Calls for empty shops in Newcastle to be used as 'warm rooms' to help people who can't afford bills

Council bosses have been urged to turn empty shops in Eldon Square into 'warm rooms' this winter to help people who cannot afford to heat their own homes because of skyrocketing energy bills.

The call comes after regulator Ofgem confirmed on Friday morning that there will be a huge 80% hike in the energy price cap this October, sending average yearly household bills spiralling from £1,971 to £3,549.

Liberal Democrat councillors in Newcastle say the disused space in the shopping centre, as well as in public buildings such as libraries, could be turned into free areas where people can get out of the freezing cold.

Nick Cott, Lib Dem opposition leader on the city council, has called on civic centre bosses to fast track local support measures to alleviate the suffering caused by the cost of living crisis.

Other councils including Gateshead and Northumberland have already confirmed plans to create a network of warm spaces.

Coun Cott said: "I am writing to the council leader Nick Kemp to suggest creating a "warm places" initiative to develop plans to use a range of venues, such as local community buildings and potentially vacant city centre spaces including inside Eldon Square.

"These would be places people could go on the colder days to sit in the warm and enjoy some company, saving them a fortune in home heating costs.

"Clearly there may be contractual and rent issues with some buildings but that should not put us off. No problem is insurmountable, as we saw during the pandemic when there was a huge upsurge in community spirit and involvement."

It was suggested earlier this summer that Newcastle City Council could buy Eldon Square, which it already holds a 40% stake in, after its value plummeted during the pandemic and key tenants like Debenhams closed down.

There has also been talk of parts of the shopping centre being turned into flats or repurposed to host cultural exhibitions and other activities.

A council spokesperson said on Friday: "We know that the recent rise in the energy price cap will be causing additional alarm and worry for our residents.

"The council and its partners in the voluntary sector will be exploring how we can set up warm places for our residents. We will also look to see how we might use that opportunity to give them additional support and advice to help them avoid future risk of crisis."

Northumberland County Council issued a call on Friday for community organisations or businesses to sign up to be part of a Warm Spaces & Places network this winter that will include libraries, leisure centres, village halls, and cafes.

Gateshead Council announced in July that it was launching a 'Warm Spaces' programme to help residents unable to heat their homes.

Deputy council leader Catherine Donovan said last month: "We want to do more to help our residents during the cold winter months and build on our ambitions to help people in Gateshead Thrive. We're keen to work with our local partners, building on the great work we did during the pandemic, to create a network of Warm Spaces where people can come together, get warm, stay warm and enjoy some company and hot refreshments.

"We're looking for local organisations to join our programme and will be offering a small grant to help them make a positive difference to our local communities and help residents during this crisis."

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