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Left in the dark: The families struggling to survive fuel poverty

In this south Wales community, parents skip meals, kids wear coats to bed, and pensioners shower at the local pool

Seb Cook
27 July 2022, 11.25am

St Mellons, near Cardiff, where fuel poverty is an increasing problem


Stephen Davies / Alamy Stock Photo

“We used to put £20 a week in and now it’s more like £50,” says Gary*, discussing his family’s pre-paid electric meter. “That’s how bad it’s got, so we just knocked everything off. There’s nights where we just sit there in the dark.”

Gary and I had a long conversation about fuel poverty, but it is this image of him, his partner, daughter and granddaughter – three generations of one family – sitting at home with all the lights off that sticks with me. 

Gas usage is even more rationed in Gary's home, in the forgotten outskirts of Cardiff. Last winter, there were only three weeks where the family put the radiators on. 

“We all stay in one room… so we just stay warm that way,” he explains. “With all the prices going up, people can't afford to heat their homes, can't afford to cook.” 

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But if the previous winter was bad, Gary says the coming one will be far worse. “There'll be a lot of people struggling, especially the old and people with very young kids.”

A week after we met, Gary’s worst fears appeared to be confirmed. Martin Lewis, the founder of the Money Saving Expert financial website, warned that household energy costs could increase by a further 64% in October, with the energy price cap having already risen by 54% in April. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has predicted that households on the lowest incomes will be forced to spend 26% of their budget after housing costs on gas and electricity in 2023/24, compared to just 12% two years previously. 

Talking to Gary, it's clear that the effects of these price hikes are already intolerable.

This winter, people are going to be in cold homes and they’re still going to be struggling to feed their kids

Gary, a warm, friendly man in his late 40s, who helps those around him feel at ease through jokes, grew up near Bridgend in the shadow of the miners’ strike and has lived in south Wales for the majority of his adult life. We meet at the Beacon Centre, in the small community of Trowbridge, St Mellons, about halfway between Cardiff and Newport.

As we chat, Gary is leaning over a counter, serving teas, coffees and cakes to locals. He and his partner Susan* volunteer at the centre once a week as part of a food scheme called The Pantry. For up to £5 a week, people can come on a Tuesday to choose around £30 worth of food staples – in addition to plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables – and have free hot drinks and cake. Unlike at most food banks, you don’t have to prove your poverty to become a member.

Gary, who gave up a career in computer gaming to become Susan’s full-time carer, says helping out in this way lifts him out of what he describes as depression caused by living in poverty. But it means he’s now witness to the full scale of the crisis. 

“We got a lot more people coming in,” he says. “With everything going up in price, they can't afford to live. None of us can. But the system’s getting worse and worse… and it doesn't look like the government's helping anyone.”

Tins of food on a shelf

The Pantry is a lifeline for many, offering a weekly supply of food for £5


Seb Cook for openDemocracy. All rights reserved

I sit down with Helen Griffiths, a coordinator of The Pantry, who echoes the grim picture painted by Gary. Helen works for Hope St Mellons, an independent charity that not only helps run The Pantry but also administers a grant scheme – the St Mellons Mutual Aid Fund – for local people who need urgent financial help. 

Some 95% of those who get in touch with the aid fund do so because of fuel and food poverty, Helen tells me. ‘Running out of gas’ is the main reason cited for needing help. 

In the two years up to March 2022, the fund issued 318 payments to people across St Mellons, with the ward of Trowbridge, which is among the top 10% of deprived areas in Wales, receiving more than any other. 

In October last year, when Universal Credit was cut, the average number of monthly applications to the St Mellons Mutual Aid Fund almost doubled, from 11 to 19. 

Helen reveals another alarming statistic: 90% of those who reach out to the grant scheme are women – the majority of them single mothers. 

The mums she speaks to do not heat their homes during the day in winter, instead layering up to survive in a cold house so that they can put the radiators on for a bit when their children come home from school. 

Even so, Helen says many kids “regularly keep their coats on at home until they go to bed”.

In the summer, many families eat only cold meals, so as not to use energy on heating up food. “But in the winter, when it's gonna be hot meals, and you need the heating on, I just don't know how it's going to be possible for people,” Helen says.   

When we speak, Helen is almost lost for words trying to describe the cruelty of the situation: “It feels like people are being abandoned to face that choice between feeding their kids or having cold homes.

“And looking at this winter, it doesn't even feel like it’s going to be a choice… People are going to be in cold homes, and they're still going to be struggling to feed their kids.” 

Parents skipping meals to feed children

In Trowbridge, away from the Beacon Centre, I meet Emma*, a single mother in her early 30s. She tells me over a cup of tea in her kitchen how the spiralling cost of energy is dramatically affecting her and her children’s lives. 

