ITV News Investigations Correspondent Daniel Hewitt delivers a special report into how the biggest slump in living standards since the 1950s is affecting lives and livelihoods across the country
Neil knew it was over the moment he opened the email.
It had been on the news for weeks: energy prices set to soar in October. He had braced himself for the bill.
The family butchers his ‘granny’ had opened in the year of the late Queen’s coronation, the shops he had grown up in as a child and then taken over as a young man, had always survived against the odds. Recessions, downturns, even a global pandemic – Hoult’s is a North Shields institution, ever-present.
When I walked into one of Neil’s four shops on the Meadow Well estate on the outskirts of Newcastle in late September – the original shop Emily Hoult had opened in 1952 – Neil had just found out his gas and electricity bill was going to double, from £30,000 a year to over £70,000.
“Where am I going to find that money from?” Neil asked me.
The shops would limp on for a few more weeks, Neil blindly hoping for a miracle.
In February I returned to the Meadow Well estate to find the shutters down on Hoult’s Butchers. A piece of A4 paper was taped to the outside of the shop explaining what Neil had told me inside four months earlier: footfall was down, his outgoings were up, and the cost-of-living crisis had closed his Granny’s shop.
It ended: “We wish you a fond farewell.”
Neil says he is still 'absolutely devastated' months after having to shut down his family butchers
Neil arrived and took me inside the shell that had become this once bustling butchers. The white apron he’d worn for 40 years was hung up for good on a peg next to a framed picture of his Granny, smiling proudly in front of the store in happier times.
Neil, too, seemed a shell of his former self. When I first met him, he was laughing and joking, a jolly Geordie who clearly loved his job and revelled in his family’s role and roots in the local community. He was undoubtedly putting on a brave face, mainly for his staff who he was having sleepless nights over, knowing he’d have to let them go.
As we stand inside the empty kitchens, Neil looks broken.
“Three months down the line, I’m absolutely devastated that it had to come to this,” said Neil.
“It hasn’t been a job for me. It’s been my life. I’ve been here since I was a kid. I've worked here for 40 years and it's hard to wake up in the morning and think that I'm not going to work.
“You feel a failure that it's come to an end you know, and I feel heartbroken that I ultimately make the decision because there was no way forward.
“It was like a tidal wave of price increases. Everything was going up and up and up. The only thing going down was footfall and people’s spending. I was actually losing money towards the end.”
I ask him what it’s like being back here.
“It feels like I’m an imposter in my own shop. The heart’s been ripped out of it and it makes me fill up a little bit to be honest.”
We hear it so often: ‘the cost-of-living crisis’. Journalists love a neat, catch-all phrase but you can become numb to it. Yet standing in Neil’s empty shop is what it really means, what it really looks like.
Neil isn’t alone. Across Britain, 47 shops closed every day last year, up 50% on 2021.
Britain is experiencing the biggest fall in living standards since records began 70 years ago.
When I first started travelling the country seven months ago to see the impact, the predictions were that life would start to get easier by the spring.
Yet here we are, it’s the end of April, and inflation remains above 10% - the highest for 40 years. Earlier this month we learned food inflation was the highest it’s been since 1977. There’s talk of the Bank of England raising interest rates again. Rents have risen faster than ever and show little sign of slowing.
What’s different about this economic downturn has been the number of people it has impacted. This crisis has cast a wide net, catching people who have never before struggled so much, where cutting back or working harder isn’t enough to make ends meet.
In Coventry, I meet Dee Hodgson. She’s 55 years old, a grandmother to nine, and works full-time for a national charity.
Her daughter Salome lives at home and also works. Between them, they earn £36,000 after tax – almost exactly the national average for a UK household.
Their wages were always enough to pay the bills with a little left over for themselves. Not anymore.
In the kitchen, over a cup of tea, Dee shows me a list she’s made of their monthly outgoings. They’ve increased by £400, not accounting for food.
Grandmother Dee Hodgson works six days a week to keep a 'roof over her head'
“Leading up to payday I’ll be thinking, right, OK, I’ll be able to do this or do that - and then reality hits,” says Dee. “Going out for a meal, going out for a drink, we can’t do those things anymore. I have bad days when I think, is this what life has become?”
Their energy bill doubled at the start of last winter. Dee has had to ration the heating, despite having rheumatoid arthritis and Raynaud’s which is affected by the cold.
“I permanently feel cold. My hands will often be white from the Raynaud’s.”
Research shows cold homes have a serious and sometimes fatal impact on health.
We’ve discovered this winter more than 130,000 deaths in England and Wales involved circulatory or respiratory conditions like strokes and pneumonia - both of which are linked to cold temperatures. This was an increase of 15,000 on the year before, though it’s still too early to know how many were linked to cold homes.
Dee’s wage can no longer cover all their costs, and so she has just taken on a second job working at McDonald’s at weekends.
