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5 October 2022

“People have nowhere to turn”: Britain’s first “warm banks” open their doors

Charities and councils offer refuge for people who cannot afford heating this winter.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

On Saturday 1 October, the average annual energy bill cap in the UK doubled on last winter. In response, halls, churches, spare rooms and other community spaces across the country began opening up as “warm banks”: places where people who cannot afford to heat their homes can warm up for free.

On a sodden Friday afternoon in Kennington, south London, the day before bills rose, pupils from a nearby secondary school run by the Oasis charitable trust rushed to a space, built into a renovated church, that the organisation calls its “living room”. They grabbed hot chocolates and biscuits.

The space is open to all members of the public. By 4.15pm it was full of children catching up with friends about the school day, while jostling in line for custard creams and bourbons. Their parents visited too, chatting, eating or finding quiet corners for phone calls. One mother watched on in amusement and horror as her son, who goes to the nearby primary school, launched himself at the toys in a crèche area designed for toddlers.

“If you want to come after school just to calm down from the activities you’ve been doing, then it’s a nice place to come just to relax,” I was told by Jada, who is in Year 7. “Everyone wants to get the hot chocolate.” There was visible disappointment among a gaggle of latecomers – held back at the end of school – when they realised the food and drink had run out.

The modern, cafe-style space, complete with colourful sofas and furnishings, used to be a coffee house before organisers repurposed it in April. As early as spring, they recognised the need for a place in which locals can warm up, instead of switching the heating on at home. “We know that families are struggling,” Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis, told me over the chatter of schoolchildren, and “we know that they already can’t afford to eat nutritious food. The gap between rich and poor was always there. Now, it’s a gulf.”

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The living room organisers, who also run a community fridge at the same location, plan to stay open all evening from the beginning of October to cope with rising demand from locals.

Last month, the government announced its “energy price guarantee”, which limits unit rates and the daily charge for gas and electricity. The cap means energy bills for a “typical” household with “average” use will be £2,500 annually. But this is not, as the Prime Minister Liz Truss misleadingly suggested in a recent media round, necessarily a freeze on bills – households could pay more depending on their use and size.

The government’s last-minute intervention is not enough to quell the fears that developed over summer that warm banks, such as the one run by Oasis, may be needed to help people survive. Food banks, but for energy.

“Obviously, once we’ve given to everybody, we have a chance to take [food from the community fridge] for ourselves,” I was told by Geraldine, a mother-of-two, while waiting for her son to finish school. “That’s helped me out quite a bit.” She spends two days working on the community fridge and another day on a different project that Oasis runs.

Similar spaces will be crucial across the country, she added: “It’ll be very important because it’s going to be cold; costs are rising, everything is rising.”

People’s reluctance to use heating during the winter will likely have deadly consequences: around 10,000 people die each year from health issues arising or worsening from living in a cold home, according to National Energy Action, the fuel poverty charity.

Spiralling bills coupled with limited government support will hit some groups harder than others. Despite the triple lock on pensions – which increases them in line with average wage growth, inflation or 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest) – many of Britain’s elderly are struggling with rising bills and prices. More than 200,000 people of pension age fell into poverty last year, a report from the Centre for Ageing Better revealed. If the government does not increase benefits in line with inflation, as the chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Philp, has hinted it won’t, then people with disabilities face a £1bn shortfall of support: which equates to £367-505 for each individual.

Pensioner households that normally receive the winter fuel payment will receive an extra £300 over the coming months, and the six million people on disability benefits will also receive an extra £150 from the government. (It should be noted, however, that prior to the current energy crisis, people with disabilities already faced average additional energy expenses of £583 per month – as a result of having to power specialist equipment for their care, for example.) 

Neil Bradbury, the chief executive of the Scarborough arm of the Age UK charity, said: “Vulnerable people, whether they’re old, disabled or have other health issues – or who have all three combined – are more consumptive of electricity and gas. There have been some small payments over the last year [to help] these subgroups, but I think they’re bearing the brunt of some of these challenges.”

From October, spare rooms in the offices of Age UK Scarborough will be open to people in need. Food, drinks, internet access and help from advisers will be available. Plans for their “warm rooms” began in March, Bradbury revealed.

Social stigma, as well as an inability for some to make the journey to his warm rooms, concerned Bradbury. There are also overheads for organisers to contend with: Age UK Scarborough’s office electricity bill was £500 for one month last winter, and “it’ll definitely be more expensive this year”, Bradbury predicted.

It is not just the charitable sector that is taking action. Across the country, councils have also been planning over the summer to open warm banks. In July, the Bristol mayor Marvin Rees made headlines when he tweeted that his council was planning on opening a “citywide” network of “welcoming spaces” in October.

[See also: What would energy rationing in the UK look like?]

Such schemes “should not become the norm” and “are not a sustainable solution” to the cost-of-living crisis, believes Andrew Western, the Labour leader of Trafford council and chair of the Local Government Association’s resources board. “The mainstream welfare system should ensure people have sufficient means to meet true living costs, alongside services which increase opportunity, promote financial wellbeing and lift people out of poverty for good.”

In August, the Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness Matt Warman said in an LBC interview that while warm banks “might be [welcome] for some people, they’re not going to be the only option”. Yet many visitors to the warm bank I visited “genuinely have nowhere to turn to” for help with life’s basics, or with work and benefits, according to the Oasis caseworker Jay Zakariyya, who added that central government alone did not give people enough guidance.

Having worked as a caseworker at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) during the height of the pandemic, he described the department as operating an “in-and-out service”, in which the turnover of people seeking help was prioritised above all else. DWP caseworkers had anywhere between 150-300 clients at any given time, he recalled.

The department “didn’t have the resources and the time” to properly train individual staff, so Zakariyya and his then colleagues did not feel confident they knew which benefits and options different people were entitled to. Work coaches at the DWP “are so overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to do”, he claimed, meaning that they “can’t offer a personal service where you’re genuinely trying to get people back into work”.

A government spokesperson told the New Statesman that the DWP “always endeavour” to meet high standards across its service, and that work coaches undergo a “comprehensive learning journey” to best serve claimants, adding that customer support was “boosted” during the pandemic, with the addition of 13,500 more support staff. They also pointed out the £1,200 payment to the country’s most vulnerable families, and the cap on the energy price to help households with rising gas and electric costs.

Where government provision is stretched, warm banks, food banks and other community hubs around the country are stepping in. “It’s quite scary and quite sad that I’m almost expecting a huge influx of people with serious needs looking for help in the coming months,” Zakariyya told me, as Oasis closed its community space for the day. “But on the flip side, it also justifies the work that we’re doing.”

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