'A perfect storm for agriculture': People living in rural communities will be hardest hit by increases in energy costs, as ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker reports
Northumberland is famed for its dramatic coastlines and natural beauty, but everyday rural life also has a harder edge to it.
In the market town of Hexham on the banks of the River Tyne, Rosie Gilchrist unlocks the doors to a small warehouse on a grey business park.
Inside there are boxes full of blankets, quilts, shoes and dresses piled high. Her clothing bank, Rosie’s Corner, is run entirely by volunteers and helps those who can’t afford the basics.
"We see a lot of single mums, but also families where one parent is working but they aren’t bringing in enough money for what they need. Demand is rising as energy bills go up and up," she told me.
"Living in a rural area makes everything harder – you are limited on where you spend your money, you can’t get those cheaper options like in a bigger city. People often can’t do it online either because we are talking about technology poverty here too."
‘It makes me feel upset and angry... and at the same time a little bit worthless’
The depth of fuel poverty in rural communities is also much greater. Analysis by National Energy Action reveals the fuel poverty gap (the additional income needed to remove a household from fuel poverty) among rural households is more than 2.5 times that of urban households, often many hundreds of pounds.
Rosie, 32, knows first hand how hard it can be. As a single mum of three on universal credit, the rising cost of living means her tight budget has got even tighter.
She is one of 4.5 million people on pre-payment metres in the UK whose average annual bill will increase today by £708 from £1,309 to £2,017. Rosie already uses food banks to help to feed her family and believes soaring energy bills will force her into debt.
"My electric went off on the Thursday and I couldn’t afford to put it back on til the Monday. It was one of the coldest weekends. It makes me feel angry and worthless, I am the lower class, and I feel like we are being told we don’t matter."
Nearly ten million people live in rural areas of the UK, 17% of the population.
New research by the University of Newcastle shared exclusively with ITV News, shows that many rural households already experiencing poverty and financial vulnerability in Britain will be hardest hit by increases in energy costs.
Analysis by Professor Mark Shucksmith from the University’s Centre for Rural Economy reveals that those living in rural areas face higher costs of living, insecure employment, lack of access to services and the state’s welfare systems are poorly adapted to rural circumstances.
In areas where public transport options can be few and far between, having a car isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity to get to school or work.
Campaign group Fair Fuel UK analysed fuel prices at nearly 500 forecourts in the UK.
Their results suggest petrol and diesel are on average 8p/litre more expensive in rural areas compared to cities.
Official figures (Defra 2022 - Statistical Digest off Rural England) also show people living in the most rural areas travel almost twice as far than those in urban areas per year; 9,756 miles per year on average compared to 5,037 in urban conurbations.
'Foodbanks cannot solve poverty', Ms Gilchrist said
Back in Hexham on the other side of the business park I meet Rosie’s mum, Sam Gilchrist, who runs the West Northumberland Food Bank.
The charity, which serves the most remote parts of Northumberland right up to the Scotland border, has already helped the same number as people in the last six months, as they did in the whole of 2021.
"Our vans are constantly out, we deliver food parcels to directly homes because people can’t afford the petrol to come to us."
It’s not just food that they help with. The team of volunteers are giving households vouchers to top up their gas and electric metres. They are buying people heating oil so they can stay warm.
40% of those needing help are first time callers and most of them are in work, including nurses and teachers. These are working households who Sam says were just about managing but are "now falling off that economic cliff edge".
This is a poverty emergency. We need government to recognise it’s an emergency, this isn’t sustainable, food banks can’t solve this, all we can do is put a sticking plaster over it.
"Every bag of food we deliver frees up about £15 for that household so they can pay off some rent arrears," Sam told me.
Those on fixed incomes, especially pensioners, are feeling the squeeze. Northumberland has the fastest ageing population – nearly 25% of the population is over 65.
Amy Whyte, Chief Executive of Age UK Northumberland said “we are extremely worried about the impact that the cost of living crisis will have on the choices that our older people can afford to make, whether that’s where they shop, how far they can travel or whether they can afford to heat their home to an acceptable temperature.”
' A lot of us are on heating oil and that has went up'
Living in a rural area there can be an added layer of disadvantage. Heating is often more expensive because households are more likely to rely on expensive heating fuels like oil.
Third generation farmer and county councillor Mark Mather is reliant on heating oil to keep his home warm. Filling a tank used to cost £300 last year, now it’s £800.
He said "that’s alarming especially when people haven’t had time to budget".
There is no energy price cap to protect oil consumers from unaffordable costs, and the price of heating oil is expected to rise further.
The 36 year old’s family farm is on the edge Northumberland’s national park, close to the Cheviot Hills. It’s lambing season and his busiest time of year for Mark and his father who share the agricultural duties between them.
It’s not just the lambing that giving Mark sleepless nights, but what he describes as "astronomical costs".
Everything is getting more expensive in part because the war in Ukraine is limiting the supply of some ingredients. Fertiliser is up 300 % on last year, animal feed has increased by more than 50% and fuel to run the farms three tractors and combine is up 150%.
"It’s looking like growing crops won’t make any money this year.
"It’s scary – our subsidies are reducing, costs are increasing, for small tenant farmers like ourselves, we don’t know if we have a future. It’s a scary thought for a family farm. We’ve got to make a profit to continue and at the moment it’s not looking like that’s possible."