‘The energy crisis did not happen overnight and could have been avoided’
Bethan Sayed – Warm this Winter Wales Campaign Coordinator
“My situation this year, like any other year, is to look forward to a cold, damp house. I am wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, because for years the council have refused to replace my noisy, faulty boiler which at the time was 20 years old. I ran up standing charge debt because I didn’t use the boiler and gas hob – now I am unable to clear the debt.
“When I put money on the meter, it just gets swallowed up with the price hike and standing charge debt. Although I work full time, I have been forced to live without gas for many years. I have heaters and I shut myself off in a room and just heat that. I cannot afford to downsize because of the rent increases. I suffer mental and physical health issues. It is hard to survive everyday and I take nothing for granted. Things need to change.”
These are the words of Viv, from south Wales. Sadly Viv isn’t alone in having to face the winter in a cold, damp home. You would think that in 21st Century Wales both the Welsh and UK Governments could ensure that people didn’t die from living in cold homes.
But there were almost 300 excess winter deaths caused by cold homes in Wales last year – that’s 300 too many.
I’ve travelled around warm spaces and food banks in south Wales in my role as Warm this Winter Campaign Coordinator to collect people’s voices on the cost of living crisis. It’s a campaign that has brought together a network of people and organisations from across the environmental and poverty sectors to push the Welsh and UK Governments to take immediate and long-term action on the cost-of-living crisis and the underlying problems with our broken energy system.
And everyone is telling me the same thing;
“I only have one meal a day. That’s all I can afford.”
“If my benefits don’t come through on time, I have no money. So I have no choice but to go to a food bank.”
“I’m living in a really damp house. My landlord has taken 15 years to fix it. I don’t want to speak on camera because he’ll throw me out if I say anything publicly.”
“I keep an eye on when I heat my house and what I use, but even then I am still struggling due to the high standing charges. It’s scandalous that the energy companies make so much profit when I can’t even afford to pay my bills.”
When I spoke to Mandy, who is the head of a food bank in Pontypridd, she told me she would prefer it if food banks did not have to exist. Like most of us, she wants people to be equal and be comfortable in their lives.
We have come to normalise people being desperate enough for food that they have to access a food bank, and now we have seen the creation of warm hubs or warm spaces in our communities, due to the rising cost in energy in the last few years.
People are seeking a space to shelter from the harsh Welsh weather in a place where they can chat and put aside their daily troubles for a while. Sometimes it can feel futile to work in this space, especially when you see the UK Government’s attack on the homeless and the vulnerable.
The comments about homelessness being a “lifestyle choice” from the recently sacked Suella Braverman is just the tip of the iceberg in a series of events that have led to people’s lives being devalued.
The forced prepayment meter scandal involving some of the largest energy companies, the lack of emergency support for people this winter, the delaying of the new phase of the Welsh Government’s Warm Homes programme that could see many more people able to insulate their homes effectively, demonising people who are on benefits generally – the list goes on.
But there are ways in which we can campaign and be active to change our futures. We are in the grip of several crises – the cost-of-living crisis, the energy crisis, and the climate and nature emergencies. These issues are all connected and intertwined. They have shared causes and solutions.
Emergency support is needed for the most vulnerable. Beyond that, the best solutions for a genuine pathway out of the cost-of-living crisis are also key steps to addressing energy security and the climate crisis – like a rapid scale up of energy efficiency and rolling out community energy all over Wales.
The energy crisis did not happen overnight and could have been avoided if action on energy efficiency and renewables had been taken decades ago. Unless we take urgent and informed action now, short term or false solutions risk locking us into the worsening impacts of climate change and future energy crises.
That is why we have been campaigning with UK partners to introduce an emergency tariff for vulnerable people this winter so they can be supported in the here and now. That is why we are pushing for a longer term introduction of a social tariff, and a ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters.
We want communities to work together to implement real change. That is why we are working with community renewable energy providers to help them power up their own energy creating schemes, so that their community centres and GP surgeries can run on renewable energy, and any profits can then go back into helping that area directly. That is why we want to see a genuine windfall tax on big oil and gas companies. Polluters must pay. They must take responsibility.
So to that end, we are holding a day of protest on Saturday (November 18) in Cardiff as part of a nationwide Warm Homes campaign co-ordinated by Friends of the Earth. We are asking for people to join us and protest outside the UK Government offices in Cardiff Central square starting from 11 am. We have created cardboard cutout silhouettes that have been painted black and will place them around the outside of the building, alongside ‘Warm Homes for All’ banners.
Attached to the silhouettes will be notes from across Wales from people who attend community hubs as to what they feel are the solutions, and what needs to be changed. These have all been taken from my visits to seek to engage with people about the effect of the cost of living on them.
We will be encouraging people who attend to talk to one another and add their own voices to the notes by pegging their words to the silhouettes. The silhouettes are there to represent the 300 people in Wales who died last winter due to living in cold, leaky homes.
So if you, like me, want a way to direct your anger, your frustrations and also your hopes and ideas for a stronger and more vibrant future, join us on Saturday.
Here are words to a song that my father, poet Mike Jenkins, wrote to support our action this weekend.
Turn it Up!
It’s heat or eat
The meter lights
Like sirens blaring
I’m staring at bills
Rising like the river –
Always getting closer
Turn it up
Turn it up
Anger is burning
See the sun shining
See the winds blowing –
Energy all around
See the waves crashing
See the streams flowing –
Energy for everyone
Turn it up
Turn it up
Anger is blazing
It’s eat or heat
I retreat to my bed –
Escape the cold and damp
No dam for my tears
No reservoir to drown
My troubled sleep
Turn it up
Turn it up
Anger is firing
It will not destroy
Like the forests burning –
But light up every room.
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