News this week, that the UK government has (finally)  recognised the need to help people with their energy bills is welcome indeed. 

The governor of the Bank of England states: We are facing ‘apocalyptic’ food prices’. Citizens Advice  have advised: “The warning lights could not be flashing brighter. “ The moneysaving expert  Martin Lewis warns that civil unrest ‘isn’t far away’.

This is the bleak reality of where we are today.

When even the CEO of a major energy company warns that 40% of their customers face fuel poverty then surely this is what constitutes a crisis. 

It is a crisis where only the very rich are immune. 

Salaries, pensions and wages are not keeping up with inflation.

For some, that  may mean belt-tightening and a drop in a standard of living.  For others, it means they may not be able to pay their bills, which will add to their debt. And, if they cannot pay back that debt final demands will be made and they will be cut-off,  evicted, or hounded to pay what they cannot.  

Faced with eye-watering, shock-inducing bills just about everyone is making some adjustment to their lifestyle. Anecdotally, we are taking  fewer journeys by car, switching off lights, not using the oven.  

In cold weather people are afraid to put the heating on; they are wearing two fleeces and a coat, or going to bed early with a hot water bottle.  Some are resorting to spending all day on a heated bus… or the library.. or the shopping mall just to stay warm.

Rising energy costs are particularly hard on those who are in ill-health or are terminally ill. If they cannot afford to heat their homes, or to use the machines that will keep them comfortable  – and alive – this just adds to their stress and anxiety.

According to The Trussell Trust:

  • One in six people who receive Universal Credit needed to visit a food bank at least once since the start of December, according to new research
  • Almost 2m people were currently going without food, while others were living in cold conditions as they couldn’t afford to power and heat their homes

While people are actively cutting back on non-essential spending this takes its toll on charitable donations. It becomes a vicious circle whereby charities may not be able to help those most in need.

Rising costs will tip more people into poverty. People in low-income, young people starting out in their careers ( nurses, teachers, paramedics) in the gig economy or short-term contracts will feel it most. Poverty is a great leveller; it hits young and old. Elderly people relying on a small pension – what options do they have?

How long can someone live in an unheated home?  

Unhealthy living conditions  from ‘doing without’ will have a knock-on effect on social services and the NHS. An unheated home creates damp and mould, very quickly it can become a  health hazard. 

According to Professor Michael Marmot, 55% people have reported worsening health due the rise in living costs.  

With debt comes the inevitable spiral of panic, anxiety and fear, of losing everything and having nothing. Stress can lead to depression which can debilitate even the strongest of people. Balancing extra childcare costs while on benefits means that  working longer hours may not be the answer.

It’s difficult to imagine how hard must it be to engage with the world when you cannot afford to run and maintain a home – or feed and clothe your family?  

No-one should not to be treated differently because they are ‘poor’ – or suddenly poor because of rising costs and inflation.  We all deserve to be shown dignity. Even with the government subsidy the cost of utilities means that for many people the sums just don’t add up.

In Northern Ireland gas costs has gone up by more than 140% in less than a year. That’s a very, very real squeeze on already tight household budgets. No-one is getting a 140% salary raise.

We are all facing a difficult time and difficult decisions will have to be made.

It’s summer time now with longer evenings and warmer weather but the dark days of winter lie ahead. Will we eat, or heat?

To view the problem purely from an economic position  – with a cold eye and a hard heart – skews the reality of people’s lived experience. how they see it. How it is – for them.

If we are to know more about what people are going through- their experiences, what they value, the difficulties they face –  and why. Then we need to understand the problem holistically from a human-centric position.

The thing is: people don’t always behave ‘logically’.

On a tight budget it does not make economic sense to own a pet. Pets require special food, veterinary care, vaccines, licenses, boarding fees and grooming.

But, a pet gives much joy, support, comfort and company and adds untold quality to people’s lives.  Images of people fleeing Ukraine with only what they can carry – and their pets –  make it clear that a pet is a  valued member of the family. 

So, what is a luxury?

20 years ago people may have been able to live without a mobile phone, or a laptop –  but not now.

Many services are exclusively online, local banks have all but disappeared,  landlines are expensive and call boxes  a thing of the past.  To be without a mobile phone marginalises people. It limits their access  to information, support, education and entertainment.  When it is something that people can easily do without, it is not a luxury.

So, here we are: at home, sitting in the dark, all wrapped up, fearful of switching the heating on and going hungry.

Some people are making drastic measures to adapt their homes,  to live in a new way during this crisis.

“We’ve closed off the upstairs of the house,” says Janet. “We’ve converted our sitting room into a bedroom. So we live downstairs. I’ve put a curtain over the top of the stairs, which is very thick. And we just don’t use the upstairs of the house.”

Just as Pawnshops  are seeing increased trade, the biggest worry for most people  is how to eat, heat and manage bills against rising costs.  

In the (not too distant) past people were used to living in cold homes. In winter there was ice inside the windows and only one source of heat – a coal fire.

Homes were often damp, cold, draughty – and miserable. The coal fire was dirty, smoky, polluting and had to be carefully tended.

Central heating changed all that.

But, until homes are designed to be more energy efficient, using renewable energy sources, the UK housing stock – and public – will not withstand future crises.

Modern homes are much better insulated than older homes, but they are designed with the assumption that energy sources will be secure, efficient and affordable. 

What happens when they are not?

We will soon find out.

2022 will be a winter of discontent – and discomfort… and respiratory illnesses… and unhealthy homes… and bills that far outweigh earnings.

Image: Simon Berger @ Unsplash

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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