By Professor Lyndon Simkin, Executive Director, Centre for Business in Society
Back in the summer heat of July, money saving expert Martin Lewis wrote, “Can’t believe I’m writing this, but I wonder if this winter we’ll need ‘warm banks’; the equivalent of ‘food banks’, where people who can’t afford heating are invited to spend their days at no cost with heating?”.
Never heard of warm banks? Food banks provide food to those requiring support with feeding their households. Warm banks offer somewhere for people to warm up. Now that the nights are drawing in, temperatures are dropping and residents are anxious about huge rises in gas, electricity and heating oil prices, more and more councils, public bodies and charities are opening up buildings to provide drop-in warmth. Twelve months ago, such a concept might not have seemed necessary. Five years ago, food banks did not seem necessary. They are now the norm, supporting their communities. Perhaps warm banks will become the same.
In August electricity and gas regulator Ofgem announced that from October 1st the Energy Price Cap would rise by 80% to £3,549, up from £1,971. Many residents are anyway struggling to meet existing energy bills without such huge increases to also factor in. Since Ofgem’s announcement, pressure has persuaded the current Government to intervene, with an Energy Price Guarantee limiting the price cap rise to £2,500. Even with this safeguard in place, most households remain anxious about their energy bills and many vulnerable citizens are saying they cannot afford to heat their homes this winter, use appliances or cook meals. This energy cost crisis is joined by a broader cost-of-living crisis impacting on food prices, transport costs, rents and mortgage repayments, and just about everything a household consumes. In parallel, wages are stagnating or failing to match inflationary rises to the cost-of-living.
Safe Warm Space
Food poverty has led to the rise of food banks, where donations of surplus food are shared with those requiring support to feed themselves or their families. Warm banks are now following suit, by offering those unable to cover the cost of heating their homes somewhere to go to warm up as the autumn temperatures decline. Community spaces providing support for those at risk from the energy price crisis and cost of living crisis.
The basic idea is to offer a safe, warm place where local people unable to afford to heat their homes can spend time. As explained by Euronews, local councils, charities, museums, libraries and NHS services are all offering to host those in need. From Somerset to Ipswich, Glasgow to Harlow, across the UK. In Birmingham, as explained by councillor John Cotton, “We are planning ‘warm banks’ in Birmingham to try to save people abandoned by government”.
Wolverhampton Council has announced there will be 38 places for people to stay warm, in a mix of civic, community and religious buildings. Similar schemes will also be available in towns and cities across the West Midlands, including Coventry, Lichfield and Birmingham. “I feel embarrassed to be doing this in a country like ours in this day and age,” said Wolverhampton Council Leader Ian Brookfield, “but we can’t afford to leave anybody behind”. Lichfield District Council has announced a similar scheme, with plans to open spaces in the council building, whilst also calling on community groups to open their own premises.
People are Terrified
In Coventry, one typical example of this growing movement is the Holbrooks Community Care Association, which is opening up its offices in an initiative for people to stay warm. Speaking to BBC News, development officer Mark Graham said members of the public could discuss concerns with the association’s staff and have coffee, play games, meet new people, have a bit of food, “just to kind of save some money really on their fuel costs”. He explained that “people are struggling as it is with the last price hike. Their outgoings are a lot more than their income. A lot of people that we support are on benefits, universal credit. Everything’s just increasing and they’re just terrified”.
A Perfect Storm of Spiralling Costs
The cost-of-living crisis has been headline news. A perfect storm of geopolitical strife, supply shortages, rising prices and inflation, with until recent days political inertia during Boris Johnson’s final months as PM, has led to the biggest energy prices in living memory combining with rising retail prices and inflation-busting increases to most household expenses. The press and TV programmes feature how to avoid turning on central heating, cooking with less energy use, doing laundry without using appliances, how to save electricity by not activating devices, and so forth. Not since the disruption faced in the 1970s have consumers and households felt so anxious about bills, costs and consumption, or their ability to stay warm and healthy throughout winter. Faced with predictions that the average household energy bill could reach £4,500, in the recent ‘mini-budget’ the Government has capped household energy bills at £2,500 a year from 1 October. However, last winter the average bill for households was just £1,277 a year, so everyone will still face sharp increases in their fuel bills, combined with inflation of over 10%, food inflation close to 13%, rising rents and mortgages. Communities certainly will need to pull together, helped by councils and charities stepping in with support. Perhaps warm banks will be an important part of the solution this winter.
But Will They Really Help?
Charity workers already helping disadvantaged groups in society are worried that simply opening warm spaces will not suffice. They point to the elderly being concerned about venturing out on dark evenings or worrying about catching Covid in community spaces. They suggest that convivial space with familiar things such as TVs and comfy chairs will be required. The worry is that the most vulnerable in society will ignore these warm banks and the temporary solace they might offer. Time will tell. Arguably warm banks are preferable to there being no other option but to sit at home in the cold, risking health and wellbeing.
Clearly the solution must go way beyond the creation of warm banks, requiring a re-set of energy policy, sourcing, distribution and pricing. However, such an energy re-think will take time and years of investment. Meanwhile, community can be a powerful vehicle. When times are hard, often communities rally and pull together. Let us hope so. As for warm banks, there are flaws and alone they are not enough. But as with food banks, they might prove invaluable for many this winter.
A winter of discontent perhaps? October 1st marked the introduction of the new energy tariffs for millions of households. It also saw multi-city protests. Enough is Enough is a campaign set up in response to the rising cost of living. The movement staged rallies in cities across the UK, including London, Glasgow and Belfast. In Birmingham, which is hosting the Conservative Party Conference, protesters burned mock energy bills in response to the rise in the cost of gas and electricity. Winter might well prove to be a winter of discontent, disrupting society and challenging communities. Much more than well-intentioned warm banks will be needed in order to provide a respite for hard-pressed households and residents.
Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.
 “Martin Lewis warns of ‘warm banks’ similar to food banks because of fuel prices”, Metro; https://metro.co.uk/2022/07/11/martin-lewis-fears-warm-banks-for-people-who-cant-afford-heating-16981304/, 11 July 2022.
 “We are planning ‘warm banks’ in Birmingham to try to save people abandoned by government”; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/sep/07/birmingham-warm-banks-government-council-fuel-poverty-national, 7 Sept 2022.
 “Wolverhampton Council ’embarrassed’ at need for warm banks”; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-63046753, 28 Sept 2022.
 “People at new Coventry warm bank ‘terrified’ over money”, BBC News; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-63079141, 30 Sept 2022
 Cost of living: Charities’ concern over proposed ‘warm banks’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-62758170.amp, 2 Sept 2022.