Emma used to find that £20 on her pre-payment electric meter would last a fortnight. “Now it doesn’t even last me a week – it’s like five days,” she says. 

As a result, she is constantly getting into debt with her energy company, which lends her small top-ups each week but claws the money back from future payments. In the space of a few months, this debt has reached £200 – a huge chunk of her £650 monthly budget, which has to cover everything other than rent. 

“This is a struggle mentally,” Emma says. “I suffer anxiety, depression… my money just seems so much less.” 

Having recently been forced to sell her car because she couldn’t afford to run it, Emma has had to give up her role as a carer for her grandmother, who lives a two-hour bus journey away. This means she no longer receives any carer’s allowance. Worst of all, it compounds her sense of isolation. 

“I used to take her out, do her shopping,” she says, ruefully. “I can’t do it anymore… I miss my nan as well, she's like my mum.” 

This is a struggle mentally. I suffer anxiety, depression… my money just seems so much less

No longer able to drive to a cheaper supermarket such as Lidl or Aldi, Emma is forced to use more expensive local shops. Often, she will get her ten-year-old son to carry as much back as he can in his backpack while her younger daughter goes on her scooter. 

Emma has used a foodbank for the past two years, but travels to one further away as she doesn’t want people she knows to see her there. 

Like many parents in similar situations, Emma is desperate to shield her two young children from poverty – not wanting them to worry – but she finds it’s impossible.

Emma’s son plays for a local football team, and her pride is evident when she talks about him: “He’s so good, he’s amazing. I reckon one day he’s gonna get scouted.” 

But being a member of the team costs £150 a year, and Emma has had to plead with the coach, who she praises, to let her pay later. When it comes to things like school trips or family outings, it's even harder to find the money.

“All his friends do loads, and I'm just like, ‘I can’t’...” Emma says. “He’s pretty good, my boy, he understands. But yeah, it's bad.”

Coordinator Helen Griffiths says most of The Pantry’s members skip meals to prioritise feeding their children: “The kids will eat first and they [the parent] will eat if there is food. And that has a big impact on people's physical health as well.”

Back at the Beacon Centre, Gary tells me how his family is also forced to prioritise staying warm or using electricity above all other expenses, meaning everything else is sacrificed.

Both he and his partner rely on mains-powered medical equipment that runs through the night. Although it won’t be cut off, they still have to pay full price for the electricity. “It's the cost of staying alive,” he says.

Gary recalls how his family used to treat their granddaughter to a takeaway once a fortnight. “We don't even do that anymore,” he says softly.

“We tried growing our own [food],” he adds, describing one way they’ve attempted to shield themselves from rising prices. “But it comes up quite pathetic.”

A lifeline for the community

In my time in Trowbridge, I speak to people of all ages whose lives are being thrown into chaos by the soaring costs of food and energy.

Julia*, a pensioner, has had to dramatically reduce what she eats – now receiving all her food from The Pantry, for just £5 a week. She says she doesn't know where she’d be without the service. 

Although her doctor recommends she eats cooked vegetables and fish because of her diabetes, Julia can’t afford the electricity to turn the oven on, explaining she has “a sandwich instead of a hot meal now”. 

She’s also forced to have showers at the local swimming pool, taking advantage of the fact that, as a pensioner, she gets free swimming. 

“I don't want to think about winter, to be honest,” Julia says. “I'll just have to be cold, because there's no way… I'm a widow, I live on my own. I never ever thought, in this year, we’d be like this… that we would come to this.” 

Helen says that in winter, on the days the Beacon Centre is open, it’ll be a place people go to just to stay warm. She hopes financial assistance for the centre and for local people comes from the Welsh government, but holds out little hope when it comes to Westminster, which she feels has largely abandoned people. 

There are other issues compounding the fuel poverty crisis. People mention how hard it is to access health care – waiting for hours on the phone to the local surgery only to be cut off.

Helen also describes how the community has been ‘asset-stripped’ of public spaces where people can escape the cold. The Pantry is a lifeline in this situation and gives people a sense of pride to be part of what is more a movement than a charity.

Gary stresses how much the place has helped him and his partner. “The pandemic drove both of us down in our depressions, like many times we were saying, ‘what’s the point?’” 

Without places like The Pantry, I think the suicide rate would be quite high

What would happen if The Pantry didn’t exist, I ask. “Honestly,” Gary answers. “I think the suicide rate would be quite high because many times, I've thought about it myself.

“If it weren't for places like this, I don't know where I'd be… [I] don't get no help from doctors, not from government, not anywhere.”

Given what he has been through, it’s hardly surprising that Gary has lost all faith in the political system. “I wouldn't vote for any of them,” he tells me bluntly.

“Best thing this country can do is get rid of all governments and get fresh people… People who actually have lived the rubbish that the governments for the last 40 years have dumped on us.”

*Some names have been changed

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