Jane* is a mother-of-three who works up to 30 hours a week as a housekeeper. Her oven is turned off at the wall, and for the past few months she has been using a slow cooker to make dinner because she can no longer afford the gas bill. Every night she turns off the wifi and makes sure nothing is left on standby.
She lives in Burnley, Lancashire, which is the place with the highest inflation rate in England at 11.5%, according to the Centre for Cities thinktank. Its latest report found that people in the Lancashire town have been harder hit by the energy crisis because of high poverty levels, poor home energy efficiency and greater reliance on private car use. Energy costs account for about 6% of average wages in Burnley, compared with 3% in London.
With energy and fuel prices predicted to rise even further when the new price cap is announced on Friday, people like Jane are increasingly anxious. How will they survive if forecasts are correct and the cap rises to £3,500 from October, when they are only just scraping by now?
“It’s just constant at the moment. I work really hard. I should be able to afford clothes and treats, like chocolate and crisps,” says Jane. “My mum has given me some curtains for winter and I can’t even afford the curtain rails.”
Families are leaning on local services, charities and the generosity of others to help them afford even the basics. However, the leader of Burnley council, Afrasiab Anwar, says there is only so much goodwill they can rely on as more people struggle to get by and local services are stretched.
In 2020, the council set up a charity in partnership with other local organisations to support the community during the pandemic. People could call Burnley Together for support to set up a debt repayment plan, get emergency food parcels, and advice on what benefits they were eligible for. It was supposed to be a short-term solution. Two years later, its services are expanding.
“The frightening thing is that it’s not just who you’d typically regard as people who need that support. It’s working families that are struggling to make ends meet and it’s only going to get harder in autumn,” says Anwar. “It’s not just those who are the most vulnerable, it’s going to hit everybody.”
Since 2010, the council’s funding has dropped by 36%, approximately £5m a year. “For a small council like ours, that’s massive,” Anwar says. “The government always talks about levelling up, but we have not seen that. We’ve gone backwards.”
Katarina Coliona lives in a council house not far from the town centre. She is disabled and during the winter her house gets “absolutely freezing cold”. More than three-quarters of homes in Burnley have energy efficiency ratings below energy performance certificate band C, meaning the town has one of the least energy-efficient housing stocks in the country. Coliona has already had to cut back on food, and fears what will happen if she is unable to keep up with her rising energy bills.
“Everything’s gone up,” she says. “It’s the things I need, like heat and gas. It’s putting petrol in to go see my family. It’s the food shop.”
How has she been coping? “My mental health has suffered. The simplest things you rely on to make you feel better you can’t afford.” When asked how she would manage if the price cap was raised, Coliona pauses before answering: “Why would I want to live through winter?”
A short walk from the town centre, St Matthew’s Church is hosting a summer fair. The church has been transformed into a bakery, cafe and toy shop for the day, with many parents attending to pick up second-hand school uniforms.
“We’re giving out free uniforms. That’s fine, but why?” asks Father Frost, the vicar at St Matthew’s. “We’re meant to be one of the richest countries and yet people are just desperate.”
Jane heads home with a bag filled with clothes. Her son now has something to wear when school starts again in September. But charity won’t be enough to offset rising costs for Jane over the winter. As energy and fuel prices rise, many in Burnley will be forced to make painful choices to get their family through the coming months.
* Jane is a pseudonym as she spoke anonymously