'Warm banks' set up as thousands face 'heat or eat' dilemma this winter
Struggling families in the UK will be able to use "warm banks" this winter to protect themselves from the sky-high price of heating their homes, after the energy price cap rises again in October.
Birmingham City Council, England's biggest serving 1.14 million people, is the latest to announce facilities such as churches, community centres and libraries will be available for people to stay warm during the colder months, as first reported by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
But the government has been urged to step in with support before average energy bills rocket by around 80% to £3,549 per year - with one charity behind a number of warm places calling ministers "irresponsible" for the lack of action.
Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis charitable trust, told ITV News he'd decided to set up warm places for the first time this year after noticing a "rising tide of need" getting worse over several years.
Mr Chalke, who calls his facilities "living rooms" in order to remove any stigma, said: "We're all talking about the cost of living crisis now and the fact that people won't be able to eat and heat, but the reality is over the last few winters, over the last few years, that's been an increasing trend - the cost of living crisis is magnifying it, just as Covid did, but they are pre-existing conditions."
The Baptist minister has set up his first "living room" in Southwark, London, but plans to roll them out across the country in conjunction with local councils.
He says the government should be partnering with charities like his and local groups because they can ensure struggling families get "a lot of bang out of your buck, and we haven't got a lot of buck to get bang out of".
"I've yet to receive a call from a government minister who wants to talk to us about how they might help resource this type of facility... this template could work everywhere, it will keep people warm, it will keep people fed and it will get us through this crisis."
"It's irresponsible for a government not to think about what is happening here," he added.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England, said while local authorities were doing “all they can”, "warm banks" were “not alternatives” to providing householders with “adequate resources” to make heating their homes affordable.
The government has said it will continue to “make sure that people have got the resources to heat their own home”.
But it has avoided announcing new support to help with rising bills until a new prime minister is elected.
Other councils including Southend, in Essex, Sheffield, in Yorkshire, and several in Nottinghamshire have already started mulling similar plans for either setting up, supporting or highlighting the locations of "warm banks" in the meantime.
Boris Johnson, who announced he would resign as prime minister on July 7, said a “huge amount” of help for households had already been promised and his successor – either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak – would provide further support.
The outgoing PM, who will be replaced on September 6, said: “Whichever of the two candidates gets in next week, what the government is also going to do is provide a further package of support for helping people with the cost of energy.
“What we’ve got to do is get through the tough months – and I’m not going to shrink from this, it is going to be tough in the months to come, it’s going to be tough through to next year."
Labour said described the administration as a "zombie government" and urged ministers to "get back to work".
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Abena Oppong-Asare, shadow exchequer secretary to the Treasury of the UK said: "That people are having to consider "warm banks" just to stay warm paints a picture of an incredibly bleak winter ahead - one which the government should be doing all they can to stop.
"With families already consumed by worry about soaring bills, this zombie Tory government must get back to work now."
The shadow minister added that "Labour would make sure households don’t pay a penny more on their bills this winter - with our fully-funded package paid for by a windfall tax on massive oil and gas profits."
Birmingham councillor John Cotton, a cabinet member at the Labour-run local authority, said: “Keeping warm will be a huge challenge for so many people, with the price of using domestic heating spiralling.
“We are going to work with partners to map out spaces across the city where people can go to keep warm.
“Whether that’s local community centres, places of worship or libraries, we want to help people to find places where they will be welcomed, free of charge."
He added: “It should not be the case that people cannot afford to keep their homes warm, but that is the reality that we are facing here in Birmingham."
DCMS minister Matt Warman accepted that warm places will be welcomed by many people but insisted the government would be doing more to help.
"What the government is doing and will continue to do is focusing on giving people the resources they need in their own homes, rather than having to leave them," he said.
He added: “Welcome though these initiatives might be for some people, they’re not going to be the only option.
“They shouldn’t be the only option… I’m confident that the package of help that’s there and the package of help… (from the next prime minister) will make real progress in that regard.”