IT COULD save Hampshire families hundreds of pounds on fuel bills and create up to 760 new jobs.

An ambitious new scheme to plough up to £50m of funding into tackling fuel poverty across the county could be launched later this year.

Southampton City Council is coordinating an Energy Company Obligation (ECO) initiative, which could lead to huge improvements to council homes in the city as well as Fareham, Winchester and the New Forest.

With many council properties thermally inefficient and expensive to heat, Southampton housing boss Warwick Payne says the new scheme would cut fuel bills and “put money back into the pockets of residents who need it most.” The ECO scheme was introduced by the Government earlier this year, and has introduced new responsibilities for major energy companies to improve the energy efficiency of homes across the UK, as well as reducing carbon emissions.

The Government has estimated that £1.3bn of funding for ECO initiatives is available nationwide, with the vast majority of the cost of new projects funded by the energy companies.

Southampton City Council is coordinating the bid to secure £50m of funding, which could be spent in Hampshire over the next two to three years.

Further funding is likely to be available until at least 2020.

Fareham Borough Council, Winchester City Council, New Forest District Council and Portsmouth City Council have all expressed an interest in being included in the scheme.

If an energy company is chosen to fund the improvements, about 21,000 homes in Hampshire could have major work carried out.

Improvement works could include replacing concrete housing panels with low thermal performance, improving insulation or introducing new, more efficient heating systems.

A city council report says between 590 and 760 new jobs would be created and 300 current posts safeguarded if the scheme goes ahead, while saying it would also provide investment to local businesses and allow for skills development in colleges.

City council officers are expected to be given approval on May 8 to start the process to find an energy company to secure ECO funding.

It is expected an agreement with a preferred bidder may be agreed in the early autumn.

Cllr Payne said: “We’re keen to seize the opportunity that ECO is presenting to Southampton with both hands.

“Energy efficiency isn’t just good for the environment but it’s also good for peoples’ pockets as well, by reducing their fuel bills.

“For example, with the £15m project we’re just completing at Weston Shore to make five tower blocks more energy efficient, which includes £10m of outside grants, we estimate that residents will see their heating bills fall by around £5 per week, or £250 per year.

“As a result, we’re putting money back into the pockets of residents who need it most, and also making Southampton’s housing fit for the future.”

The scheme has been welcomed by people living in council housing. Maureen Simmons, block representative for Millbrook Towers, said some flats had already been upgraded through the council’s Stop the Cold initiative, which provided tenants with help and grants to get home improvements.

Of the new scheme, she said: “I think it is a good idea, anything that improves people’s bills is a good thing.

“I would love it to be done, people are saying what a difference it makes to their bills at the flats that have been done through Stop the Cold.”

Louis Slack, block representative for York Close in Northam, said: “I think this a good thing.

“Anything that can improve your property and make it more energy efficient is good and I am sure residents will be happy about this.”