glazing on most windows. But despite their best efforts, their fuel bills are almost double the UK average for mains gas.

Sarah Mears
Sarah Mears feels stuck with her LPG heating system
They currently pay 96 a month - a cost which has more than doubled over five years, compared with an average cost of mains gas per UK household at 52 per month.

And unlike mains customers, Sarah and Mark are effectively unable to shop around for a better deal, no matter how high their prices rise.

Their fuel is delivered by their gas company, which leases them a storage tank. Without changing the tank, they cannot change supplier.

Sarah says: "What I begrudge is the amount they expect us to pay. Every time there's a blip in the market, they use it as an excuse to put up the prices. But prices have come down and that has not been passed on to the consumer."

Low wages

A few doors away live retired police inspector Alex Johnstone, 50, his wife, Linda, 49, and their teenage son.

They tried most of the available methods to heat their four-bedroom detached house before deciding to plump for oil six years ago.

Alex says: "We did some research and oil seemed to be the most economical. At that time it was 13.5p per litre. But now it's gone up to around 35p per litre - so it's tripled in six years."

How do people pay these sorts of bills on those kinds of wages?
Alex Johnstone
Each time the Johnstones fill up their 800-litre tank - about six times a year - it costs them about 280 - giving them a yearly oil bill of around 1,600 to 1,800, despite their home being double-glazed and well-insulated.

They also use a wood-burner, some electric under-floor heating, electric showers and an electric cooker.

Consequently, their electricity bill is also high, at more than 2,000 per year, compared with an average of about 409.

Alex finds it frustrating to hear people on mains gas complaining about high prices: "They should try having our bills for a year - they wouldn't moan then."

He says it is hard to see how those on the lowest wages - often just over 5 an hour - survive.

Oil tank
Filling the Johnstones' oil tank can cost 1,800 a year

"They are still having to pay some of the highest water rates and bills and some of the highest house prices in the country. How do people pay these sorts of bills on those kinds of wages?"

The NEA wants government help to get more communities connected to the mains supply to cut fuel poverty.

Otherwise, the only way a village like Trethurgy will get connected is if the residents agree to meet the costs themselves - which could cost a prohibitively high 30,000 per household, according to Wales & West Utilities, which owns the region's network.

Councillor Ann Bassett has represented Treverbyn ward, which includes Trethurgy, on Restormel council for the past 16 years.

She says high fuel costs combined with other high utility bills, high unemployment and low wages leave many struggling.

As for the elderly - she says the latest 1.9% rise in the state pension "does not even begin to compensate" for soaring rises in gas and electricity prices.

But with many older people reluctant to ask for help, she says their hardship often remains hidden.

"Basically, we're stuck with what we've got. It would be nice to be connected to the gas but I don't think the chances of it coming out here are high - pigs will fly before that happens. People just go without something else."

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