The number of people living in fuel poverty in the region could rocket, according to a Northumberland-based debt advice service.
Government figures, published earlier this month, revealed that more than 20 per cent of households – around 5.5 million – were spending more than 10 per cent of their annual income on keeping warm in 2009.
However, already-high utility prices are set to soar after British Gas and Scottish Power announced forthcoming price hikes, with most energy suppliers expected to follow suit.
Liz Chadwick, chief executive of DAWN Advice, has urged people not to suffer in silence.
She said: “In the early half of this century, increasing incomes and lower energy costs were helping to reduce the number of people affected by fuel poverty, but the recession, coupled with energy price rises, is reversing that trend with frightening speed.
“The problem might seem like it is miles away while it’s warm outside, but autumn and winter will be here before we know it. If the last two winters are anything to go by, it will be cold and heating a family home could prove incredibly expensive.
“However, people must not panic about paying bills and should seek professional advice if they are struggling to make ends meet.
“Heating is a necessity, not a luxury, and nobody should be suffering – or shivering – in silence.”
The Government report found that 24 per cent of north east households were in fuel poverty in 2009, while some 70 per cent of all English households were ‘vulnerable’ to fuel poverty.
It also found that average fuel bills increased by over 90 per cent from 2003 to 2009, to £1,342.
The Government report added: “Between 2004 and 2009, energy prices increased: domestic electricity prices increased by over 75 per cent, while gas prices increased by over 122 per cent.”
Berwick Lib-Dem peer Baroness Maddock, Lady Diana Beith, spoke out on the issue of fuel poverty in the House of Lords last week during a debate on the independent review on fuel poverty, which is to be led by Professor John Hills.
Baroness Maddock said: “It will be some time before the report on fuel poverty is published. In the meantime, are the Government considering making social tariffs for energy compulsory as a way of reducing costs for those in fuel poverty?
“If they are not, what else are they thinking about in the short term to try to deal with this severe crisis? ”
Lord Marland, parliamentary under secretary of state for energy and climate change, responded: “I re-emphasise that we are going to have an interim report in the summer and a final report in the early part of next year. That is very quick.
“It would be wrong for us to start putting up tariffs or making incentives while we are waiting for the eminent professor to come up with his conclusions, having consulted across the piece.
“Forgive me if I do not agree to the noble Baroness’s suggestion; it is obviously a good one, but we need to wait for the professor to deliver.”
Figures released by the Government in March showed that in 2008, 37.5 per cent of households in Berwick borough were in fuel poverty, but some rural areas within the borough saw fuel poverty hitting over 47 per cent of households.