Rising costs of everyday items like milk, bread and cheese, alongside the surge in energy and fuel bills, are having a major impact on families across the country.
In East Durham, the picture is a bleak one, with many people struggling to feed themselves and their families or heat their homes. Lindsey Wood from East Durham Trust tells us what the Peterlee-based charity is doing to help…
EDB: Tell us more about East Durham Trust. LW: East Durham Trust is a flagship voluntary and community sector support organisation, based at Community House in Peterlee, and serving the whole of the East Durham area. We deliver poverty reduction interventions, along with social inclusion and arts engagement opportunities. We operate a hub and spoke model, working in partnership with various key community organisations, statutory sector partners and volunteers, supporting some of the most marginalised communities.
Many people are aware of the Trust’s Food Bank project, FEED, that has been in operation now for over eleven years and has supported tens of thousands of people in financial crisis with the provision of emergency food.
Not as many people are aware that the Trust also supports a much wider range of community interventions, ranging from accredited debt advice, welfare and benefit advice, telephone befriending for isolated residents, employability and job search support, social interaction groups, holiday activities for families with food, emotional resilience and mental health initiatives, and an arts engagement and participation project to help raise community aspirations.
We operate from purpose-built premises, at the heart of one of the most deprived wards in East Durham. Our building boasts both professional meeting spaces and a bespoke arts café as well as offices that are a hub for the support we provide.
EDB: We’re all acutely aware of the cost of living crisis. How is that affecting people in the East Durham community. LW: With just over 48% of the population of East Durham living in areas that are in the top 10% most deprived areas nationally in terms of employment, 25% of local children living in households with low income and 16% of local residents living in fuel poverty, you can well imagine that the cost of living crisis is having a significant impact on the people of East Durham.
Many of the figures quoted are from statistics gathered prior to the pandemic, and we know that East Durham communities were disproportionately affected during this challenging time. More recent up to date statistics once collated are likely to present a far worse picture. More recent figures regarding eligibility of children for free school meals in 2022 stands at 35%, this is against a national average of 22%.
These key figures demonstrate that many people living in East Durham were already living in financial deprivation, some at destitution, even before the real impact of the cost of living crisis takes its toll.
EDB: So how does this look on the ground? LW: The Trust is seeing a huge influx of people presenting for support with food and fuel. Food parcel referrals increased 30% in the month of August when compared to the same period last year.
Many people accessing support have never received help before, with some commenting that they had previously donated regularly to the food bank and feeling embarrassed that they are now need help themselves. People don’t have the financial headroom to absorb the increases in costs, and are not eating sufficient food or choosing to self disconnect from their energy supply or run their homes with very minimal light or heat.
These measures in themselves cause challenges to fire safety, as people potentially resort to using camping stoves in their home and candles etc. I think it no exaggeration to state there is a real cause for concern that lives will be lost. From malnourishment, hypothermia or suicide. We hear stories of people not attending medical appointments as they simply can’t afford the transport costs. We are also already seeing the fall out in terms of the affects on mental health and wellbeing. It’s not unusual for the Trust to receive calls from local residents in a very distressed state, some needing support from mental health crisis intervention. I genuinely fear what is to come in the months ahead.
EDB: What is the Trust doing to help people impacted by the crisis? LW: The Trust will continue to operate its existing financial wellbeing and poverty intervention services, including food crisis support, the distribution of energy vouchers, and Information, Advice and Guidance services, helping residents with debt and welfare advice and support.
Working with a number of community groups and venues across East Durham, we are looking to set up warm hubs, where people can come along for a cuppa, maybe some soup or a hot meal. A place where they can be warm, charge electrical appliances such as mobile phones and have the opportunity to engage socially with their fellow local community.
We will also be running a range of workshops to help people with budgeting and energy efficiency and ensure that they are fully aware of all initiatives available to help during these challenging times.
Alongside all of this, we are working with partners, to deliver a programme of emotional wellbeing support, which will include one to one counselling, peer support groups, mutual aid development support, and relaxation sessions, such as yoga and tai chi.
Plans for the future include creating more community growing spaces across East Durham and potentially the development of a community energy initiative. We hope such measure might help to protect our communities somewhat going forward.
We are all but too aware that the number of people requiring support will increase exponentially in the coming months, and we are putting appropriate plans in place to help meet this need, by working closely with our community partners, volunteers and stakeholders.
EDB: What can the business community do to help? LW: At a very basic level, the business community can help meet increasing need for food poverty intervention by hosting a food drive, and collecting non perishable food items for the Trust’s food bank, FEED. Other items that could potentially be collected for distribution might include warm blankets, warm clothing or hot water bottles etc. Local business involved in the production of food items may wish to consider involving the Trust in their food waste reduction strategy.
Organisations might also want to consider offering staff opportunity to volunteer, this could include supporting practical tasks such as help in the food bank to more strategic support such as helping with marketing activity.
Historically we have worked with local businesses who have provided additional storage capacity in their premises to help out at times when we have received an influx in donations.
Given the rich and varied nature of the business community of East Durham, I would encourage any local companies to think out of the box and to get in touch with the Trust should they have their own ideas of how they might help.
Finally, I would encourage everyone to be thinking about how they can help members of their own neighbourhood. This might include dropping a hot meal off for someone you know might be struggling, or even creating neighbourhood supper clubs, where people take their turn to cook for one another. Keeping an eye on the most vulnerable members of our community during this time sits with us all and only by pulling together as a community will we be able to work through this challenge.
EDB: Do you think the Government needs to be doing more to support families? LW: In terms of Government support a more tailored response is required. A blanket approach to providing £400 to every household, means that those who are much more financially secure, owning more than one property will in effect receive £400 for every home they own, regardless of their income. The support could have been more fairly distributed to ensure it reached those who needed it most, including those who are working but on relatively low income and not eligible for benefits such as Universal Credit.
It has recently been announced that the price cap will be fixed at a lower rate than originally anticipated. The predicted 80% increase in fuel prices was nothing less than petrifying, and there has been some sighs of relief that the increase will not be as significant, however we will be locked into this still exponentially higher rate for 2 years. A typical house paying £2,500 PA compared to last winter’s £1,277. It had originally been suggested that prices would decrease in the spring next year, however if the cap is fixed at this rate for two years, this may not be the case. For communities like ours, where there’s really no room to breathe financially, doubling energy bills are still going to cause a huge crisis, which the Trust will do everything it can to meet.