“We’ve cut our energy use by half but our bills are still the same as they were last year,” says Tim, a retired painter and decorator and Easton resident. “We’re only putting on full washes, never leaving things on standby, trying not to put the heating on and having it at lower temperatures. We’re also trying to grow more and eating cold food like salads. But realistically all of this is only going to save maybe £100 – if you’re a family, that’s not going to keep you out of food and fuel poverty.”
From tomorrow (1 October), the typical household energy bill will be capped at around £2,500 – with scope to pay more depending on energy use.
While recently announced government schemes have brought this down from the originally proposed cap of £3,549, it still represents an increase of just under 27% on the April cap of £1,971, which was itself a 54% increase on the previous cap.
This means that by the coming winter UK households will have seen a nearly 100% increase in their energy bills within the space of a year. Despite also receiving an automatic £400 energy rebate, this increase threatens to plunge millions of people into fuel poverty – including in Bristol, where concern about how some communities will cope is growing.
“This area has a high percentage of people in low-paid jobs, who don’t qualify for free school meals or other support but still don’t have much,” says Kirsty Hammond, climate action lead at Heart of BS13, a community group focused on social enterprise, wellbeing, fuel and food poverty in the wider Hartcliffe area. She’s noticed that even though everyone is talking about the issue as it cuts across class divides, people are still hesitant to ask for support.
“It takes a lot to come forward, especially if you’ve never needed to use a service before, and we’re trying to put out the message that it’s just about taking the pressure off and that it’s something we’re all going through,” she explains.
BS13 is among the most deprived areas of the city, with one in eight households regularly experiencing some form of food insecurity. Heart of BS13 runs a number of food services, including a community freezer that allows families to pick up free meals that are prepared by their staff and cooking workshops that educate participants in the use of more energy efficient cooking methods that make ingredients go further. Although unable to provide exact figures, Kirsty confirms that demand for these services has spiked in recent months and that the organisation lacks the capacity to bring in staff specifically focused on energy.
“During the pandemic we were able to access plenty of funding but much less is available now,” she says. “All we can do is apply for every piece of funding we might be eligible for, but that’s not a solution – it’s just sticking plasters on the problem, and plasters fall off.
“It’s deflating and frustrating because it feels like we’ve come out of that pandemic and into a humanitarian one. Everyone’s exhausted and it’s shameful that the government are still expecting community groups to plug the holes in society.”
Bristol rallies together in face of crisis
“We’re just trying to give people a sense of autonomy over what’s going on and a feeling that although the prices are out of control, there are some proactive things you can do to mitigate some of the costs,” says Rachel Moffat, a coordinator at Bristol Energy Network, a community interest company that works on energy policy within Bristol and runs workshops on energy efficiency.
“It’s good for people’s mental health more than anything – people feel helpless right now and we need to get them to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t.”
Moffat is particularly worried about people on prepayment meters and pensioners because they might choose to self-disconnect, meaning they simply refuse to put any money on their accounts and let the lights go out.
“The £1,000 households will save under Liz Truss’ scheme is a positive step, but I’m concerned about small businesses that will receive much less support and that many rely on for work. It’s also hard to say how much of a difference £1,000 will actually make as other policies drive up the price of everything else.”
In June, Bristol City Council announced that it would be opening communal warm spaces for people struggling to heat their homes. While the council has been praised for this scheme and its cooperation with community groups, it is limited in what it can offer by central government – which has been criticised for a slow response to the crisis and for offering piecemeal suggestions on how consumers can save energy.
“People’s quality of living took a massive hit over COVID and many people have already made these cuts before – before we’ve properly experienced the higher rates,” Tim says. “I’m not sure there’s much more people can do beyond simply not eating or going cold.
“We’re in a situation now where millions of people literally can’t pay. We need more suggestions than tips to save £10.”
Don’t Pay energy bill strike postponed for now
The Don’t Pay movement emerged after the initial price hike was announced in April. The campaign calls for one million UK residents to cancel their direct debits to energy companies in the hope that high numbers will force them and the government to act.
The campaign has more than 190,000 pledges nationwide and has proved popular in Bristol – with more interest from here than London. But this week it was announced that the strike would not go ahead on October 1 as planned, as the campaign fell short of its target of one million pledges. But campaigners are continuing to plan to hit that target and to strike in the future.
The campaign has drawn parallels with the popular Poll Tax movement, which saw millions of people refusing to pay a tax imposed by the Thatcher government that ultimately resulted in the system being scrapped after barely two years. But experts have claimed that the similarities may not be so clear, as boycotting energy bills ultimately amounts to refusal to pay for services received and not a protest against a democratically elected government’s policy.
The campaign has also drawn criticisms due to the personal impact taking part could have on consumers, with some fearing that a boycott could lead to an increase in more expensive prepayment meters and badly affect people’s credit scores.
“The best thing we can encourage people to do is get in contact with their energy providers,” says Moffat. “They are legally obliged to work with you to find solutions – whether through a repayment plan or sorting out a credit system if you’re on a meter.”
“What we would really like to see is a social energy tariff – where people pay a reduced rate up to a point and then a higher rate for energy used after. At the moment, you pay the same rate to cook your dinner as you would to heat a hot tub and that seems unfair. A system like this could make further considerations for people with medical conditions or that have other legitimate reasons why they might use more energy.”
Moffat adds that they would like to see a windfall tax on those making excessive profits out of this crisis, as has been called for by Labour. “People think that it is their energy providers that are making all of this money when it is actually those extracting the resources,” she says.
“The government telling people to put on more jumpers is flabbergasting,” adds Hammond. “We really need to see political parties from across the spectrum coming together to tackle. If we could see a proper effort to shift our energy network onto renewables then this crisis would feel temporary – but right now it’s impossible to see an end when we haven’t seen a start.”
In response to the cost of living crisis, Bristol Energy Network has set up a JustGiving page to raise money for their Winter Fuel Fund and are urging those who have received government support but don’t necessarily need it to donate.