Eating or heating?

Why fuel poverty + food poverty is threatening the most vulnerable

By Louisa Hobbs, Operations Manager MK Food Bank

Every day MK Food Bank volunteers speak to dozens of individuals and families who need emergency food. There are many reasons why people find themselves in the horrible, scary situation of being unable to buy food for themselves and their families – unemployment, sickness, family bereavement or unexpected bills all common causes. At this time of year however, one factor is cited again and again: high home energy bills.

According to National Energy Action the national fuel poverty charity, an estimated 4 million homes in the UK are in the grip of fuel poverty, unable to afford to heat their homes to a temperature that will keep them warm and healthy, or even having to make the impossible decision of heating their home or feeding their children. The looming increase to the price cap in April could throw millions more into this predicament.

A MK Citizen investigation in September 2021 identified 6% of all Milton Keynes households as living in fuel poverty – a total of 6,746 households at the time. Since this data was available however, increases to the fuel price cap, and the cut to Universal Credits in October have served a double blow to families on the lowest incomes.

The number of households in our region who are either in, or at risk of falling into fuel poverty is at a critical point. At a very basic level this mean far too many people are living in cold, unsafe homes. Fuel poverty can affect anyone on a short-term basis, but thousands of vulnerable people in our communities are at risk of facing devastating impacts for far longer. Many families on low incomes or who rely on benefits, the elderly and disabled, and those with health conditions are dealing with a bleak winter.

The impacts
While increasing energy costs will inconvenience many of us, those on the lowest incomes living in inefficient homes will not only face financial hardship, but also unbearable living conditions and ill health. Major impacts of fuel poverty include:

• Debt. Struggling to pay energy bills for a long period of time can lead to levels of debt that become unmanageable and can be very difficult to get out of. This vicious circle can lead to even higher costs for the poorest in the community, resulting in frequent spells with no heating or hot water at all.
• Ill health. Cold, damp homes are proven to seriously affect heart and lung conditions such as bronchitis and asthma, and thousands of deaths every year are attributable to cold homes. Mental health can also be affected and the risk of self-harm and suicide increases for those living in fuel poverty.
• Impacts on children. Without a warm home environment, a child’s education and ability to concentrate will suffer. A lack of hot water can also lead to personal hygiene issues and subsequent bullying.

What can people do?
Get advice and support. If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing financial hardship which has been brought on or worsened by the cold weather, please speak to local organisations like MK Food Bank for a food voucher, Citizens Advice Bureau or Children and Family centres who can all offer advice in this difficult time.

Lend your support

In response to the current fuel pressures, the Milton Keynes Child Poverty Partnership, of whom MK Food Bank is a founding member, will soon be launching their Fair Fuel For All campaign. The campaign will specifically focus on the unfair practices in the rental and social housing systems in particular. To add your voice to the campaign and keep in touch with the work of the MKCPP, check out their website or follow on Instagram @milton_keynes_cpp