‘Life or death.’ As Britons buckle under the cost of living crisis, many resort to ‘warm banks’ for heat this winter

By Sana Noor Haq, CNN

London CNN  —  In a community center in central London, a young child plays in a makeshift area as her caregiver rocks her stroller and chats to a friend.

The Oasis Centre in Waterloo sits in a four-story building that has a warm, inviting feeling, with plush chairs and lots of potted plants.

But it’s not your regular high street hangout. This is a haven for families and local people to escape the bitter squeeze of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis – if only for the afternoon.

The Oasis Centre in Waterloo, London, on December 1.

Thousands of warm banks have opened their doors across the UK this winter, as household budgets are squeezed even further by spiking energy bills and inflation reaches a 40-year high, leaving many scrambling to pay for basic necessities. There are more than 3,000 registered organizations running warm banks in Britain, according to the Warm Welcome Campaign, an initiative that signposts community-led responses to the cost-of-living crisis.

“A lot of people are struggling,” Charlotte, a community and families worker at the center, tells CNN. Her full name is not being disclosed for privacy reasons.

“We haven’t even really got to the peak of the living crisis yet,” the 33-year-old mother-of-four adds. “No one should be choosing whether to put food on the table or to put the heating on.”

The hub is funded by donations from individuals and local businesses, as well as grant incomes from charitable trusts.

The cost of living has risen sharply since early 2021, according to data from the UK government. From October 2021 to October 2022, domestic gas and electricity prices increased by 129% and 66% respectively, the same research found.

The average annual energy bill surged 96% from last autumn to £2,500 (roughly $3,000), with the UK government intervening to cap the unit cost of gas and electricity bills at that level until April 2023. However, the total amount consumers pay for their energy depends on their consumption habits, where they live, how they pay for energy and what type of meter they use, according to the UK’s regulator, Ofgem.

A welcoming sign outside the Oasis Centre, an open to all communal area which acts as a 'warm bank', in London, on December 12.

Charlotte, who works at and uses the warm space in Waterloo, says she limits her gas and electricity use in her flat. Instead of turning on the heating in the evening, she and her partner sit under quilts and use hot water bottles to stay warm, she says.

She also anticipates her household energy costs increasing over Christmas, as her children, who are between 4 and 17 years old, spend more time at home during the school holidays. At the moment, Charlotte spends most days at the hub and said this habit will continue over the holidays to help alleviate her costs at home.

‘I had to cry out for help’

Grace Richardson is an adult services manager at Future Projects in Norwich, in eastern England, an organization that offers health, housing and financial support to residents. She says her team started planning over the summer to provide a warm space in the organization’s Baseline Centre, located in an area with significant poverty.

“This winter in particular, it’s extremely important that we’re offering a space that people can turn everything off at home and they can save money,” she tells CNN.

“We’ve got people here working full time and they cannot make ends meet. That’s where the real difference is.”

From young parents to pensioners to students in their 20s, Richardson says that people from all walks of life use the warm space, with about 25 attending each day. The warm bank, where staff serve meals, is subsidized by grant funding from the local council and private or corporate foundations, as well as donations from individuals.

The café space at Future Projects' Baseline Centre in Norwich. The Centre, which serves as a community space, is currently undergoing renovation.

Michael John Edward Easter, 57, says the service at the Baseline Centre has been a lifeline for him this winter.

Easter, who has lymphedema in both legs and arthritis in one knee, is unable to work. Speaking to CNN earlier this month, he said he’d turned the heating on in his one-bedroom flat just twice so far this year to avoid spiking energy costs and compensate for a 50% increase in his weekly supermarket bill.

He says he “was in a mess” when he first reached out to the Baseline Centre in January for welfare advice, as he was dealing with mobility challenges and craved a sense of community.

“I was so ashamed and embarrassed, but I had to cry out for help,” he says. “I needed help and I just didn’t know where to turn to. If I’m totally honest, I’m very lonely.”

Richardson suggests the need for warm banks is a result of government inaction.

“I think that it highlights just how far removed our government is right now from the reality of real life. I think it screams … the divide between us and them, it’s only getting wider,” she says. “We keep referring to this as a cost of living crisis, as though it’s a period of time we’re going to go through and we will come out the other side. Will we? It’s life or death.”

A legacy of austerity

Energy prices have soared across Europe since fall 2021, driven in part by Russia’s war in Ukraine. But UK energy prices rose more sharply than in comparable economies such as France and Italy, analysts told CNN Business this summer.

In November, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt announced higher taxes and reduced public spending in an effort to heave the country out of a recession forecast to last just over a year and shrink its economy by just over 2%, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The UK is the only G7 economy that remains smaller than it was before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Snow-covered roofs on terraced houses in Aldershot, UK, on December 12. UK power prices jumped to record levels just as a lengthy spell of freezing temperatures caused a surge in demand.

