UK: ‘Warm banks’ emerge in Britain as temperatures plummet

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Britons have long become familiar with food banks that have mushroomed over the past decade to help feed people struggling with low incomes.

Now, as the cost of living crisis spirals, so-called warm banks have opened across the UK to cater to people unable to heat their homes due to skyrocketing energy bills.

So far, nearly 3,500 warm banks, dedicated places where people can access free heating, often with warm tea and sometimes free Wi-Fi, have sprung up.

Among them is London’s famous Royal Opera House. Accustomed to attracting the world’s top ballet dancers, the 290-year-old institution has opened its doors to those needing extra warmth this winter. There’s even a free lunchtime concert to boot.

“The local council is trying to offer warm spaces that aren’t just a room with nothing in it,” said Alexandra Hesby, general manager of the Royal Opera House.

A mix of older, retired people and local workers drop by to soak up free warmth. One retired woman who wished to remain unnamed told DW that she spent the daytime finding warm public spaces to keep her bills down.

Churches and gaming cafes have rebranded themselves as warm banks this winter, while libraries are gearing up for extended hours into the new year to keep both the elderly and young children warm.

Computer engineer Jason Baldry put together in his spare time, a website with an interactive map plotting all warm banks across the UK. Over 1,000 warm banks have been listed, with more still to be marked.

His inbox is deluged with people “genuinely just crying out for help saying, ‘I’m on benefits. I can’t afford to heat my house. What do I do?'”

Royal Opera House, London
The Royal Opera House in London has thrown its doors open to people struggling to keep themselves warm as temperatures plummetImage: Shafi Masaddique

Soaring cost of living

From April, energy bills in the UK are set to increase by 73% to an average household cost of 4,350 pounds ($5,330, €5,063) after the UK government scrapped its plan to keep energy prices below 2,500 pounds for two years.

According to a report by University College London’s (UCL) Institute of Health Equity, an estimated 63,000 excess winter deaths occurred in England and Wales in 2020-21. Some 10% of excess winter deaths are directly attributable to fuel poverty in England, higher than the Northern European average. 

Campaigners say the UK government needs both short and long-term solutions.

Simon Francis, a campaign coordinator for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, believes the government could raise 22 billion pounds from a windfall tax on energy firms “if they wanted.”

“We need 14 billion pounds alone to keep everyone warm this winter,” he told DW, outside the Houses of Parliament at a rally for increased fuel support.

“They could raise it at a stroke of a pen, and they could put that in people’s pockets, targeting the most vulnerable.”

The government would have enough windfall tax leftover “to invest in energy efficiency which is the medium-term part of the plan,” Francis added.

UK Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt has announced raising the existing windfall tax on oil and gas companies to 35% from 25% from January 2023. The measure is expected to raise 14 billion pounds next year. Hunt also extended the energy profits levy by two years, until March 2028.

Rising costs in UK push more people into poverty

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Work from pub

The energy crisis and inflation are also weighing on the fortunes of famed British pubs, which have long been central to social life in the UK. On average, 50 pubs are closing every month in England and Wales, as energy bills and inflation soar.

In a bid to ensure their survival, pubs are now inviting remote office workers to come in and use their facilities.

Some 380 pubs of the Fuller Brewery chain are offering lunch and tea for 10 pounds a day, while another pub chain, Young’s, has its 185 outlets serving remote workers with bottomless tea and coffee for 15 pounds.

Others such as the Brewhouse and Kitchen in Cardiff and Bristol are offering a package that includes free Wi-Fi and printing services.

General Manager Derek Stapleton told DW that his pub by the River Thames almost closed after a “brutal couple of years with the pandemic and staff leaving post-Brexit.”

The pickup in business has been small so far, says Stapleton, but hopes that with temperatures dipping below freezing across the UK this week, many could be tempted to save on their own household bills.

Louise Mitchell, a writer, is among those opting to work from a pub. 

“I’m unable to concentrate at home after two years of working from home,” she told DW.

“It tends to be quiet for most of the morning, apart from the odd person who’s at the back, drinking at 9 am. Zoom calls can be odd here, especially with pub decor,” she said. “But I get to crack open a beer at the end of my work day.”

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey