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The Emergency Covid Winter Fund has been set up as fuel poverty charities deal with ‘unprecedented’ numbers of referrals.

An emergency fund has been set up to help hundreds of households across Bristol who are sliding into poverty as they struggle to pay energy bills. The Emergency Covid Winter Fund aims to tackle issues around higher energy consumption caused by the pandemic. Spending more time at home and being forced to move work, schooling and social lives online have pushed bills up, while incomes have taken a hit, leaving some households to choose between eating and heating.

One in ten Bristol households was living in fuel poverty before the pandemic hit, according to the latest figures. This means that using enough energy to keep the home warm will push householders’ income below the poverty line. Fuel poverty levels have gradually reduced since 2016, but local charities say the coronavirus pandemic has caused the number of people seeking help to rocket.

“You hear stories about people – when the kids have gone to school, they sit in the cold and dark all day until the kids come back because they want to make sure they’ve got enough electricity to last.”

The fund has been organised in just a couple of weeks by Bristol Energy Network – an umbrella organisation linking up individuals and community groups with an interest in energy. This is in response to feedback from community organisations, who leapt into action during the March lockdown by setting up food distribution services. When people lost their jobs or livelihoods, putting food on the table became their biggest priority.

But with the arrival of winter, priorities have shifted, says Emilia Melville, coordinator of Bristol Energy Network. Affording electricity and gas to heat food and keep the house warm is now a serious concern. According to research conducted in 2018, there are 32,000 excess winter deaths in the UK each year on average. Of these, one third can be attributed to living in a cold home: entirely avoidable circumstances.

“Energy is kind of invisible -– you pay your bill and it’s not in the forefront of your mind. But energy is a basic need,” Emilia says.

“Some people in Bristol are using way too much energy and need to reduce their consumption. Some people are not in a position to do that, and need to use more energy to stay connected, keep warm and heat food.

“It’s a real opportunity to connect together all those elements and bring some redistribution of wealth from people who have enough to people who don’t.”

Bristol Energy Network are hoping to raise at least £10,000 through crowdfunding this winter, a sum that would help 200 households in the most desperate need. While the number of households affected has fallen by roughly 6,000 since 2014, an estimated 20,000 are living in cold homes each winter.

The realities of living in fuel poverty

To distribute the funds to the people who need them most, Bristol Energy Network will work with community organisations who already deliver similar schemes. These include Ambition Lawrence Weston, Baggator, Eastside Community Trust, Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust, ACORN and Heart of BS13.

Based in the Gatehouse Centre in Hartcliffe, Heart of BS13’s massive pandemic response has included setting up the Real Meal Store – which has given out just under 19,000 frozen meals since April.

“Food insecurity is really highlighted because people need to eat. Fuel poverty is more hidden,” says Kirsty Hammond, climate action development practitioner at Heart of BS13. 

Heart of BS13 is one of the organisations who will help to distribute funds to people who need it most. Image supplied by Heart of BS13

“You hear stories about people – when the kids have gone to school, they sit in the cold and dark all day until the kids come back because they want to make sure they’ve got enough electricity to last.

“The pandemic has really impacted a lot of people’s lives. Especially in winter, because a lot of people are on the breadline anyway.”

According to a Bristol City Council report from June 2020, 18% of Bristol’s households live in rented social housing. Often householders are forced to use prepayment meters: paying for energy in advance and using it until the money runs out, rather than paying the same amount on a regular schedule and accruing credit to use on higher winter bills.

Kirsty Hammond says fuel poverty should not exist in 2020.

“With a meter, it’s harder to budget and it’s more expensive,” Kirsty says. Without enough money in the meter, freezers turn off in the night, ruining food that families can’t afford to replace. School laptops can’t be charged for lessons the next day. Even the free meals from Heart of BS13 can’t be warmed up.

“We heard that some families didn’t put so many Christmas decorations up this year because they were worried about the electricity bill,” says Kirsty. “People just tried to make Christmas special because the year was been so rubbish.

“There is stigma. People are really proud, and it takes a lot to ask for help. People always think ‘there’s someone else worse off than me’, when in reality they are in need of help.”

Receiving money for bills through the Emergency Covid Winter Fund will take some short-term pressure off. Kirsty hopes it may also stop some people turning to payday loans out of desperation.

Long-term solutions still need to be pursued: “If social housing invested in renewable energy, residents’ energy costs would be lower and it would help to reduce their carbon footprint,” she says. Retrofitting homes to be more efficient, and putting pressure on energy companies to make prepayment metres fairer, will also tackle the cause of the issue.

Unprecedented calls for help

Also working with Bristol Energy Network is the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), a national charity that supports people in fuel poverty. Lisa Evans is the project manager of their WHAM project – Warmer Homes Advice & Money. Working across Bristol and North Somerset, the project supports more that 1,000 householders per year.

WHAM’s caseworkers help people deal with arrears, access benefits, and get vouchers for prepayment meters. They can also make referrals to foodbanks, and do small jobs like draft-proofing windows to make homes more energy efficient.

Lisa Evans, second from right, with WHAM’s six caseworkers. Image supplied by WHAM

“People’s problems don’t come in isolation,” Lisa says. “They don’t just contact us with a fuel problem: they’ve got debts, housing problems, immigration problems.”

CSE’s freephone advice line has received an unprecedented number of calls this year, and WHAM’s caseworkers have “never been so busy”.

“Normally the summer is quieter for us, but this summer was still really busy. Not because people had cold homes but because they were financially desperate,” says Lisa.

“This year in particular, we’ve been getting a lot of new referrals from people who wouldn’t necessarily have been in fuel poverty in the past.”

CSE liaises with energy suppliers to help people in debt. In March, many suppliers offered support with prepayment meters, but often this just delayed the repayment. Bristol Energy was one of the few companies that gave out vouchers for free energy – but in June the company was sold by Bristol City Council after posting official losses of £32.5 million over five years. New owners Together Energy did not offer the same vouchers during the November lockdown.

“It’s very difficult to see – particularly the bigger suppliers – making lots of money when there’s people not able to afford their bills,” Lisa says. “It’s not people wasting energy – it’s people who cannot afford to put their heating on at all. It’s really sad they couldn’t help them through this really desperate time.”

Kirsty shares the same sentiment: “We shouldn’t be having fuel poverty in 2020. It’s impossible to ignore that people are struggling, but if we’re united then we can bring about real change.

“The pandemic has made us all pull together. But there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be very cold over the winter months. It’s going to be very harsh.”

To find out more about the Emergency Covid Winter Fund here.

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