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’.

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. 

Unlike Covid, this is a crisis where rich people are immune. 

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

For some people 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 final demands cannot be made and they could 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 as much as before.  

In cold weather people are afraid to put their heating on. At home they wear two fleeces and a coat, or go to bed early with a hot water bottle.  Some resort 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 with ill-health or those who are terminally ill. They need to be able to heat their homes and use equipment that will keep them comfortable and alive. High energy costs and fuel poverty 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…
  • 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

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

An estimated 6 million people are in fuel poverty.

People in low-income, young people starting out in their careers ( nurses, teachers, paramedics) people working in the gig economy or short-term contracts will feel it most.

Poverty is a great leveller; it hits both young and old.

How long can someone live in an unheated home?  

An unheated home very quickly leads to damp and mould and becomes a  health hazard.  

Living in unhealthy conditions  from ‘doing without’ ultimately impacts on social services and the NHS. It is a knock-on effect.

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.

How hard it must be to engage with the world when you cannot afford to run and maintain a home – or feed and clothe your family?  

Even with the government subsidy, the cost of utilities means that for many people the sums just don’t add up.

In Northern Ireland, for example, 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% rise in salary.

We face a difficult time ahead – and difficult decisions will have to be made.

It’s summer time now, longer evenings and warmer weather, but the dark days of winter lie ahead.

Will we eat, or heat?

To view this 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.

For example: if you are 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. And yet a pet gives much joy, support, comfort and company. A pet can add untold quality to people’s lives. 

Images of people fleeing Ukraine with only what they can carry – and their pets –  demonstrates that a pet is not a luxury. A pet is a  valued member of the family.

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. 

In society today a mobile phone is an essential – 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.

During this crisis people are taking drastic measures to adapt their homes.

“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.”

The biggest worry for most people  is how to eat, heat and manage bills against rising costs. Meanwhile,  Pawnshops  are seeing an increase in trade cashing in on desperation.

In the (not too distant) past people were used to living in cold homes. In winter there was often ice inside the windows.

Homes were often damp, cold, draughty and had only one source of heat – a coal fire. It was also dirty, smoky, polluting and had to be carefully tended.

Central heating changed all that.

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

But, until homes are designed to be more energy efficient using renewable energy sources, it seems the current UK housing stock will remain vulnerable to future crises.

2022 will be a winter of discontent.

And discomfort… respiratory illnesses… unhealthy homes… and bills that far outweigh earnings. That’s for sure.

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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