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Keeping the community warm

Keeping the community warm

Hannah Rich writes on why we should be concerned about the impact of energy bills on community spaces. 11/08/2022

Until recently, the energy price cap rose every six months, largely unremarked upon as it put a slight dent in most household finances. Now, the price cap is in the headlines daily. It can be changed twice as frequently as before, the reason ostensibly being to allow bills to come down more quickly, yet in practice all it means is that they are racing up even faster.  The energy crisis feels like a fizzing bottle of pop we are collectively trying – and failing – to keep a lid on.  

Back in the spring, when we began interviewing local faith leaders and charities about the impact of economic insecurity, the stories were personal. People spoke about individuals in their congregations and communities who struggled to heat their homes. One church leader I spoke to in the days after Russia invaded Ukraine made an off–hand comment that he “imagined” the conflict “might” put energy bills up “a bit”. Other anecdotes from those early parts of the research show the belief that it was still at a level where people would be able to combat price rises by turning the telly off, showering less or, at a push, working overtime.  

These conversations from mere months ago have been rendered outdated already by the real rises in energy bills since, and further projections make those days seem halcyon now.  

Months later, the stories are collective and institutional; this is a crisis that goes beyond household budgets. Recent data suggests that one in four hospitality businesses fear having to close in the next year because of energy costs, with 83% considering shorter opening hours or staff redundancies as a result. In June, a village pub in Northamptonshire was forced to call last orders and shut, after energy bills hit nearly £30,000 a quarter and made the business unsustainable. A pint in the local pub may fast be becoming a luxury, but there is a serious point to be made that warm spaces at the heart of our communities are at risk in a very real way. 

If it is a threat to pubs, how much more threatening is the crisis to grassroots community organisations? There is a deepening crisis facing institutions like churches, charities and voluntary groups, all of which are subject to business rates for utilities. It may seem like the energy price cap is only futile in keeping a limit on household bills, but spaces like church halls, scout huts, community centres and even small independent businesses such as village pubs do not even have that protection.  

Churches and other groups are also making difficult calculations about their capacity to continue their vital social action; other forms of social action which don’t rely on buildings, such as food delivery services, are doubly stretched by the inflated cost of both petrol and groceries.  

Andy Fitchet, a Methodist minister in Hampshire, tweeted this week that his church’s electricity costs last month were £1000, up from £70 this time last year, with the expectation that by winter, the church’s monthly energy bill would reach £4,000. “I don’t know how we will survive,” he concluded. His is not an isolated example; one parish priest I spoke to in the spring about her hope of keeping the church building open to welcome those whose homes went unheated has since been in touch to say the maths of this simply won’t work. The idea of ‘warm banks’ in communities was raised by Martin Lewis recently, but these too will have to pay the bills.  

The reality is that many of these spaces, which are at the front line of supporting their communities practically, will close and thus intensify the vicious circle of household and collective financial crisis. The bitter economic wind will leave cold even the places people go for respite from unheated homes. There are rightly calls for the government – and whoever is leading it come September 5th – to do more to offset the impacts of the cost of living crisis at a household and individual level.  

But there must also be calls for protection for the most valuable of warm community spaces. Exemption from business rates, the introduction of a price cap for third sector organisations and faith groups, or a form of relief for those offering warm banks could all be offered and would go some way to alleviating the problem. There are small pots of funding available from some local authorities at the moment, but these are piecemeal and no longer sufficient to the scale of the need. Even at the best of times, overheads like utility bills are rarely covered by grants. 

The price hikes that threaten the continued existence of these places also represent a threat to the social fabric holding together all our communities, but especially the most vulnerable. When the peak of the current energy crisis is passed, when the bills return to more affordable levels, lost community spaces will not simply or easily reappear and it is therefore vital that they are helped out now, rather than mourned in a few months’ time. 


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Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 11 August 2022

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