The cost of living: ‘I have terminal cancer and I have to choose between heating and eating’
We look at the impact rising costs are having on one of Northamptonshire's 'left-behind' areas
By Natalie Bloomer
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Even if you have not felt the increasing cost of living personally, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard plenty about it in the media. Aside from ‘partygate’ it is the big issue of the moment with politicians of all colours arguing over the best way to ease the financial pressure on families.
But what impact is it having in some of the country's most deprived areas? We headed out to Talavera in Northampton, one of five areas in Northamptonshire to be identified as ‘left-behind’, to find out.
Nicholas Henley is 61 and a carer for his wife who has a head injury.
“I have stage 3 terminal cancer and I have to choose between heating and eating. Everything is going up, the gas and electric, shop prices. I look after my wife so we live on benefits and it’s just getting harder.
“We had to increase our heating by half a degree because with my illness I feel the cold - our energy bills used to be £88 per month now they’re £133. There’s nothing else to cut back on except food so that’s what we have to do now to try to make ends meet.”
Nicholas and his wife are not alone in having to cut back on food to get by. Recent research by the Food Foundation found that one million people reported that they or someone in their household had gone without food for an entire day in the last month because of their financial situation. People limited by a disability and those on Universal Credit were both five times more likely to face food insecurity than others.
Gemma, from Thorplands in Talavera has three children and works part time as a retail assistant. She says she has to juggle her bills each month to ensure there is enough money to buy food for her family.
“I’ll get behind with gas one month and then pay a bit off the next, then I’ll do the same with the water. It means I’m always behind and playing catch up but there is not enough to go around otherwise. It’s just the way it is, we manage.”
David, a delivery driver, told NN Journal that his family lives on a tight budget and are worried about rising costs.
“It’s a worry for everyone I think, isn’t it? When you’ve got kids coming home and wanting new things, you have to tell them no and be more careful with what you spend. It’s not nice to do that but you have to get the bills paid first. When we go shopping we look for the cheapest options for things like bread and pasta and cereal, that sort of thing. It all helps.”
The Food Foundation research shows the number of households with children experiencing food poverty is up from 11 per cent in July 2021 to 12.1 per cent in the last month. This means there are now two million children facing food insecurity in the UK.
The Weston Favell food bank in the neighbouring ward to Talavera has seen a massive increase in the number of people they are providing food to. Before the pandemic they were feeding around 500 people per month, that has now more than doubled with 1082 people being fed in January. The manager Anne Woodley says she expects the number to increase further in coming months.
“We have noticed food bank guests talking about their struggles with the rise in gas and electricity costs. We have had many guests requesting help with their bills so we have been referring them to Community Law Service.”
The draft budget in West Northamptonshire proposes a four per cent rent increase for council tenants in the area. Lib Dem councillor for Talavera Dennis Meredith says he is worried about the impact this will have on his constituents alongside other rising costs.
“I’m very concerned about residents here, things are getting tighter and food prices have escalated. This rent rise is another increase for people who are having to choose between heating and eating.
“I hope the instability of the government doesn’t distract local politicians from things like this. I have written to Michael Ellis [the local MP] to say that Talavera is a neglected area and I’m looking for assurances from him that something will be done. People are really suffering and can’t make ends meet, their MP should be speaking up for them.”
It’s a similar picture in other parts of the county. Kevin Johnstone is the manager of the Victoria Centre in Wellingborough. He says the rising cost of energy bills can be devastating for families on low and moderate incomes.
“Many have already eaten into their financial reserves during Covid-19 lockdowns. Food poverty is common to every town, city and village, Northamptonshire and Wellingborough included. As a community centre, we have visitors telling us of their worries in balancing food with heating costs.
“Young parents are worried that their children can be cold at home, while middle aged and older community members, often with circulation issues, know they are at great risk in cold air of entering a downward spiral of reduced activity, reduced cognitive function and worsening overall health.”
The Victoria Centre is now part of a power industry funded project which aims to assist people with the challenges of fuel poverty. Anybody with fuel cost concerns can contact Victoria Centre for advice on their use and costs here: https://www.victoriacentre.org.uk/
What’s the problem?
Last month UK inflation hit 5.4 per cent - the highest level for 30 years. This puts more pressure on household budgets as wages aren’t rising at the same rate. According to the ONS 37 of 45 staple food and drink items increased while just eight remained the same or were reduced. Food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe has recently pointed out that the cost of cheaper products have in particular increased with some budget ranges not as easily available.
A worldwide shortage of energy supplies has led to increasing costs. A particularly cold 2020/21 winter in Europe resulted in more people using their heating making the situation worse. Rising demand in China after Covid is also a key driver.
Until now there has been a cap on how much energy companies can charge customers but in April that cap will increase meaning millions of customers will face a rise from £693 to between £1,277 and £1,971 per year.
What’s being done?
Under pressure from MPs, including from his own side to tackle the cost of living crisis, chancellor Rishi Sunak recently announced that people would receive a £200 rebate on their energy bills. There will also be a £150 discount on council tax for homes in bands A-D.
Although the move has been welcomed by some, others have pointed out that the energy rebate must be repaid meaning people ultimately end up in more debt.