Until a month ago, Julie, a single mother with three children, was just about making ends meet. But as the UK experiences its first cold spell of the winter, she found herself turning to her local community hub in south London for help.
Most days after doing the school run she comes to the Oasis Centre, a “social living room” set up in the capital to help those struggling with their food and fuel bills. “I’ve never known my flat to be this cold,” she said.
With a weather front this week bringing widespread snow and temperatures as low as -15C to the UK, local councils and charities across the country are providing so-called “warmth banks” to help families caught in a growing cost of living crisis.
“Everyone who comes will see it through their own lens. We don’t call it a warm centre because it’s not just a warm centre,” said Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister who founded the Oasis Trust in 1985. The charity now operates in 36 communities across the UK and in the last six months it has given away over one hundred tons of food.
With the war in Ukraine causing a sharp increase in energy prices, the UK government has moved to cushion the impact on families. In October, the Treasury launched an energy support scheme that provided a one-off £400 energy discount for all households and will cap energy bills for typical households at £2,500 this winter, rising to £3,000 in April.
However, for many, these measures are not enough. Even with government support, some 6.7mn UK households are now in fuel poverty, according to estimates from National Energy Action, a pressure group — 2.2mn more than a year ago.
The numbers are expected to climb further when the government lifts the household energy price cap from April, said Matt Copeland, NEA’s head of policy and public affairs. “It’s going to get worse,” he added. “It’s already historic at 6.7mn. We think it’s about to get much worse, climbing to 8.4 million.”
Julie, a former primary school cook who prefers not to give her surname, spends more than 10 per cent of her net income on fuel, the NEA’s definition of fuel poverty, but is still waiting to receive her £400 rebate.
She says that, like many others, she is facing a bleak winter. “At the moment I’m definitely struggling compared to last year. Last year I was spending £50 a week on my electricity, now £30 only lasts two days.”
Heat hubs such as the Oasis Centre have sprung up across the UK. In Brampton, Cumbria, where temperatures recently hit lows of -5C, an area was set up in the town’s Moot Hall to enable residents to mingle, stay warm and charge their phones.
“It’s somewhere people can go to have a hot drink and use the free WiFi. There’s a toaster and a microwave,” said Allison Riddell, the council clerk. “Some visitors are saying there’s no food at home and have to take biscuits and donations back with them.”
The number of people struggling with soaring heating and living costs in the city of Birmingham has become so acute that in September the city council declared a cost of living emergency. It took £5mn from a council contingency fund to put towards a new cost of living programme.
John Cotton, the council’s cabinet member for equalities, compared the scale of the challenge to that of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. “We built a really extensive network of what we’re calling ‘warm welcome spaces’,” he said, adding that council buildings, community facilities, churches and mosques were all offering shelter.
Cotton said that the challenge was increased by a chronic lack of resources. Since 2010, local government budgets have faced real-terms cuts of 30 per cent after a decade of austerity cuts imposed after the 2008 financial crisis.
“Ten years of austerity and some quite savage cuts to the welfare support system have created real problems for people.”
Shantanu Rajawat, council leader for the London borough of Hounslow — which now has 35 warm spaces, including Brentford Football Club — said the government’s decision to issue single-year funding deals for local government had made it very difficult make long-term plans to meet community needs.
“We want some certainty on our funding arrangements . . . Over the last couple of years, we’ve got single year funding settlements and it makes it very difficult to plan long term.”
Back at the Oasis Centre, where volunteers are restocking a community fridge with surplus food that visitors can take home, they are bracing for a busy winter ahead.
Another visitor, Barry, who is blind and also asked that his surname not be used, said he had come to Oasis for warmth and job-seeking advice. “I can’t even afford care. I don’t put the lights on at night. I can get around OK, but my friends don’t like it when they come over.”
Additional reporting by Alastair Bailey