We spoke to her after she had completed her third consecutive 57-hour working week.
“It is tough and I have had to go back on the medication just to bring my pain levels down from the rheumatoid arthritis again.
“I don’t how long I can keep this schedule going, the busy-ness, I never envisaged that at 55 years old I’d be working the hours I am. I’m angry that I’ve had to make these choices to keep a roof over my head.”
Last year it was estimated that almost five million people took on a second job.
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Chanice Hird already had two jobs before this cost of living crisis – one as an actor and the other in London’s tourism industry. She has to commute into the capital from Ealing, in west London.
“I was always good with money, I was always saving,” she says. “When I was getting pocket money as a kid, I used to count my coins every two weeks. I’ve been trying really, really hard to save to buy my own property but obviously with the cost-of-living crisis it’s becoming nearly impossible.”
For the last three years she has been renting a room in a shared house for £550 a month, but in November her landlord got in touch to say he was increasing her rent to nearly £800.
“45%... is just a massive increase. When I read it, my heart kind of just sank because… I knew I wasn't going be able to afford that kind of increase.”
Chanice tried to negotiate a price she could afford, but it went nowhere, and in January she was sent an eviction notice.
I just opened it up and saw that I had to vacate. I was devastated. It was definitely a hard time for me mentally… I went through a very dark path and was feeling suicidal for a long time, just because there’s nowhere I can move to easily.”
Difficult is putting it mildly.
The UK’s private rental market is in chaos: demand far outweighs supply, monthly rents are at record levels, and more and more people are facing the prospect of being homeless.
New figures shared with us from Shelter found that one in 12 private renters in England are currently facing eviction - that is almost 1 million people.
Chanice tried searching for a new home but on the first site she checked, the only places within her budget were car parking spaces.
“I’ve worked since I was 16 yet I don’t feel like I get any help from the government. They just don’t care. It just seems massively unfair.
“I’ve paid my rent on time. I’ve kept the house clean and all that kind of stuff. I just feel like I’m being punished even though I’ve done everything the right way.”
The government plans to end no-fault evictions like Chanice’s, but it’s unclear when that change will be brought in.
Her eviction was eventually called off due to a technicality, and upon hearing she had been speaking to us for our documentary, the landlord agreed to a smaller rent increase which means she can stay in her home.
There is seemingly no end in sight for tenants trapped in Britain’s broken rental market.
Families across Britain face the prospect of homelessness as landlords increase rental prices, and councils have no properties to offer them.
For those on the financial edge, the fear is real, and help is being offered in unfamiliar places.
I visited Ash Green Community Primary in Halifax. Situated in one the most deprived areas of England, the school has partnered with the charity Magic Breakfast to offer free breakfasts to pupils for some time now.
Social worker Hugh Monaghan says the school he works at has to lend money to parents to help them cope with energy bills
In the last few months, however, they’ve noticed families struggling like never before, and they’ve started to lend money to parents to help with their household bills.
“The hardship fund is about giving the family money to help them put gas on the meter, or electric, on the premise that they would repay that money when they are able to,” says Hugh Monaghan, a social worker who works full time at the school.
Hugh shows me a logbook of the money they’ve given out and to whom, alongside the reason for the loan. It’s predominantly £20 and £30 loans for energy bills.
“That’s what it’s like out there now. It’s really serious. I’ve been here 15 years [and] never on this level were families coming in having to borrow money from school to have the electric put on.”
The government insists this crisis will pass, and that the most vulnerable have been protected.
A government spokesperson told us: “We are facing significant global economic challenges driven by Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and we recognise families are struggling with the cost of living.
“We are committed to supporting the most vulnerable through these tough times by delivering one of the most generous cost of living packages in the world – worth £96 billion which is around £3,300 per household. This includes direct payments of £1,350 to the most vulnerable households and we’re continuing to hold down people’s energy bills through the energy price cap – all in part funded through windfall taxes on energy profits.
“We are also making work pay with a record increase in the National Living Wage. We continue to focus on our priorities to halve inflation so we can ease pressure on families and businesses and to grow the economy to create better paid jobs.“
The fear for some is that their life will never return to how it was. That the security and the certainty they once enjoyed has been permanently replaced - and they’ll be living with the consequences of this crisis, long after it has passed.
You can watch Life & Debt: Stories from the Edge, Sunday 30th April 10.20pm, ITV1
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this report:
Citizens Advice offers free and confidential phone and webchat services for those seeking advice on benefits, work and money. They also have advice centres in England, Wales and Scotland.
PayPlan provides free, simple debt help and advice to anyone who needs it via a phone and webchat service.
Shelter offers advice and support services online, over the phone and through local services for those facing housing issues, homelessness and evictions.
The Samaritans run a 24-hour helpline to talk to anyone struggling with mental health.