The UK government also announced an Energy Bill Support Scheme worth £400 per eligible household, which will partially subsidize domestic energy bills from winter 2022 to 2023, as well as providing extra financial support to help pensioners pay their heating costs this winter under the Winter Fuel Payment scheme.

In December more than one million households with prepayment meters did not redeem their monthly energy support vouchers – included in the government’s Energy Bill Support Scheme – the BBC reported.

But Michael Marmot, a lead researcher in epidemiology and health inequalities, says years of austerity, paltry government support, cuts to spending on social welfare and infrastructure, and a lack of regulation in the UK’s energy market have plunged millions into fuel poverty.

“Poverty has been building up over the last dozen years and getting worse,” says Marmot, director of University College London’s Institute of Health Equity.

“We look the worst in G7 countries, we’re the only one in terms of recovery … that hasn’t gone back to where we were pre-pandemic. This is mismanagement on a colossal scale.”

An estimated 3.69 million households in the UK were in fuel poverty as of December 2020 compared with 6.99 million households in December 2022, Simon Francis, who coordinates the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, told CNN.

This figure is set to steadily increase, with more than three-quarters of UK households – 53 million people – forecast to be in fuel poverty by the new year, according to research by the University of York in northern England.

The human rights organization Save the Children has distributed 2,344 direct grants to low-income families in the UK in the past year, the Guardian reported. The head of the charity also called on the government to provide more support for families, as it predicts acute financial hardship for millions in January.

“What do you want a well-functioning society to do? At the minimum, people should be able to eat, to feed their families, have a safe dwelling … and a safe dwelling includes one that’s warm enough,” Marmot adds.

Flyers advertising the warm spaces service alongside complimentary refreshments for visitors, at the Ashburton Hall community hub, operated by Greenwich Leisure Ltd., in Croydon, UK, on December 15.

Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council in Scotland, says warm banks are “not a solution” to the cost of living crisis but rather “an emergency service.” The council has established more than 30 warm banks across the city in spaces including church halls, libraries, sports venues and cafes, and that number is expected to increase, according to Aitken. The service runs on council budgets and charitable donations.

“The solution is for people to be able to stay in their own homes,” she says.

“It’s bad enough that food banks have become a permanent fixture of communities across the UK now. To have places that people have to go to because they can’t afford to heat their own home is an absolute indictment (of government policy).”

CNN has reached out to the UK government for comment, but it did not respond.

‘Hidden form of poverty’

Back at the Oasis Centre, locals show up for anything from knitting circles to after-school clubs offering free hot meals.

Steve Chalke, the hub’s founder, says about 200 people use the facility daily for warmth. He says that he does not advertise the service as a warm bank because it is “dehumanizing.” Instead, he coordinates community-led events that are held in warm venues across the city.

“The idea is to not inquire and to not ask,” he says. “It’s stigmatizing and it’s traumatizing, you know, so you end up feeling a non-person. So we want to take away that stigma in every way we can.”

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Centre, at the hub in Waterloo, London, on December 1.

Francis, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition coordinator, says one of the most significant challenges to curbing fuel poverty is removing the taboo that people may feel when asking for support.

“I think one of the problems with fuel poverty … is it is quite a hidden form of poverty. People kind of … try and cover it up and try and get by,” he says. “We’re not going to know the full extent of the pain that people are suffering this winter, because there will be ways that people will disguise what it is that they’re doing.”

The mental health costs of fuel poverty are far-reaching, according to a 2020 report from the UCL Institute of Health Equity. The report said that young people living in cold homes are seven times more likely to have symptoms of poor mental health compared with those living in warm homes.

“There’s surprisingly lots of people that do have work, but yet it’s not enough to keep afloat, at least without needing some help,” says Bintu Tijani, a mother-of-four who goes to the Oasis Centre at least three times a week to warm up. “It’s having a significant impact on people’s wellbeing, mental health and wellbeing.”

A bleak Christmas

Looking ahead to Christmas and the New Year, Francis says he is also concerned about the strain that treatment needed for medical conditions exacerbated or caused by cold weather will have on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS).

“We’re still calling for the government to realize that if it doesn’t take action to support those who are the most vulnerable … it is going to see a huge increase in the number of people turning up at the NHS’ door to seek help because of the fact that they are now living in a cold, damp home and it is making them sick,” he says.

Britain’s NHS is already under pressure amid staff shortages, historic nurses’ strikes over poor pay and working conditions, and a backlog of treatments resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

Aitken, the councilor in Glasgow, believes this Christmas will “be a pretty miserable time” for many.

“A Christmas where you have to ration how long you can put your heating on in your home is not a good Christmas for anyone.”

CNN’s Anna Cooban contributed reporting.

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