HAVING just got over the harshest winter in living memory, already struggling households, the elderly and the vulnerable are now facing the prospect  of an increase of up to 20 per cent increase in electricity bills from October.

The increase will not only hit households, but small businesses and community organisations who have already budgeted their funding to cover the cost of running their premises.

Speaking on behalf of the Upper Andersonstown Community Forum, Mark Copeland said it is becoming increasing tough for voluntary organisations to deliver key services.

“The current economic climate has resulted in funding cuts and job losses,” he said. “The substantial hike in electricity prices will have a significant effect on voluntary organisations and the communities they serve.

“It will ultimately result in yet another overhaul of spending on a key service to ensure we can meet the payment of what will be a considerable electricity bill each quarter.”

Annie Armstrong, Manager of the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership, told the Andersonstown News that the hike is bad news for community groups everywhere.

“The increase will put greater financial pressure on groups as they struggle to pay larger bills.

“Community groups are feeling the pressure in an already challenging environment. Many have set their budgets to cover the costs of electric, this means that money that has been allocated for other projects and services have to be re-directed to cover the hike in electric prices.

“This hike is very disappointing to hear. We, along with many community groups in the area, provide essential services and training and we simply cannot close our doors to save on electricity prices. This financial burden will have an impact on many community groups, and therefore a wider impact on the community.”

Isabel Flood, Co-ordinator at Good Morning Colin, said: “This price increase will have a major impact on our funding and how we can deliver projects. We are a funded organisation and will struggle to meet these increases. The impact on financial budgets means that cutbacks may have to happen elsewhere. The increase in tariffs is excessive and many community groups will find themselves under greater financial pressure at a time when many are struggling anyway.”

“Pensioner poverty in the North now stands at seven percentage points higher than in the UK average,” said Fiona McAuley from Good Morning West Belfast. “By increasing the electricity costs this will invariably increase those ratings and moreover will subject them to poorer living conditions than their counterparts elsewhere.

“In the current climate the cost of living, be it for food or fuel, has consistently increased. Good Morning West Belfast service users have already voiced their concerns about the long cold winter ahead and say that they can’t make their pensions stretch any further in order to accommodate increases in electric.

“Good Morning West Belfast is concerned about the imminent winter ahead and is working with service users to prepare them for it and also promoting the service to those who need the telephone support service.”

Springfield Charitable Association spokesperson Gerard O’Neill said: “There is no doubt that this news will have a direct impact on people’s incomes which is already under various pressures.

“Gas, oil and now electric bills have gone up and this is right before we head into the winter. Our real concern is for our elderly who are facing the choice of heat or eat.

“A 20 per cent increase is a slap in the face of the bill-payer but we are here to offer advice to those who need it and we will try to help.”

Chief Executive at the West Belfast Partnership Board, Geraldine McAteer, said the increase in the electricity bills would come as yet another massive blow for small business in West Belfast – especially heading into the winter.

“The timing could not have come at a worse time for consumers and independent retailers,” said Geraldine. “For small traders in West Belfast it’s a double blow. Hard-working families will face an even greater impact on their disposable incomes and could well reduce spending with local retailers as a result.

“Local businesses face huge pressures to absorb such an increase in their energy bills and still remain competitive, while many of the biggest users of electricity in manufacturing across the North buy directly from the market so are unaffected by Power NI’s decision to increase prices by 18.6 per cent from October.”