Heat or treat this Christmas? Struggling families 'panicking' about winter energy bills

People in Darlington have said the soaring cost-of-living is 'killing them,' and they don't know how they'll make it through the winter. Credit: ITV News

Struggling workers are "panicking" about the rising cost of living in the months ahead and feel they'll be forced to choose between heating their home or treating their family at Christmas, with energy bills expected to soar again in October.

"The cost of living is just killing me," said Alan Robson, a full-time postman from Darlington. "And its going to get worse, there’s no doubt about it," he added.

Inflation is running at 9.4% and could hit 13% by October, and at the same time energy bills are expected to rocket by 81%.

Ofgem, the energy market regulator, will review the price cap on October 1 and analysts at Cornwall Insight are warning it's likely to rise from £1,971 to £3,582.

But people in Darlington - where 37.7% of children were living in poverty in 2021, according to the North East Child Poverty Commission - are struggling now and daunted by what is likely to be tough winter across the whole country.

Alan Robson. Credit: ITV News

ITV News visited 'the Bread and Butter Thing,' a charity which helps hundreds of people in the town with low-cost food and general living expenses, to see how people are coping in one of the UK's poorest areas.

Sarah, a part time cleaner with two children, has "nothing" left at the end of each month and is "panicking" about how much worse things could get in autumn.

"It's been really hard. My husband works 50, 60 hours a week and even that’s not enough," she said, telling ITV News that "trying to put a meal together at the end of the day is hard."

When asked about the energy price rise in October, she said: "I don’t know how we’re going to manage. I’m panicking. It’s going to be a big struggle. I’m hoping for a warm winter, that's the only way we’re going to get by."

Sarah said she has 'nothing' left at the end of each month. Credit: ITV News

Shelley Henderson, a part-time worker with two children, is also concerned about winter.

"It’s a struggle to do simple things like topping up the gas and electricity, basic daily living costs, before you’ve factored in the additional costs of raising two children," she said.

"People say ‘look forward to Christmas but no one's going to be able to afford Christmas, once you’ve got your lights up and your tree decorated, people are desperately concerned that they are not going to be able put the heating on," she added. "We shouldn't be living like that."

Shelley Henderson. Credit: ITV News

People who spoke to ITV News said they don't know what they'd do without the Bread and Butter Thing, which provides people with bags of food worth £35 for £7.50.

The charity, which launched in Darlington in 2020, now has eight hubs across the town and has already provided 37,092 bags of food in 2022, demonstrating the size of the problem.

"It's astronomical how fast we've grown, which is a shame," said Jo Kime, one of the charity's distributors.

The Bread and Butter Thing provides people with bags of food worth £35 for £7.50. Credit: ITV News

And none of those who spoke to ITV News had much hope that either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss would make the situation better.

"I don't think either should be prime minister. Rishi hasn't got a clue, he comes from a privileged background, he’s lived a very sheltered life," said Shelley, adding: "I don't think that Liz Truss is any better."

Alan agreed. He said he "wouldn't trust any of them."

"They've had their chances, what have they done? They've done nothing."

He labelled Mr Sunak "a joke", adding: "I have no faith in him whatsoever, I have no faith in the Tory party whatsoever, they aren't interested in the working man."

Asked who he'd choose if he had a vote, Alan said: "I wouldn't go for him so it would have to be her but personally, I don't trust either of them. I can’t see any of them doing anything for the working classes.

"He’s definitely not one to be trusted but he’s not bothered because his wife’s a billionaire - they aren't going to struggle like we are."

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are battling it out in the race to be the next prime minister. Credit: PA

Sarah also prefers Liz Truss but said "I don't have much hope for either of them."

"I’m not a big fan of Rishi Sunak to be honest, I don't think he lives in the real world, I don't think he knows what it is like to live day by day on minimum wage.

"If he lived on minimum wage for a month he might have some better ideas."

Alan says the situation has been getting worse for too long and must change. "People have got to stand up and realise that enough is enough in this country, we can’t keep going on like this, people can’t keep affording to be on the breadline, it’s not right," he said.

And it's not just families who are struggling in Darlington: small businesses are also feeling the impact of soaring costs.

Paul Colman, the owner of the Little Quaker Distillery in the town, said: "It's been really tough," due to energy prices increasing the cost of running his business but also because people in Darlington can no longer afford to go shopping in the town centre.

"There's a lot of struggling," among the town's businesses, he said, adding: "What was once an absolutely heaving Saturday night in Darlington is nowhere near."

Paul Colman owns a distillery in Darlington. Credit: ITV News

"It's not worth opening Monday through Thursday anymore. We open Fridays and Saturdays in the shop because the footfall just wouldn't warrant having somebody in the shop full time."

He said the government has "got to" step in with support for small businesses, which he says are "at crisis point."

"Over the next six months, if we're not careful you're going to see a lot of SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] go to the wall because they are just going to look at it and think 'what is the point?.'"

The thought of energy bills going up even more in autumn is "scary" for Paul, who is concerned both for his business and others in the town.

"It's worrying in general. We hear already about pensioners who are frightened to turn their heating on come the winter.

"They are prepared to go through the winter without any central heating or gas fires on and just sit in blankets, and that's quite a scary thought in 2022."

Meanwhile, the current government is working up a fresh package of cost-of-living support for the next prime minister to consider when they take office, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke has said.

Mr Sunak is promising to provide struggling households with a package of support worth "hundreds" to help with rising energy bills, while Ms Truss has been resisting pressure to give handouts and instead wants to lower taxes.

Mr Clarke argued it is “absolutely right” for the new leader to consider “these options in the round” when they take the reins, suggesting they should steer clear of announcing “new uncosted policies” during the election period.

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