'Toast is a luxury': Families 'never been more scared' over where money will come from

ITV News' second report from North Shields looks at the impact on the wider community of the cost of living crisis, and finds people doing all they can to pull through.

It is hard to overstate just how scared people are right now.

Facing bills they just cannot pay, rent or mortgage payments they won’t be able to afford, this is a fear unlike anything many have ever faced – the fear of simply not knowing what to do.

I saw it etched on the faces of almost everyone I met on the Meadow Well estate in North Shields – a community in the north-east of England accustomed to weathering tough times, but none quite as tough as these.

There had been no sign Liz Wright would break down in tears.

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We had met earlier in the day at the Cedarwood Trust Community Centre, in the heart of an estate where she has lived all her of life.

We talked cheerily about her Yorkshire Terrier, Ruby, who rarely leaves her side. She spoke affectionately about her grandchildren, whom she adores.

She was matter-of-fact, stoic, about the struggles “everyone is facing at the moment, not just me” and happily agreed to an interview at her house a few streets away.

Sitting down on her sofa that evening with a cup of tea, Ruby lying between us, 65-year-old Liz began explaining how she took a job as a cleaner during the pandemic “more for social reasons than anything else – just for something to do; it was tough on my own.”

Daniel Hewitt reports from from North Shields, where people fear losing their homes, unable to pay their bills, with some families living in unthinkable conditions. 'It's a luxury to have a piece of toast,' Liz Wright told ITV News.

That was just over two years ago. Now, that job is a necessity.

“I need the money,” Liz tells me bluntly. The rising price of food and household essentials has been eating away at her bank balance, and her energy bills have been creeping up, but she’s just been informed the monthly cost of gas and electricity will double to £253.

When I ask if she can afford that, she fails to fight back the tears.

“No,” she says. “They know I haven’t got that. I’ve never been in debt, I’ve never had any problem with any bill.

“I’m really worried. I have the heating on for an hour a day, I barely use my cooker, I don’t use my toaster – it’s a luxury to have a piece of toast.”

Working five days a week, Liz is doing everything she can to bring in money and cut back on her spending, but the numbers just don’t add up.

“Is it foodbanks next? Will I be able to keep the house? I never thought I’d be in this position, ever.

“I’m going to have to explain that I’ve got no money, and I can’t live. It’s not fair.”

For the first time, Liz is worried she will fall into debt.

Earlier that day, we had popped into the local convenience store on the estate, one of only four shops on the Meadow Well, and got chatting to the owner, Shakar.

He opened 30 years ago, but says he has never known families struggle as much to pay even for basic items like milk, bread and cheese.

To those he’s known a long time he gives credit, letting them pay when they can, “only for food though,” he tells me when I meet him, “not drink, I don’t give credit for booze.”

We talk for a while about his customers, but when I ask how he is managing with the shop, the mood shifts. Shakar goes quiet, almost composing himself.

“I used to go to the cash and carry and spent £10,000 on stock. Now it’s £16,000,” he says.

“The energy (bill) was £700, now it’s £2,000. We do long hours, 15 or 16 hours sometimes. I’m starting to question whether it’s worth standing here anymore. It if continues like this we will shut it, we will definitely shut it.”

When I ask how he feels about that, shutting down after 30 years in a community he loves, there is a long pause, before Shakar’s eyes fill up.

“Ooh, sad,” he says, lip trembling.

We stand for a few seconds in silence before Shakar walks off camera and asks to stop the interview.

Shakar allows some customers he knows as regulars to pay later.

He stands in his storeroom at the back of his shop, almost aggressively wiping away the tears he clearly didn’t expect to come.

It seemed to me it was the first time he had allowed himself to outwardly express out the fears he’s privately harboured for some time.

Two doors down from Shakar is Hoult Butchers. A North Shields institution, owner Neil was born in the flat above the shop his “Granny” opened in 1952.

He joined the family business in 1982 and now owns three other stores in the area. They’ve survived recessions, the rise of the big supermarkets and a global pandemic but Neil can’t see a way through the current economic crisis. He’s selling all four shops in the next few weeks.

“It’s reached a point where it’s not worth carrying on,” Neil tells me.

“My (energy) bill is going to double from about £30,000 for the four shops to over £70,000. I can't find that kind of money.

"It’s heart-breaking to think that something by Granny could cease. It carries a big burden in my heart, and I’ve definitely had a few sleepless nights over it."

Back at the Cedarwood Trust Community Centre, manager Wayne Dobson and his small team of staff and volunteers, most of whom live on and around the Meadow Well, attempt to help families who’ve hit hard times.

They opened a community shop in 2019 to provide discounted meals and shopping as well as pastoral care and financial advice. Wayne has noticed a significant shift in the people using their services.

“At the start we saw a lot of people who were pensioners and on benefits, that has totally swung the other way,” says Wayne.

“Fifty per cent of the people using our food membership scheme are in work, it is in-work poverty.

“We’ve got people on 16-hour-a-week work, paramedics, teachers – there is no slack in their budgets to pick up the extra costs.”

This crisis is casting a wide net. Even for those working, no amount of scrimping, saving and cutting back can muster money they simply don’t have.

Lindsay Newton works full-time at the Cedarwood Trust as a community support worker.

By day, she helps the vulnerable residents access food and help. By night, she sits in the house she privately rents around the corner, worrying about her own situation.

Lindsay worries 24 hour a day, she says.

“I worry 24 hours a day. Energy prices, fuel prices, the cost of living – I have never felt this anxious about the future, ever.”

Lindsay is desperate to hide her fears from her four-year old daughter. As Jasmine plays happily at mum’s feet on the floor of their living room, there’s no sign that this very smiley, very sociable little girl has any idea just how scared Lindsey is.

Her mum questions how long she can shelter her child from the reality of what may come.

Her biggest worry is their landlord increasing the rent in response to rising interest rates.

“I’m just waiting for the letter to come through the door saying ‘I’m sorry Lindsey we’re going to have to put up (your) rent’,” she says, letting out a big sigh. “If that happens then I don’t know, I just don’t know. I don't know where we'll be at Christmas.

“What else can I do that I’m not doing now?" she asks.

“It’s either I eat, my children eat and we’re cold or we stay warm with rumbling bellies. I don’t want to have to make that choice, but I’m going to have to make that choice I think. It’s scary.”

At the local GP surgery, they are seeing that anxiety almost daily now.

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“It’s having an impact on people who haven’t previously struggled," says Dr Alexandra Kent.

“We've had distraught parents worried about what they're seeing, how they're going to cope, how they're going to get through the winter.

“I had a patient the other week, I had started them on some anti-depressants and when we had their review appointment to see how they were getting on.

“They hadn’t been able to afford to pick them up because they couldn’t afford the prescription charge.”

Dr Kent is concerned about the long-term impact of the current crisis.

“Some of these problems are going to last for generations,” she tells me.

“We know that parental mental health problems have an impact on children. We know that if you’ve had a family member commit suicide, your risk of it is much higher.

“These aren’t only today problems.”

It isn’t just fear you see here; it is a lack of hope. ‘How long will this go on for?’ is the question we heard time and time again that no one can answer – yet no one we met had faith in anything changing any time soon.

If anything, they suspect times are about to get unthinkably tougher.