Up to 16,000 vulnerable households could miss out on help from a Government scheme to help cut their energy bills, lobby groups are warning.
Consumer Focus and National Energy Action fear the Warm Front scheme, which helps the poorest households in England make their homes warmer, simply won't help enough people.
They say £30 million-worth of grants could go unclaimed, and when this happens, the money doesn't roll into the next year's budget, it just goes back into the Treasury's pocket.
- Warm Front scheme set for up to £30 million underspend
- Initiative offers heating and insulation improvements
- Consumers urged to apply before 31 March
The Warm Front scheme, which is only available in England (other schemes are available in the rest of the UK), gives up to £3,500 to homeowners or those who rent from a private landlord and receive certain income-related benefits, to put towards heating and insulation improvements.
The total fund for this financial year (April to April) is £143 million - but up to a fifth of this is expected to go unclaimed.
According to figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), this money could help up to 16,000 households struggling to afford their energy bills cut their costs by an average of £650 per year, although some could get much more in grants.
Drop in applications
Consumer Focus and National Energy Action say a combination of factors have led to a fall in applications, which include stricter eligibility criteria and the fact the Government did not advertise the scheme as it was anticipated demand would exceed supply.
The lobby groups also say the milder winter weather may have deterred applications.
The initiative has seen a dramatic decline in applications for help. In April to December last year fewer than 40,000 people applied, compared to over 130,000 applications in the same period in 2010.
But while the scheme was oversubscribed in 2010, the funding was cut by almost two-thirds this financial year, from £366 million to £143 million.
'Put a claim in now'
It isn't too late to apply for the scheme. Consumer Focus and National Energy Action urge those eligible to submit a claim now, before the funding for this year ends on 31 March.
Audrey Gallacher, director of energy at Consumer Focus, says: "The poorest pensioners and families will have been hit particularly hard by high energy prices. Many are living in cold homes, which could put their health at risk.
"It is very disappointing that people who need Warm Front help to make their homes warmer and cheaper to heat are likely to miss out. We'd urge anyone who thinks they may be eligible to put in a claim.
"This help is free and can make a big difference in affording your energy bills and keeping warm and well."
A DECC spokesperson says: "Warm Front is now better targeted to make sure the poorest and most vulnerable get the help they need.
"We're also doing a lot of other things, like helping around two million households this year under the Warm Home Discount Scheme, continuing the winter fuel payments and providing emergency payments for the most vulnerable when it gets really cold.
"In the longer term, we'll be helping people use less energy through the Green Deal, giving extra help to those who need it most."
How to claim
Find out if you are eligible on the Warm Front website or by calling free on 0800 316 2805.
You can submit a claim for a Warm Front grant either by post, phone or online. For more information, see the Directgov website.