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29 August 2022

The cost-of-living crisis is tearing community safety nets to shreds

Local groups are often the only thing enabling a family to eat that week, a mother to take on work, or a lonely pensioner to keep going.

By Fergus Butler-Gallie

Father Louis Johnson is sanguine about most things. He is a lifelong Everton fan, which has taught him a lesson or two about the perils of false optimism. When I ask him about the effects of the cost-of-living crisis in Liverpool, his honesty doesn’t fail him: “The pressure is immense.”

He and I used to minister together, often spending weekday afternoons with the Roma community who congregated on a muddy patch of ground between Raggas Caribbean Café and the Toxteth Post Office. We provided learning resources, clothes, food and the means to register their children at local schools. The project – initially begun out of the back of a car by Sally Binymin, a Methodist minister – has graduated to St Dunstan’s, the church where Father Louis is now based. While this is an improvement on the rain and mud I remember, heating a vast neo-gothic barn of a building is proving a stretch.

In another of the churches in the team, St Bride’s, the Micah food bank gives out parcels to those in need. Rising costs mean demand has surged. The store room, which we used to joke seemed like an infinitely full Aladdin’s cave of instant noodles, tinned sardines and jam, “is now running very low indeed”, Father Louis says. It isn’t only food. Household items are a problem as well. Recently St Bride’s donated one of its office tables to a family who now eat dinner off it, their previous dining table having broken and a replacement being beyond their financial reach.

Up on Merseyside, they’ve started pronouncing the acronym for the cost-of-living crisis as if it’s a word in itself: “Colc”. It sounds a bit like the sort of thing you might get clogging up the back of a washing machine but, of course, the Colc is much more serious than that and it is haunting the city, like epidemics and outbreaks of yore.

[See also: The cost of running household appliances is shooting up]

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The Reverend Canon Dr Crispin Pailing, rector of Our Lady and St Nicholas in the centre of the city, expanded on it in raw, painful numerical terms: “The huge cost of utilities is a primary expense and budgets are having to be set 150 per cent higher than last year.” That is a jump in cost few churches or community groups can afford. “At the same time people’s ability to contribute is obviously impaired and we are seeing real need around us with those who access services we provide.” Canon Pailing’s church runs support groups for alcoholics, narcotic dependants and gambling addicts. Increasingly, small donations don’t touch the sides of heating costs, and so he is seeking corporate sponsorship instead.

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Liverpool is not alone in suffering so. The double whammy of rising costs and falling income is well reported on a micro-economic scale, but it is proving to be just as cataclysmic for the legions of small groups across the country that keep the fabric of the nation together. It isn’t just a money problem either, but a question of manpower. Often these groups are run by volunteers, who can increasingly ill afford the time it takes to run such initiatives. As casual work is used to prop up personal finances, the time people have to give to altruism is necessarily cut. As I walked past a row of charity shops in Tonbridge, Kent, the other day, I was struck that every one had a poster asking for people to give even just an hour of their week to help.

Millions of people attend local food banks, or book groups, or toddler drop ins, and more often than not these groups – imperfect expressions of charitable goodness though they may be – are the only thing enabling a family to eat that week, a mother to take on some hours of work, or a lonely pensioner to keep going. They will be there, in your community, whether you use them or not. The majority are run by faith organisations, with, as Liverpool shows, the Church of England at the forefront.

The Church’s possession of beautiful ancient buildings is in many ways a blessing but, while 11th-century stone vaulting might look stunning in the background of your wedding photos, heating it to a level whereby it is usable for the wider community has always been a challenge. Now it is becoming practically impossible. And while the wedding fees get passed up to the central diocese, the cost for heating remains paid at a ground level.

The pressure on these small aspects of community is the hidden side effect of the cost-of-living crisis and the sharp increase of the energy price gap. Support groups often teeter on the edge of viability as it is. Twenty pounds more on a heating bill or the loss of a single volunteer might seem like a small thing, but these are not multinationals or conglomerates and often these minor cuts are enough to constitute a death blow. The soaring cost of everything and the scourge of inflation will mean that many of these community initiatives will close, depriving people of what is, quite literally in some cases, a lifeline. Be they after school clubs, pensioner lunches or community pantries, these groups are little reminders of humanity in a world that seems increasingly inhumane, and of abundant generosity even while belts are being tightened. Their peril might be an economic side effect, but it will also be a human tragedy.

[See also: The Tories didn’t cause the energy crisis – but they have made it much worse]

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