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Social Justice

What is a warm bank and why are they needed this winter?

Here’s everything you need to know about warm banks – including where to find one, why they’re needed in the cost of living crisis, and what charities are saying about them

If you were in any doubt about the scale of the cost of living crisis devastating the UK, the fact councils and charities are preparing to open “warm banks” should tell you everything you need to know.

Astronomical energy bills – double what they were at the start of the year – mean millions of people will be unable to put on their heating when temperatures plummet this winter. Fuel poverty is nothing new, but things are so bad this year that dedicated refuges are being set up to cope with demand.

You might remember pensioner Elsie, whose story went viral earlier this year when it was put to Boris Johnson. She spent her days riding buses to stay warm because she could not afford to heat her home.

Warm banks are a way of making sure people like Elsie have somewhere to go where they can spend the day without spending money they don’t have.

As with food banks, the people setting them up are doing great work. But as they have said themselves, it is a mark of the desperate state of poverty in the UK that warm banks are needed at all.

They can only ever be a “short-term fix” in the cost of living crisis, and charities insist they cannot become normalised in the way food banks have, and that the government needs to find long-term solutions fast. 

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Until then – here’s everything you need to know about warm banks – including where to find them, why they are needed in the cost of living crisis, how to help and the potential drawbacks. 

What is a warm bank?

Warm banks are safe places with the heating on, where people can go to get warm in the winter if they cannot afford to heat their homes. They will be run by local councils, charities, museums, libraries and NHS services across the country.

The charity New Beginnings Reading is setting up Reading’s first warm bank this winter, hosted in an old refurbished pub. It will keep its heating on around the clock, and act as a social place where people can enjoy a hot drink and soup together.

Sophie Kimber, of New Beginnings Reading, said: “We were thinking about what we can do to help people in the cost of living crisis. And we thought the one thing we can do is provide a warm space for people to come and make sure no one is at home worrying about how they are going to pay their bills.”

Barons Court Homeless Project in West London is also setting up a warm bank. “Our plan is to provide a place for people to come to be warm, cared for, charge their devices and so on,” its director Michael Angus said.

“We will be able to provide some form of food or microwave meal. We’ve also been stocking up with lots and lots of items to give away, like cleaning materials and direct shower gels.”

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Why are warm banks needed?

The bleak reality is the cold kills. Around 12,000 people die each year from health conditions arising or worsening from having a cold home, according to National Energy Action. This year, amid the cost of living crisis and the huge spike in energy bills, millions of people will not be able to afford to turn on their heating.

“We are seeing people with a couple of jobs who are still finding themselves on the breadline and unable to pay for their heating bills and food bills,” Kimber said. “The way that they’re going to be affected ultimately, is that they’re going to have to choose between heating or eating.”

Angus, of the Baron’s Court Homeless Project, said this is the hardest time he has faced in his 30 years in charity work. He felt it is bleaker than a choice between heating and eating – many people in the UK are struggling to do either and will need initiatives like warm banks to survive. 

“I’m just having to say ‘No’ the whole time,” Angus said, “or ‘I haven’t got the answers for you.’ It’s quite draining, but this is a way to make some kind of difference.”

Even with the freeze to the energy price cap, bills are still double what they were earlier this year. “There might be a cap on energy bills,” Kimber said, “but what about the cost of living generally? What about the cost of food going up in huge amounts? People aren’t seeing a rise in their wages. There’s inflation coming from all different directions. So I think there’s still going to be a need for it unfortunately.”

What are councils’ plans for running warm banks?

A number of councils across the country have already confirmed they will be running warm banks this winter, or at least working with community organisations to provide warm spaces for their residents. It is likely that more will follow. 

Some of the councils that have confirmed their plans to the Big Issue are Bristol, Aberdeen, Birmingham and Dundee. The warm banks are generally set to open from October, when temperatures begin to drop. 

A spokesperson for Bristol City Council said its service will include WiFi, charging facilities, computers and food.

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Councillor John Cotton, of Birmingham City Council, said the council would be mapping out spaces across the city where people can go to keep warm. 

“Whether that’s local community centres,” he said, “places of worship or libraries, we want to help people to find places where they will be welcomed, free of charge. As a council we will then work with our partners across the city to identify gaps in provision and find solutions to fill them.”

Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert, was one of the first people to call for warm banks this winter. He has since funded the libraries association to create best-practice guidance to help councils, libraries, universities and any other local organisations set them up.

Can libraries, museums and charities afford to run warm banks?

One concern raised by campaigners is that public spaces like museums and libraries will not be able to afford to pay the energy bills themselves. They will need additional funding from the government, councils, donors and the public to keep their warm banks open. 

A spokesperson for the library and information association CILIP said warm banks are an important initiative. But they warned: “Our nation’s libraries are themselves facing huge challenges this winter. As councils across the country feel the squeeze on budgets, there is renewed pressure to close or reduce local library services. 

“It would be a terrible irony if, just as people need their library the most, they find it locked and shuttered for lack of funds. If we really want to help everyone everywhere, we should be building new libraries on every high street.”

A spokesperson for the Museums Association told The Guardian: “Museums can only be safe warm spaces if we have sustainable funding. We are getting concerned calls almost every day from institutions saying their anticipated energy bills are five times what they were last year. They say: ‘This is the dealbreaker for us. This is worse than Covid.’ And these are big, significant, city-wide institutions.”

And charities are struggling too. Kimber said New Beginnings Reading was worried about paying the energy bills for its warm bank. 

“That is a massive concern for us,” she said. “We will need a huge amount of support from donors and hopefully from the council. We have a fundraising campaign to raise £100,000, and we really want people to be able to donate if they can. We are going to see a huge increase in the amount of money that we’re going to have to pay for our own energy.”

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What are charities and campaigners saying about warm banks?

Campaigners and charities have warned the country could become over-dependent on warm banks, which offer emergency support rather than long-term solutions. 

Matt Downie, Crisis chief executive, said the need for warm banks shows how desperate the cost of living crisis is.

He said: “It hardly needs stating that there should be no need for these facilities in 21st century Britain and that everyone should have the opportunity to have their own warm, safe home. Although it is commendable to see organisations try to help by setting them up, they can only ever be a short-term fix.”

A spokesperson for Fuel Poverty Action added: “Food banks, warm banks, postcode lotteries, people dying in ambulances waiting for hours outside hospitals, people considering suicide because they don’t know how they’ll heat their homes – all of this has been ‘normalised’ in a country where the government has prioritised profits, especially the profits of the energy corporations, over the money we need for our households and for services.”

Simon Francis, End Fuel Poverty Coalition coordinator, added: “The nation’s over reliance on food banks should serve as a warning to the future that we cannot normalise warm banks as part of our lives.”

What are the long-term solutions in the cost of living crisis? 

Charities have tirelessly urged the government to act throughout the cost of living crisis

After nothing was announced over the summer, new prime minister Liz Truss finally announced measures to tackle soaring energy costs, capping bills at £2,500 for two years. That’s still double the £1,277 it was at the start of 2022, though. And it will ultimately be paid for by taxpayers, rather than energy companies.

In terms of long-term solutions, Downie said: “The government should unfreeze the housing benefit so that it covers rises in people’s rent and real world costs. As a priority, they should deliver a housing strategy for the 90,000 genuinely affordable, social homes we so desperately need. When people can afford their rent and bills, they will be able to be safe and secure in their homes, and we will have no need for warm banks.”

Fuel Poverty Action is campaigning for Energy For All – free energy to cover the basics like heating, lighting and cooking, at a level depending on each household’s need. A representative said: “This will be paid for by higher tariffs on energy used beyond what is needed, by windfall taxes on oil and gas, and by ending the millions being poured every day into subsidising these costly, climate-wrecking fuels. Extortionate multinationals cannot be allowed to drive us to this point of desperation.”

Francis, of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the government needs to invest in ending fuel poverty in the long term. He said: “This includes additional support for energy efficiency measures, investment in renewables and weaning the nation off volatile fossil fuels.”

Where can I find my local warm bank?

The best way to find a warm bank near you is to look on your local council’s website or contact it directly. Even if it is not running a warm bank itself, it should be able to direct you to a charity or other community organisation which is offering support this winter. 

What can you do to help set up warm banks?

If you can spare some money, you can donate to fundraisers like the one being organised by New Beginnings Reading for its warm bank. You could also contact local charities to see if they need help – they may be looking for volunteers or donations of specific items like food and toiletries. 

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