The government’s most recent energy price guarantee may prevent the most extreme cost-of-living crisis scenarios occurring, but it will do little for many people living in Newham – a borough ranked high for fuel poverty and by certain other deprivation measures – where some of those seeking support say the situation they face is worse than during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Queues for the Newham Muslim Safety Forum‘s Saturday afternoon foodbank in High Street North, East Ham, snake far around the corner of the ornate neighbouring Hindu London Sri Mahalakshmi temple. As far back as when I visited in September undergraduates from India told me they were dumpster-diving for food and eating just one meal a day to get by.
Up the road in Forest Gate, Mohammed, a volunteer with and service user at community support group Hope 4 Humanity, who has a disabled young daughter, says his electricity bill has almost doubled from £350-£370 a quarter last year to £650 now. His kids want to watch TV, the older two use the internet for homework, and although he has tried to explain about energy saving they are too young to understand.
Former school assistant Nabiha Waseem and her husband, who works in security, live in a shared house. Nabiha (main photo, with her children) says their energy bills have more than tripled in a year and that in the summer their landlord insisted on a £100 rent increase. With a five month-old and a daughter who suffers from asthma to care for, she says she can’t keep the heating off altogether. “My family is in Lahore,” Nabiha says. “They can’t help us. And we’re supposed to help them.”
Someone else who relies on the group is Rajani, who describes her situation as “cryful”. She has back problems that sometimes confine her to a wheelchair. Her husband has diabetes, heart problems and a neurological condition. Her adult children, both on low wages, still live with her. One of them, a son, experiences bouts of frustration.
“All my income goes on bills,” Rajani says. “I never felt the day would come when I would have to access here.” But if she didn’t, “I don’t know where I would go.” Rajani invites politicians “to come into each house and see what it’s costing”.
Hope 4 Humanity founder Junaid Ali describes his operation as a “one stop shop”, with service-users treating him “like family”. Started as a mutual aid group during the pandemic, when it gave free food to 600 to 700 people a week, it converted into a food pantry last year with a £6 pre-registration charge. It also is a first port of call for help and support and runs classes and lays on parties and community days out.
At Saturday food bank, attendees can take their pick of tinned and packaged basics, fresh food, household products and some eclectic delicacies. Some items are supplied by food redistributors the Felix Project and City Harvest or by Newham Council, others are sourced at bargain prices by Junaid and colleagues from local stores and markets. People who can prove from records that they have babies in the household can get powdered milk and nappies.
Others, migrants who fall into the category of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) – typically because they don’t have settled status – receive a little extra. One man, too afraid to give his details, is called “Mr Khas” by Junaid after the Urdu word for special. “When he comes in, the staff know it and they treat him accordingly,” he says. First-time visitors get a bouquet of flowers.
During Saturday sessions Junaid (pictured below) moves briskly, grabbing, unpacking and disposing of boxes and marshalling his team of volunteers. He is firm when warding off disruptive or disgruntled visitors – sometimes, he says, he’s had to get the police in.
During my two visits to Hope 4 Humanity’s small retail unit headquarters, passing well-wishers handed Junaid donations in banknotes. At the pandemic’s height churches as far away as as Greenwich were generous, donating large sacks of rice and flour. Now Junaid is catering to attendees from Barnet and Harrow and even further afield. A growing portfolio includes a contract to deliver a food programme over the coming school holiday period in partnership with the councils of Havering and Thurrock.
Early on in the pandemic Newham Council harnessed voluntary sector organisations and places of worship as a way of reaching everyone and delivering wraparound support. Under the shared title of the Newham Food Alliance, these organisations became, as one council officer explains, a porous interface to the council instead of the council being a giant institution that could be daunting to approach.
On a visit to food redistribution network FareShare’s Deptford base in September 2020, East Ham MP Stephen Timms was struck by Newham Council’s proactive logistical arrangements with the charity – “an efficiently co-ordinated operation that other boroughs don’t have”. Since then, the Felix Project’s kitchen has opened in Limehouse as an even closer hub.
Newham has given frontline organisations training in triaging residents, determining if they qualify for statutory support, need immediate help or should be directed to specialists. Junaid was keen for the “fantastic” work of Andy Gold, head of Newham’s food strategy, to be mentioned in this article.
Since August, alongside collecting donations for victims of the Pakistan floods, Hope 4 Humanity has been building up stores of duvets and warm clothes to give out in London with the onset of winter. In October it launched a council-funded women’s safeguarding group teaching martial arts and yoga and offering children hands-on nature learning. Its events programme has included kids’ parties, a trip to Clacton and festivals for Pakistan Independence Day and for Diwali. “My interest is to bring people on to their feet,” Junaid says.
In November, Hope 4 Humanity’s Warm Haven opened in the community centre along the road from its base, as did others across Newham. Junaid sees the diagnostic value of these “safe, non-judgemental spaces” where residents struggling to afford to heat their home can sit for up to a couple of hours. “It’s a very good idea,” he says. “People chit-chat, they become friends, they share experiences and highlight them with us. Then we understand what the issue is”. Hope 4 Humanity helps people with limited ability to read and write English with form-filling, including when applying for energy support.
A new line of activity is distributing the third phase of Department for Work and Pensions household support funding on behalf of the council – ranging from £50-£250 in value, encompassing supermarket, Argos and energy vouchers. The project is involved too in the provision of extended household support. It has started to offer mediation and consultancy services, such as setting up access to a solicitor for people who are NRPF and need to extend their visas.
What does Junaid want from the government to address the latest crisis? He says “multiple reasons and factors” push people into relying on food banks, ranging from an increase in motoring costs in Newham – arising from emission-based parking permits and adapting to the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone – to soaring private sector rent levels, which mean a two-bedroom flat can cost £1,700 a month.
On energy, Junaid is in favour of zero VAT on energy bills – a measure promised by Rishi Sunak during the summer’s Tory leadership race if the energy price cap rose above £3,000 – and the standing charge abolished, or the adoption of the Fuel Poverty Action campaign’s “energy for all” model, under which basic needs would be covered for free and a high tariff raised on additional units consumed.
He also wants an increase in local housing allowance – housing benefit as applied in the private rented sector – and larger discretionary housing payments, along with a freeze on council tax, and the introduction of rent controls for private tenants in London – the drum Sadiq Khan has long been beating. He also argues for a cap on social housing rents and for business rates discounts for five years. With the possible exception of investment in energy efficiency, the policy environment is moving in the opposite direction of everything he wants.
Stephen Timms thinks one consolation is that with the uprating of benefits and the benefits cap, a dismal financial situation for those on the lowest incomes is unlikely to get even worse. But he worries about dire social housing conditions, highlighted by the tragic death of Aweeb Ishak, and, notwithstanding the heroic work being done within communities, a systematic reliance on the third sector.
Between April 2021 and April 2022 the Trussell Trust charity distributed 2.1 million food parcels nationally – a record outside times of lockdown. “We can’t go on with so many people relying on charitable food banks,” Timms says. “We have got to get the economy capable of supporting people in Britain.”
Meanwhile, with the Midlands and North disproportionately badly hit by both high energy bills and council tax rises, sympathy in political and media circles towards Londoners in need may be meagre. It’s going to be a long winter.
On London strives to provide more of the kind of journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for just £5 a month. You will even get things for your money. Details here.