An eight-month-old baby girl snoozes in her pram while her mother, in those precious moments of quiet, counts the cost of feeding her four young children. A 16p increase in the price of chicken drumsticks has put them beyond her reach.
“What my children eat – it’s too expensive. The cost of living has changed,” she said, in interview room four of Bolton’s Citizens Advice bureau. “Chicken drumsticks, they used to sell them for £1.49 – it’s now £1.65. And the bus pass as well. From my house it used to be £2. It’s now £3 … A £1 [increase] – that’s a lot.”
Down the corridor, another woman looks flustered when she learns that gas, electricity and water bills will rise sharply this month. “More?! They will go up?!” she cries.
This is the frontline of Britain’s cost of living crisis. The advisers who help low-income families say they are now out of answers. “Historically, our staff have got so many tricks and tools but now we’re running out of road. For some people there’s literally nothing we can do,” said Richard Wilkinson, the chief executive of the Bolton and Bury branch of Citizens Advice.
View image in fullscreenRichard Wilkinson: ‘It can’t really get much worse.’ Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Guardian
In the past three months, his team has directed 706 people to crisis support such as emergency food parcels and fuel vouchers – a 31% increase from the previous quarter. Nationally, Citizens Advice referred 24,752 people to food banks or to other charitable support in March, up by 44% on the same time last year.
The latest research, conducted before the April increase, found one in five people in Bolton were unable to afford their energy bills even if they cut back on other essentials. That will rise to one in three people when bills skyrocket this month.
View image in fullscreenRobert West. Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Guardian
“One in three or four people we see now are stating that they need help with food or fuel,” said Robert West, a debt adviser. “It sounds like that is the exception but it’s the norm. These are daily occurrences now.”
The Bolton bureau has a twice-weekly drop-in day where people get advice on debt, housing, immigration or other money problems. Within an hour of the doors opening at 10am on Thursday, the waiting room is packed to standing room only.
Based in a rundown former abattoir in Bolton town centre, the office feels nearly as cold as the streets outside. The tenor of the conversations is quiet and desperate. The small team of specialist advisers are trained to help people who are suicidal. They often see people at their lowest ebb.
Some come in surrounded by all their belongings after being made homeless, often through no fault of their own, says Gemma Walsh, the housing manager. “I’ve had to tell people that [the council] are not going to accommodate you – go find a tent. We say stop here until we shut because it’s warm but then they’re off. That’s probably the worst-case scenario.”
View image in fullscreenGemma Walsh at her desk. Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Guardian
In interview room one, Salma* clasps a bundle of energy bills as she explains how her previously comfortable life was upended when her husband, a chef, had a stroke four years ago. Now they rely on universal credit and disability benefits.
British Gas is threatening to refer her to a debt collection agency and install a pre-payment meter due to an unpaid £395 bill. Her husband is diabetic and could become seriously ill if they cannot afford to refrigerate his insulin. Their 12-year-old son has noticed they are struggling. “My child is upset when he sees my debt. He wants the same as his friends … everybody is struggling.”
In another room, an Indian woman told the Guardian she had started skipping meals so she could feed her 14-year-old son. “One day I eat, one day I don’t,” she said. “My son says: ‘Mum, is there any food?’”
View image in fullscreenThe busy walk-in service at Bolton and Bury Citizens Advice. Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Guardian
Her problems spiralled after submitting immigration paperwork 16 days late, meaning her universal credit was stopped and she had to quit work as a cleaner. “My friends say if you’re hungry we will give you food but we can’t pay the bills,” she said.
Bolton has some of the most deprived streets in England but the borough as a whole is not one of the poorest. About one in seven of its households were defined as experiencing fuel poverty in 2019, similar to the UK average, according to government data, but that figure will soar as bills rise.
The effect will be felt unevenly among Bolton’s 285,000 residents as it will across the country: in the south-east of the borough 41% of children are in poverty – double the rate just a few miles away. In February, 524 people sought the Bolton centre’s help with fuel debt – up 33% on the previous year.
West started as a debt adviser during the financial crash of 2008. He has noticed a shift in people’s quality of life in recent years as people sacrifice food and internet subscriptions yet still cannot make ends meet. “People have already fully budgeted their salary to points we would never have advised.”
View image in fullscreenBolton town centre. Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Guardian
The lifeline for many in Bolton is a Christian charity called Urban Outreach. Operating from a 17,500 sq ft warehouse, its army of 350 volunteers has delivered 248,000 food parcels since the pandemic began. Over the Easter holidays, it will provide about 1,000 lunches a day for children entitled to free school meals.
The charity tops up pay-as-you-go energy cards for people with pre-payment meters on behalf of the council. In winter 2019-20, it put £27,000-worth of gas and electricity on these cards. This winter, due to a surge in people needing council help, that had risen nearly seven-fold to £181,000. “That gives you some idea of the movement this winter before we see the cataclysmic rise in April,” said Dave Bagley, the chief executive. “Goodness knows what will happen now.”
At the bureau, Wilkinson fears for the year ahead. His dwindling team of advisers are handling a “tsunami of demand” with fewer resources. Staff nationwide are leaving due to poor pay and low morale. With an average salary of £23,000, the people helping those in dire straits are also suffering. “It can’t really get much worse and it looks like it’s going to,” he said.
*Name has been changed
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.