This is a question and answer piece with some charities from Shropshire, including Citizens Advice Shropshire, Age UK Shropshire Telford & Wrekin, Marches Energy Agency and Shropshire Food Poverty Alliance. This is the second in a series of interviews which further explore the impact of the cost of living crisis on individuals and charities.
We asked these rural charities some questions about how the increase in the cost of living is affecting organisations in their area and their service users in Shropshire. Their collective responses were as follows.
How is the rise in the overall cost of living affecting service users in your area?
The cost of living crisis is a nationwide emergency, but working in a rural county such as Shropshire brings added layers of complexity. For many, rural England conjures images of beautiful, idyllic, prosperous villages—which do not reflect the reality of many of those who live in rural communities. National deprivation indices are dominated by characteristics of urban populations, making them less relevant in rural settings and leading to rural areas often being overlooked by national funding structures. This back drop of hidden inequalities, combined with the unique challenges presented by a rural geography (lack of access to services, public transport, affordable food retailers, a low wage economy), has a number of implications for working in a rural setting.
The rise in energy costs and fuel is having a huge impact in our county. The energy price cap has obvious implications but many rural households are also not on the mains gas grid, instead relying on oil, LPG or solid fuel central heating systems, for which there is currently no government regulation and it is not always possible to spread the cost (1,000 litres of heating oil currently costs over £1,000, an average household will use around 2,000 litres of heating oil a year).
We know that the pandemic has exacerbated health inequalities, the cost of living crisis will do the same. The mental and physical health implications of rising poverty and hardship also cannot be overstated.
How has this crisis impacted upon you and your ways of working?
For those working across the voluntary sector in Shropshire, there is one phrase that has come up time and time again in recent months: lack of capacity.
Many organisations were in the process of trying to regain an even footing after the outbreak of covid, reassessing their ways of working and what their organisations look like in a post-covid world. Unfortunately, we are now lurching straight from one crisis to another. And in many ways the cost of living crisis presents an even greater challenge to our sector.
Citizens Advice Shropshire are seeing an increase in clients reporting they are going without food, and are having to make an increasing amount of food bank referrals. Citizens Advice national polling in June 2022 found that in the West Midlands, a majority of people predict having to cut back on food and household goods in the next six months and people are worried they will have to choose between eating and heating after the October price cap rise. By the end of June, nationally they had already seen more people coming to Citizens Advice for help with energy issues than in the whole of 2020 and 2019. Age UK has also seen an increased demand in the number of older people seeking benefits advice and is struggling to meet the demand, they anticipate this will increase significantly as we go into the winter months.
Marches Energy Agency, charity energy specialists, have seen a steep rise in not only the number of people coming to them for help, but also in the severity and complexity of the issues they face. Many of those coming to them for help have not needed this type of support before. In many cases, people are struggling with in-work poverty despite previously being relatively comfortable, and they feel shame and stigma about reaching out for help.
How is the increase in fuel and transportation costs affecting people in your local area, including your staff?
Being a rural county, people are much more reliant on their cars than those in an urban setting. Citizens Advice internal analysis has shown that a household living in a rural setting, that needs one driver to travel 25 miles per day (such as for work and food shopping and medical necessities) at 35 miles per gallon of unleaded petrol, faces a 12.2% increase in costs—an increase of £22.16 per week which amounts to £1,152.45 per year. One of the biggest concerns in Shropshire is around care workers who use their own vehicles to travel between households and are finding that it is not financially viable to do this vital work in the current economic climate. Another concern is the impact this price rise will have on volunteering, which many organisations rely on to meet need. Our sector is committed to compensating staff fairly for their hard work and supporting them through the cost of living crisis, but this does raise challenges for small charities with limited funding.
How is the increase in the cost of food affecting people in your local area?
Ideally, food banks should not have to exist. There is a growing acknowledgment that (despite the tireless work of those that run them) they can only provide a sticking plaster, propping up a failing social security system and the wider systemic issues that lead to the chronic insecure and insufficient income which drives food bank use. So, it is perhaps most worrying that this informal safety net is now starting to burst at the seams. Food banks are reporting being ‘squeezed from both sides’ with demand at a record high as donations start to fall off. Many are dipping into reserves and are worried how long they will be able to financially sustain themselves. In the words of one food bank manager, ‘I find myself talking less and less about poverty, and more about destitution.’
This crisis is having a widespread impact on the health of our population. Healthy diets are less and less affordable for those on a low-income. Nationally, the percentage of children with obesity in their first year of school has risen by nearly 50% in one year, affecting twice as many children in the most deprived fifth of the population compared with the least deprived fifth for example. The poorest fifth of households would also need to spend 47% of their disposable income on food in order to consume the recommended healthy diet. The inability of people to afford to heat their homes also brings with it serious health implications. Being cold at home can cause or worsen cardio-vascular problems such as heart attack, stroke, and deep vein thrombosis.
What support do you need from funders and philanthropists?
There is a real human cost to the economic crisis we are facing. The voluntary sector has always been strong in its ability to adapt quickly and respond creatively to crisis, to reach people and communities that the statutory sector cannot. However, we cannot get away from the fact that across the board we are overstretched and under resourced. To be able to meet the needs of our communities we need both short-term emergency funding, but in the longer term, funding which is over longer time scales to enable charities to develop sustainable long-term support in the community. There is a consensus across the sector that we will need extra crisis support for a minimum of two years to be able to address the challenges presented by this crisis.
Longer-term funding for core costs will also increase the ability of charities in rural areas to attract and retain the skilled staff they need to tackle the complex crisis we are facing. Many charities are fortunate to have understanding and flexible funders who have enabled them to adapt to the challenges brought on by the pandemic. What we need now is a continuation of that flexibility, and a recognition that money simply does not go as far as it used to.
What support do you need from government, both national and local?
Looking at the wider context, there is also much that can be done at both a local and national government level to help the voluntary sector support vulnerable residents. Local authorities must make transparency about the processes surrounding existing support and discretionary schemes a priority. Clear, consistent communication with partners and the public is crucial to make sure help is reaching all those who are entitled to it. They must consult with voluntary sector partners as we hold a lot of insight into how best to target help and make schemes as accessible as possible. The voluntary sector must be viewed as an equal partner if we are to bring about the change we all want to see in our communities. We acknowledge the pressures faced by local authorities who are often given very little forewarning of new discretionary funding and support schemes. We applaud our local authority’s approach to delivering discretionary schemes such as the Household Support Fund in a ‘cash-first’ way. This approach ensures struggling households receive the support they need in the most dignified way possible and we very much hope to see this approach carried forward and adopted in other areas.
At a national level, we need a commitment to support beyond the end of this year so that individuals and organisations can plan. If we are going to solve the long-term issue of rising poverty, we have to address the fact that many working people cannot currently afford life’s essentials—in-work poverty is now at a record high, as is the number of children in poverty living in a household where at least one adult is in work. In Shropshire, many food banks are opening after work slots to cater for those who cannot get there during working hours. We need a real living wage, secure employment contracts and affordable childcare. We would like to see a reduction in fuel duty and VAT to ease the pressure on householders’ finances too. Finally, the social security system needs to be bolstered including the removal of the two-child benefit limit, stopping deductions from benefits until inflation falls, removing delays in benefits payments, and uprating benefits in line with inflation.