Rural poverty: ‘We’ve got two full-time jobs and it’s still not enough to pay the bills’

We heard from some of those who need extra support and from the communities struggling to help

In a rural corner of East Devon, the sound of chainsaws reverberates through an otherwise quiet woodland.

On a crisp winter’s afternoon, volunteers are collecting surplus firewood from landowners and farmers to deliver to people living in freezing homes.

A decade ago food banks were rare. Today they’re everywhere. Now log banks are the latest thing to help those at crisis point.

Alan Dyer, from Axewoods Cooperative, describes the log bank as a "kind of emergency service" for people in rural areas.

"Some of the agencies and local charities ask us to deliver logs to those who are really in serious trouble," he said.

The free logs are helping to keep pensioner Wendy Robertson warm. Due to her rural location, Ms Robertson’s rented home is not on the mains gas network and she relies on oil for heating.

"It’s astronomical. The bill has gone from £450 a year to more than £1500 for the same oil. You can’t just find any extra £1000 like that," she said.

There is no energy price cap to protect oil consumers from unaffordable costs.

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"I was getting desperate, and the volunteers from Axewoods turned up with a pile of logs and filled up my shed. It was terrific," she said.

A YouGov Survey for End Fuel Poverty Coalition shared exclusively with ITV News revealed that half of those who live in rural households are classed as vulnerable - with one in five elderly people living in cold, damp homes. 44% of them are living in fuel poverty for the first time.

Millions of rural households are still waiting for emergency fuel payments. In the Autumn, the government promised one off payments of £100, later doubled to £200 by the chancellor, to the two million families who rely on more expensive oil or other fuels to heat their homes.

No one has seen a penny of that money and there is still no detail on how or when the payments will be made.

A Cold To Cosy worker measures the temperature in Anne's house

Community groups warn that delays to the 'Alternative Fuel Payment' are putting lives at risk as households can’t afford to put the heating on despite sub-zero temperatures.

In Cumbria, the charity Cold to Cosy Homes provides free insulation and advice on energy bills to those in need.

Thermal cameras reveal just how hard it is to heat Anne Freeland’s 18th century cottage in north Cumbria. The walls in her bedroom register just above 7°C; the NHS recommends that rooms that are regularly used should be heated to at least 18°C for health reasons.

Small changes have already made a big difference in Anne’s home. The charity has fitted LED light bulbs as well as draught proofing on the doors and loft.

Houses in rural parts of the UK can be more costly to heat and maintain as energy efficient, as Andrew Northcott from Cumbria Action for Sustainability explains

Andrew Northcott, from Cumbria Action for Sustainability, told ITV News that "these older, rural properties tend to have much higher energy costs and keeping walls dry in the winter is a real challenge".

"A couple of hundred pounds from the government to help households that are off gas is a help, but is it really enough? What needs to happen is for these buildings to be retrofitted and provide some substantial insulation," he said.

As the temperatures fall, debts are mounting. Citizens Advice has warned that referrals for crisis support for pensioners have soared by 137% since 2020 due to the cost of living crisis.

In Belford, north Northumberland, Bell View provides a warm space, meals and home care for the local community.

94-year-old Betty Brown relies on community carers who deliver warm meals for her

Free Christmas dinners are being delivered to families living in the most isolated parts of the county.

Mother-of-four Katie Simpson is one of those relying on the emergency parcels as oil heating and transport costs have surged.

"Everything mounts ups. We’ve got two full time jobs, and it’s still not enough, it’s scary," she said.

A care assistant in rural Northumberland working six days a week, Katie is "angry and frustrated" that rural households haven’t had "same level of help" from government as those living elsewhere.

Katie describes her mounting costs as 'scary'

"It’s the ones that are in the middle, who don’t get any help at all. You have to work, work, work and the kids ask 'why do you have to go to work all the time?' and it’s just to make ends meet. It’s exhausting," she said.

The family has gone from being financially stable to struggling in a period of less than 12 months as the cost of living has increased.

A government spokesperson told ITV News: "We recognise people are struggling with the rising cost of living, including those who use heating oil and fuels other than gas to warm their homes.

"That is why we have increased the Alternative Fuel Payment (AFP) to £200 and are committed to delivering this to customers as soon as possible."