Lancashire County Council has agreed to draw up a plan which will see the development of so-called “warm hubs” before temperatures start to fall later in the year.
It comes just days after it was predicted that the energy price cap could increase to around £3,200 in October, which would make the average combined gas and electricity bill £2,000 higher than it was only 12 months earlier.
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County Hall will publicise, via councillors, the opening times and locations of its own publicly-accessible buildings which people can use free of charge.
District councils will also be asked to gather and distribute information about voluntary, community and faith organisations operating in their own areas, which can offer similar sanctuary when the weather begins to turn.
However, the councillor behind the original proposal for the scheme told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that she expects the county council also to facilitate the opening of new spaces, rather than simply directing people to facilities that already exist. Green Party group leader Gina Dowding said that a commitment by the authority to allocate cash to the initiative should enable it to do just that.
She pitched the “warm and welcome” programme in a notice of motion during a meeting of the full council held in the height of summer.
However, it was worries about the hardship that may be facing some Lancashire residents during the depths of the forthcoming winter that prompted all of County Hall’s political parties to get their heads together and come up with a plan around which there was cross-party consensus.
Prior to that, county councillors heard stories of how the cost of living crisis was already proving a desperate struggle for many – even while the weather is warm.
County Cllr Dowding read out testimony from an advice centre operating in Lancashire, which laid bare the scale of the problem. She said that the service was seeing “high demand” for its support from “people on fixed incomes who are unable to pay their gas or electricity bills without compromising on other essentials, such as food, rent or hygiene”.
The service had also told her how the rises in energy bills were “terrifying” for many – particularly those on benefits and pensioners.
One 80-year-old man who had sought the centre’s help initially presumed that the doubling of his electricity bill was an error. But when he learned that the amount being demanded was correct, he realised that he simply did not have enough money to cover the cost – and that he would have to “choose which of his bills to pay”.
Councillors were also told of a Lancashire woman with a monthly income of £1,200 – half of which went on rent – who was horrified to discover that her electricity bill had risen so much that it swallowed up every other penny that she had coming through the door.
The advice centre said that it was receiving requests for foodbank referrals from the likes of nurses and classroom assistants – and predicted that people “across the whole social spectrum” would be hit by the cost of living crisis this winter.
Meanwhile, fellow Green Party county councillor Andy Fewings said that after energy bills first shot up earlier this year, a woman living in his Burnley Central West division had spent a week “living in the dark” before contacting him for help.
He also warned of the “large crossover” between people who do not have digital access and are also in fuel poverty – and so require details of available support to be provided to them via a route that they can access.
As part of the warm hubs programme, the county council will ensure that the facilities are in a position to offer additional advice to the people using them and can also direct residents to other services that can help to alleviate food and fuel poverty.
County Cllr Dowding said that neither “warm banks” nor foodbanks were a long-term solution to cost of living pressures, but insisted that they were necessary until the government committed to “social…and climate justice”.
“I think it is astonishing…in one of the richest countries in the world, [that] we have not managed to meet a minimum standard of equality to ensure that every household can meet their basic human needs.
“Food, shelter, warmth and community connections – meeting these needs is what every civilised society should provide,” County Cllr Dowding said.
After a half-hour adjournment, the meeting heard that agreement had been reached on a slightly reworked motion, which received unanimous support across the chamber.
Conservative cabinet member for health and wellbeing Michael Green hailed the “very constructive” discussions which led to the deal, a sentiment shared by Labour’s Samara Barnes.
County Cllr Barnes added: “I just think it’s really really sad that we’ve got foodbanks and baby banks – and now we’re looking at warm banks.”
The plans will now be presented to a meeting of all of Lancshire’s council leaders next week, while a county council task group will be established to determine the best way to deliver the warm hubs scheme.
It is hoped that a report finalising the arrangements – along with details of the necessary funding – will be brought to a meeting of the authority’s cabinet in October.
WHAT HELP IS ON OFFER NOW?
Lancashire County Council has received just over £19m from the government’s Household Support Fund in two tranches since it was set up late last year. The cash has been used to provide help to struggling families and individuals..
The latest share of £9.6m is now being distributed, with County Hall earmarking over £4m of it to provide vouchers during the school holidays to eligible families of children who receive free school meals in term time.
Lancashire’s 12 district authorities have also been allocated shares from the county pot. Many will use it to provide pensioners in receipt of council tax support with automatic one-off payments of £90 via the post office, while some will also make payments to other households who get help with their council tax bills.
Any remaining cash will then either be distributed to local organisations which provide people with support or used by the councils to create discretionary funds of their own to which residents can apply for assistance with essential bills, other than housing costs, for which other options are available.
Full details of local schemes are available on the websites of each district council or on request.
***£400 for every household from the Energy Bills Support Scheme, paid directly into bank accounts
***£650 cost of living payment for those on certain means-tested benefits, paid in two instalments, the first of which is this month
***£300 for pensioners who receive the annual winter fuel payment
***£150 cost of living payment for those receiving a range of disability benefits