CONCERNS have been raised in South Belfast after one of the strategic partners tasked with delivering the fuel hardship fund from Belfast City Council cancelled two clinics in which they were to provide the relief.

Forward South Partnership in South Belfast cancelled a clinic on Tuesday which was due to take place at City Church and another at Taughmonagh Community Forum on Thursday. The organisation last week asked for patience and to respect staff after difficulties around the distribution of the fund continued at the clinics.

A spokesperson for Forward South Partnership stated how the scheme quickly ran into problems for staff and recipients.

"We are a delivery vehicle for the Council's Fuel Hardship Fund, along with eight other organisations across the city. The geographical area we have been asked to cover in South Belfast is significantly larger than those covered by other delivery bodies, and at the same time the funding we have to distribute to that wider population is much smaller. We are aware that other bodies have already closed their application process.”

Forward South Partnership criticised the distribution methods of the fund which were voted for in a contentious Belfast City Council session in December 2022.

"While the rationale behind the establishment of the fund is solid, the distribution method and the criteria are not," a spokesperson for Forward South Partnership added. "This has resulted in an overwhelming demand among families across South Belfast and the whole city and with limited funds, that has caused a lot of tension among those who are entitled to apply for the vouchers. Our application clinics have been inundated with residents from other parts of the city who are therefore ineligible to apply through the Partnership.

"We cannot allow our staff to bear the brunt of those frustrations and we have reluctantly therefore cancelled the last two remaining clinics. We will review as far as possible how to distribute the small amount of money we have in a way that protects both our staff and the dignity of those applying, but our agility in this regard is hampered by the flaws which were inherent in the scheme from the outset.”

The Partnership further criticised the Council stating that they believed that ‘inconsistency and inequality’ had been built into the scheme which has led to a lot of frustration.

SDLP Councillor Gary McKeown, who represents the Botanic area, said issues had been raised about the distribution of the funds from the beginning by his party and others in Council. Councillor McKeown said this has had the unfortunate effect of adding stress to staff at the Partnership as well as those in need.

“Every delivery partner has a different method of providing this relief and a discretion to deliver the relief in a way they feel is appropriate. The model Forward South used segmented the relief into batches for each location and were holding clinics in each location. Unfortunately due to the way the delivery was planned out it meant that some people had to be turned away which was extremely distressing for staff and those seeking relief.

“The system has been organised haphazardly and suffered from a number of issues such as quality of access and data management. There have also been problems in raising awareness of this relief, some people aren’t on social media so have not seen the posts and some people work full-time so have not been able to attend a clinic to get the fuel relief.

“I think the first-come-first-serve model doesn’t properly address the needs of people in the area.”

Councillor McKeown added that he believed the Council needed to carry out a review of this fund and said his party took no joy in seeing its predictions about the distribution of funds have come to pass.

“I think it’s essential we have a review into how the output of this was managed. We don’t take any comfort from the fact that our predicitions of how this scheme would turn out came to pass. I think it’s important the Council takes some learning from this programme so that if there is an extension this project in the future, or if there is another similar project, that we make sure the same mistakes aren’t made again.

“We need to make sure the means to distribute relief is fair and equitable and also transparent to ensure those most in need get the help they need.”