"Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won't all be poor." — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
There’s an ancient curse that says, “may you live in interesting times”. Well, we’re certainly experiencing all that and more as we head into 2023. Whether caused by the war in Ukraine, by the continuing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, by something else or through a combination of them all, the fact is that the cost of living is soaring. As we head into 2023, energy prices have increased; inflation is at its highest rate for 40 years; mortgages are going up with increasing interest rates; the prices for even the most essential items seem to keep rising and rising. It seems inescapable. Almost everyone is now feeling the squeeze and those with the least are suffering the most.
"We are living through strange and uncertain times and millions of people across the UK are experiencing real hardship. Whilst some government support is available, from both national and devolved administrations, it is heartening to see how individuals and communities have risen to the challenge and come together to help some of the most vulnerable in our society."
In summer last year, a survey revealed that around 1 in 6 UK households were in “serious financial difficulties” and struggling to pay for essentials like food and bills. The same survey revealed that Scotland was also being hit harder than England: where 15% of English households were reported to be in serious financial difficulties, that figure was 21% in Scotland. 34% of Scottish households - 850,000 households - also reported having no savings at all, no safety net to offer protection. Now that we are in the depths of winter and prices have continued to rise, this situation is only going to have worsened. Into Spring, energy bills in the UK are forecast to increase by 73% as the UK Government begins to withdraw support for household bill payers from April.
Help is available from a number of places:
There is a UK Government website to help people understand all of the support available with the cost of living: Cost of living support.
The Scottish Government has set up a Home Energy website to help people to make sure that they are getting all the help they can to reduce their bills and to keep their homes warm through the winter and beyond: Home Energy Scotland.
At Housing Online, we’ve blogged before about how social housing in Scotland has been leading the way in driving a focus on sustainable housing and providing people with warm, energy-efficient homes. This is fantastic, of course, but for many people this is going to have little immediate impact on their household budgets or help them to feed their families. For that, other services have become an unexpectedly essential part of everyday life.
Leaving aside the politics of why these places need to exist at all, there are now over 3,000 foodbanks in the UK providing basic supplies free of charge to anyone who needs them. Around 1,300 of these are provided by the Trussell Trust who say that, in the UK, more than 14 million people are now living in poverty, including 4.5 million children. According to their last annual report, the last twelve months saw the Trust distribute 2.1m emergency food parcels to people facing hardship: this is an increase of 14% on the year before as more and more people fall into poverty. That is a truly shocking statistic that lays bare the scale of the challenges people are facing.
Until this winter, not too many people had even heard the term “heatbank”, but now publicly available spaces providing free access to warmth have become an essential part of the landscape. There are now apparently something like 3,500 warm banks across the UK, including churches, village halls and libraries, but also appearing in places as rarefied as the 290 year old Royal Opera House in London. A website featuring an interactive map of publicly accessible warm spaces has been put together by a team of volunteers in Norwich because, when they looked for a list in August 2022, they couldn’t find one. They have now listed over 1,000 places offering warmth and community and can barely keep up with requests to add new listings or to deal with correspondence from those desperate to get some help - their website is available at: Warm Spaces.
In Scotland, South Lanarkshire council are running a “Warm Welcome” initiative to create a network of places where residents can go to access support, activities and facilities. They have a handy postcode lookup to an interactive map of Warm Welcome locations, and are offering grants of up to £1000 to help community groups set up their own venues and to help with costs. More details can be found on their website: Warm Welcome.
Other forms of support are available too: in West Dunbartonshire, a taxi driver has set up a network to support men seeking help during the tough winter months. Jamie McClean set up "Mentor Scotland" to help break the stigma around men seeking support for their mental health, and accelerated his plans when he realised how much the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis were isolating some men dealing with mental health issues who felt like they had nowhere to turn. The group meets once a week in Dumbarton on a Friday and provides a forum for men to share their worries and concerns and to open up about their mental health.
We are living through strange and uncertain times and millions of people across the UK are experiencing real hardship. Whilst some government support is available, from both national and devolved administrations, it is heartening to see how individuals and communities have risen to the challenge and come together to help some of the most vulnerable in our society. The cost of living crisis looks set to stretch further into 2023 and beyond, but perhaps we can hope that we will continue to see people at their best as they look to assist people experiencing their worst.
About Housing Online
Housing Online design and build digital solutions for Housing Associations across the UK and beyond. Our My Home Tenant Portal is live in 25 organisations across Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, many with fully integrated websites designed and developed by our team. In April 2021, in collaboration with seven Scottish Housing Associations, we successfully launched These Homes, a Choice Based Lettings web solution.