People struggling to heat their homes amid rising energy prices will be able to gather at art galleries, community centres and libraries earmarked as communal “warm banks” in council-led initiatives around the country.
Birmingham, Bristol, Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen councils are among those investigating using public spaces as refuges for people unable to afford to heat their homes, in the same way that food banks are available for those who cannot afford essentials. The response came amid fears that household energy bills, expected to rise by 80 per cent to an average of £3,549 in October, could make it too expensive for millions to heat their homes.
Birmingham was the latest council to announce a scheme to combat this, using public buildings. Residents would be able to access their nearest “warm bank” by searching a “heat bank map”.
Council officers are looking at local community centres, places of worship or libraries to include, said John Cotton, a council cabinet member for social justice, community safety and equalities. The Labour councillor posted on Twitter that “households are on the brink and the Tory government is missing in action”. He added that the Birmingham Labour group “will not stand idly by when so many Brummies will struggle to keep warm this winter”.
Cotton also told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “We want to help people to find places where they will be welcomed, free of charge. As a council we will then work with our partners across the city to identify gaps in provision and find solutions to fill them. It should not be the case that people cannot afford to keep their homes warm, but that is the reality that we are facing here in Birmingham.”
One of the first councils to look into using public buildings to provide “welcoming places” for those unable to afford to heat their homes was Bristol. In June Marvin Rees, the mayor, said: “It almost sounds like wartime but we’ll be working with community organisations and partners around the city to set up warm places that people can go to if they need to, come the autumn.”
Scotland’s Sunday Mail reported last month that at least nine Scottish councils were also looking into the idea, with Dundee designating “cosy spaces”.
In England Catherine Donovan, deputy leader of Gateshead council, said they were creating a network of “warm spaces where people can come together to stay warm, perhaps enjoy a cuppa and a biscuit”.
Steve Chalke, a canon at Southwark Cathedral in London and founder of Oasis, a group that runs schools and community centres, said they began planning for this winter in the spring.
“We sat down in May, when everybody knew that this winter was going to be tough, and a little team began thinking about our response to the cost of living crisis.” They are setting up a scheme called “living rooms”, which will be heated spaces that also offer other services. “The point is that you don’t have to telegraph that you’re coming for the warm space. You could be coming for the poetry evening or because there’s a book launch, film or bingo,” he said. “You don’t have to say I can’t afford to run my heating.”
Ofgem, the energy regulator, told the government that it must act urgently to “match the scale of the crisis we have before us” when it raised the energy price cap by 80 per cent last week. The rise will affect about 24 million households in England, Scotland and Wales when it takes effect on October 1. It will stay in place until December 31, when it will be adjusted again. The latest estimates predict that average bills could surge again to about £5,400 in January and £7,000 in April.
A poll published yesterday found that almost one in four adults, 23 per cent, plan to keep their heating turned off this winter. The Savanta ComRes survey of 2,000 adults, which was carried out before the price cap rise was announced, found that among parents with children under 18 the figure was even higher, at 27 per cent.
Almost 70 per cent of adults said that even if they kept the heating on they planned to use it less.
Labour accused the government of ignoring an impending economic catastrophe.
The government said: “We know people are incredibly worried about rising energy bills, following unprecedented gas prices across the continent driven by global events”, which it said included President “Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and his weaponisation of energy in Europe. Direct support will continue to reach people’s pockets in the weeks and months ahead, targeted at those who need it most.”