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“It’s a system failure”: Tory “warm bank” constituents signal election warning

Disgruntled “warm bank” users in Conservative seats are a predictor of the party’s electoral wipeout.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio and Katharine Swindells

On a chilly Friday afternoon, three weeks before Christmas, the first snow of the year was turning to slush outside one of Britain’s first “warm banks” in Kennington, south London. Inside, a cross-section of Londoners were keeping themselves busy while avoiding the cold.

A group of women from the nearby estate had gathered for their weekly knitting meet-up, while a group of pupils discussed the World Cup in the library around the corner. “I just got here not too long ago,” said Leon, 16, who moved to the area a few weeks ago from Nigeria and lives with his uncle. It was his first time experiencing snow. “It’s cold!”

The modern, coffeehouse-style space in a repurposed church is run by the Oasis Charitable Trust. Recognising the impact the rising cost of living was having on people’s ability to pay their energy bills, it was one of the first places in Britain to open as a “warm bank”: a place where people who cannot afford to heat their homes can sit and warm up for free.

Since September, the number of warm banks – which exist in halls, churches, and other community hubs – that have opened up across the country has grown rapidly. More than 4,300 warm banks had opened by the end of November – an average of 475 new ones opening every week.

Organisers at Oasis said that demand for their space had reached a “tipping point” over the past few weeks, with more people coming in to keep warm. “The whole place is buzzing almost on a daily basis,” said David, 38, a local resident who was sitting on a black, velveted-covered chair.

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David and his friends are feeling the pressure from the cost-of-living crisis: “ We’re too afraid to turn on the heating, even though it’s freezing. We just sit in our jackets”.

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“It’s so nice to have this space – it makes such a difference,” he continued. “There’s a lot more poverty around and a lot more struggle going on these days.”

The scene in Kennington is one that is not exclusive to the capital. It reflects the situation across the country.

[See also: The cost of living crisis is pushing disabled people into poverty]

Warm banks span every part of the country, and every political subgroup according to data from the Warm Welcome campaign. From the heart of the Red Wall in Doncaster Central (14 warm banks); to the SNP’s Stirling (six warm banks); to the Tory stronghold of East Devon (16 warm banks), spaces where people are able to go to warm up for free are increasingly common.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition estimates that 22 per cent of the country are now officially in fuel poverty – meaning after they’ve paid their energy bills their residual income is below the poverty line – up from 13 per cent in 2020.

In Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield more than 40 per cent of households are estimated to be in fuel poverty. Most of England’s high-fuel poverty constituencies are already represented by Labour MPs, but every constituency in England with 30 per cent or more households in fuel poverty is predicted to become a Labour seat in the next election.

The New Statesman Britain Predicts election model shows that current Labour seats with high levels of fuel poverty are predicted to return with significant majorities. Meanwhile, Tory seats in high-fuel poverty areas are expected to swing strongly back to Labour.

[See also: Michael Marmot: The causes of fuel poverty are all avoidable]

“Stoke-on-Trent is one of the most deprived areas in the country, and we have an incredible network of community organisations,” said Birgit Allport, 53, who started the Better Together Community Centre in the Conservative constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central in 2018. “However, it's never enough,” she added.

Allport, who is originally from Berlin, started the community group so that people around her age could meet and socialise without going to the pub. Demand has soared in recent months. “Definitely double the numbers, if not more” now claim the food parcels, and attend the warm space in the community centre, which has run since the cost-of-living-crisis began. “We have some families where both parents are working and they still can't cover the bills – and that is so heart-breaking to see,” she added.

Jo Gideon, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, is currently a patron of the Better Together charity that Allport runs. Allport describes the Conservative MP – who flipped the constituency and won her seat in 2019 with a 2.1 percentage point majority – as “fantastic in supporting us” and kind-hearted.

It’s “difficult to say,” Allport concluded, whether Gideon – whose party’s policies set out in its Autumn Statement will see the largest drop in household disposable incomes since records began – will personally face political consequences at the next general election. “Yes, she's a Conservative MP. But if you ask her for help, she will help you.”

As of 9 December 2022, the Britain Predicts model forecasts that Stoke-on-Trent Central will swing back to Labour with a 36-point lead. On this prediction, Gideon may lose her seat by 36 points – with her party losing more than 250 seats, with barely 100 MPs in the Commons.

[See also: How many people in the UK are nearing fuel poverty?]

Many see the rise and necessity of food banks, and now warm banks, as a consequence of political choices made by the Conservative Party over the past 12 years. In 2010/11, the Trussell Trust, one of Britain’s largest food bank networks, had around 35 food bank centres. Now, that number stands at more than 1,200 – which accounts for more than a third of all food banks across Britain.

In the constituency of Don Valley, which covers villages on the outskirts of Doncaster, the Conservative MP Nick Fletcher only has an eight point majority. In his constituency, there are 15 warm banks open, according to the Warm Welcome website, and another seven are registered to open; among the highest in the country.

This summer, rising energy bills meant that The Ark, a community café in Rossington, Don Valley, couldn’t afford to stay in business. But instead of closing down completely, it chose to shut the money-making part of the business, and become a not-for-profit community centre funded by council grants and donations. It distributes food parcels and offers a warm space for locals.

The Ark welcomes around 60 attendees a week. Elaine Spencer, the hub's organiser said: “Rossington is an area that is known to be deprived, some of the poverty comes from the fact that the colliery used to employ 2,000 people,” she explained. “Now, we’ve got gigantic Amazon warehouses and we had Rossington people who worked at Doncaster airport, and now that’s closing down; lots of them are out of work, or worrying that they will be soon.

“People tell me ‘I feel like a failure because I can’t feed my children’,” Spencer added, “and you have to convince them that ‘you’re not a failure, and you’re not the only one.’ It’s a failure of the system.”

The Britain Predicts model forecasts that Don Valley will swing back to Labour with a 24-point margin.

Back in the Oasis “living room” space in Kennington, as the evening fell and the snow continued to slowly melt, staff prepared roast potatoes and other festive food for an evening gathering.

Many running warm spaces see themselves as a “safety net” to the government’s own safety net, with Universal Credit, pensions and other benefits often failing to offset the rising cost of living.

As government provision becomes increasingly ineffective, food banks, warm banks and other community hubs across the country, such as Oasis, are constantly having to evolve to meet increasing local needs.

“I [previously] came here for studying,” said Nawesa, a mother-of-two who moved to the area from Afghanistan six years ago. “I was preparing for a GCSE exam, and I noticed it was very calm and quiet. But now I can see everyone's here!” she continued, as her daughter, aged seven, slumped down on a nearby chair after playing in the toy area.

For Nawesa, like millions across Britain, soaring inflation and the cost-of-living crisis makes this year incomparable to the previous one. “Heating, shopping, every day I'm thinking: ‘I must be careful how much I must spend – for everything,” she said. “Before this situation there was Covid. There’s another nightmare now.”

[See also: Fuel efficiency gap will cost households hundreds of pounds]