The specter of energy poverty looms large in Friesland as news of the upcoming abolition of the energy allowance for low-income households spreads. The Friesch Dagblad reports that Frisian officials and experts are concerned that this move will exacerbate the already precarious situation faced by the region’s most vulnerable residents.
The energy allowance, a vital lifeline for many, offers monthly financial support to eligible households, assisting them in meeting their energy expenses. The subsidy is intricately woven into the fabric of the social security system, with its allocation based on income and household size. According to the latest figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 2.6 million households in the Netherlands received the energy allowance in 2022, with an average amount of €372 per year.
However, sources in The Hague have reported that the government has agreed to scrap the energy allowance as part of the budget for 2024, which will be presented on Prinsjesdag (the third Tuesday of September). The government also plans to phase out the health care allowance by 2024, another benefit (known locally as zorgtoeslag) that helps low-income households pay for their health insurance premiums.
The decision to end the energy allowance comes amid an ongoing energy crisis that has caused a surge in gas and electricity prices across Europe. The Netherlands, which relies heavily on natural gas for heating and power generation, has been particularly affected by the shortage of supply and the high demand. Projections from the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets paint a grim picture for 2023, with an anticipated yearly rise of €360 in the average household energy bill.
Government officials have defended the plan, arguing that the energy allowance has outlived its effectiveness and sustainability, as it does not stimulate energy saving and efficiency. Instead, the cabinet wants to introduce a new system that will provide targeted support for households that invest in insulation, solar panels, heat pumps, or other green measures. The government further contends that the loss of the energy allowance will be offset by lower income taxes and higher minimum wages.
Despite these assurances, many prominent Frisian politicians and stakeholders remain deeply skeptical, foreseeing dire consequences for society’s most marginalized members. They argue that low-income households lack the resources or opportunities to make their homes energy-efficient, especially when residing in rental or social housing. Doubts persist that tax cuts and wage hikes will adequately cushion the blow of heightened energy costs.
Jouke Douwe de Vries, the alderman of Noardeast-Fryslân, a municipality in northeastern Friesland, minced no words when he described the measure as “catastrophic.” He warned that it could increase the risk of debt, eviction, and homelessness for many households already struggling with energy poverty. He urged the government to reconsider and allocate more financial support for local initiatives striving to reduce energy consumption and bills.
Fears for the most vulnerable
Robertino van As, an energy coach who works for Energie Coöperatie Noordelijk Friesland, a cooperative that promotes renewable energy in northern Friesland, also expressed his concern about the measure. Van As, who regularly visits struggling households, assists them in adopting energy-saving practices and securing financial aid for improvements such as insulation or double glazing. He said that he fears that without the energy allowance, many of these households will not be able to afford even these basic improvements.
Van As passionately implored the government to reconsider its decision, emphasizing the importance of listening to those most affected. He advocated for a progressive and equitable energy taxation system where energy usage determines financial contributions. Additionally, he called for greater investment in public and community-owned renewable energy projects, such as wind farms and solar parks, enabling citizens to participate while enjoying lower costs and increased income opportunities.
The fate of Friesland’s most vulnerable hangs in the balance as the nation grapples with its energy future, leaving both hope and apprehension in its wake.