A tour of the UK's cost of living crisis
All illustrations by Tracy Worrall
Around Britain people are pinching the pennies as the cost of living crisis spirals. While there are common causes of pain, some areas are faring worse than others, and many face unique challenges due to their geography, demography, or a combination of the two. Here, six MPs explain what the crisis looks like in their constituencies. Interviews by Georgina Bailey.
Transport travails in the West Country
Selaine Saxby, Conservative MP for North Devon, says that in her rural constituency long journeys and older properties all add to the consumer cost
In North Devon’s beautiful countryside, cars are a lifeline. “It’s a big constituency, and we have very little public transport; active travel isn’t really an option for most people. Therefore, people are very reliant on their cars,” says the local MP Selaine Saxby. “The journeys that we make are longer; it’s not just a mile into town, for many people, it is five to 15 miles to the supermarket.” Information presented to Saxby by Lloyds Banking Group showed her constituency in the top 20 per cent for spending on fuel, despite being near the bottom third for overall spend. Before the recent spike in prices, spending on fuel in the area had already increased by 34 per cent between 2020 and 2021.
Spiralling energy costs have been compounded by the dual challenges of older housing stock and “extreme weather”. “For a lot of houses that are that bit older, it is quite difficult to properly insulate unless you’re in a position to replace windows, or cavity walls and those bigger ticket items,” Saxby says. “We have some very pretty, older cottages which – having grown up in one myself – are very hard to insulate. If they are Grade-II or Grade-I listed, it becomes almost impossible.”
Saxby says many constituents have been in touch to report they are struggling with heating oil supply and cost, with 28 per cent of homes in the constituency not connected to the gas grid. Farmland makes up around three-quarters of the constituency, and farmers are concerned about the increasing costs of fertiliser, which have a knock-on impact through the food supply chain. However, farmers who had grain stored from last year have benefited from the increasing price due to the war in Ukraine, so the picture is not as straightforward as it might seem, says Saxby. “We are a resilient bunch in rural Britain. We might just have to dig deep.”
Pensioner poverty and council tax rises in Wales
Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, says both old and young in his constituency have been hit by the cost of living crisis
In Preseli Pembrokeshire, a quarter of the population are over 65 years old – seven per cent higher than the UK average. “Pensioner poverty is a concern,” says Stephen Crabb. “It’s not even pensioners who are on the lowest incomes. There are quite a lot of pensioners in my constituency who have paid off their mortgage, but find themselves relying on the state pension… One couple showed me their latest fixed-term deal that they were being offered by their electricity and gas supplier: it had more than doubled.”
Many working-age people are employed in the low-wage hospitality and tourism sector. While the labour shortage has raised wages slightly, this is from a low base and not to the same extent as other parts of the country, Crabb says. Big operators are confident of a busy summer season, but local businesses are worried that holidaymakers will have less cash to spend in the region’s pubs and restaurants.
Furthermore, the Covid staycation boom led to many private landlords converting homes into more profitable holiday lets. The lack of affordable housing in the area has wide-ranging consequences, including increased childcare costs for young families forced out of their home villages. Crabb is also worried about the impact on single men, who are often at the bottom of council waiting lists. “We see quite a lot of hardship and poverty amongst that group.”
In an area where 55 per cent of homes rely on heating oil (not covered by a price cap), one single male constituent was told the oil company wouldn’t deliver less than 500 litres: costing nearly £500, twice what he could afford.
Council tax has also increased by double digits successively for the last three years. Crabb says: “Pembrokeshire is one of those areas where you see the layering effect of all of those cost-of-living issues from road fuel to heating oil to house prices. That is the cumulative impact that concerns me.”
The poverty is visceral. One in two children live in poverty in Hackney
Housing and wage pressures in East London
Dame Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, says her constituents will be squeezed by pre-payment meters, benefit cuts, and rental costs
“People talk about Hackney as though it’s gentrified; they talk about Shoreditch hipsters. Actually, the poverty is visceral. One in two children live in poverty in Hackney.” Dame Meg Hillier runs through some of what she sees in her constituency: nearly 60 per cent in social housing; spiralling private rental costs; house prices at £750,000 for a new build two-bed flat, or £500,000 for ex-local authority; teenage children sharing a bed with their parents because there is nowhere else to sleep; constituents walking to her surgeries because they cannot afford the bus fare; choices about what brand of food to buy coming down to 14p margins for milk. “The cost of living is not a new problem,” Hillier says, but the dramatic rise in inflation and energy costs make it worse in a constituency where every penny and pound matters.
Specific concerns for Hillier include the higher costs of pre-payment meters (which many of her constituents use), the continued impact of the £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit, and the £200 government energy loan adding to constituents’ debt. In an area where many are reliant on small charities to provide after school activities and food for children, the rising energy costs may force those organisations, already on tight margins, to reduce their operations or close she warns, shutting off a vital lifeline.
It is not just a problem for the very poorest: Hillier tells of a local headteacher who left because the costs were too high to raise a family. It is a common quandary for public sector workers and middle managers across the area, whose wages have not risen in line with inflation: do they leave London and face higher commuting costs and a loss of community, or grin and bear the rents? “Those people who were perhaps treading water, if you put it generously, are now going to be really squeezed.”
Stevenage has been hammered by energy costs; the government must hold the price cap, writes Stephen McPartland, Conservative MP for Stevenage
The cost of living has been a continual source of pressure in Stevenage, ever since it was designated as the first new town under the New Town Act 1946. The town has been growing ever since and has always been a destination for families. We have amazing transport links, hundreds of train services, 22 minutes from central London and direct links to Brighton and Edinburgh. We build 25 per cent of the world’s telecommunication satellites, employ thousands of scientists and provide stable jobs to raise a family.
With more than 30,000 commuters, people leaving London come here in search of better schools, housing and low crime, but this has always meant housing and commuting costs are a huge pressure on family finances. Inflation, council tax, National Insurance increases all have an effect, but local people are focused on the cost of energy. Houses full of children, teenagers and young adults wanting to charge their devices and live their lives place huge pressure on family energy costs.
It is possible to keep the energy price cap in place if we are courageous enough to do it
I have been clear we must be more courageous in supporting families. The government should have instructed Ofgem to hold the price cap in place in April and it must not miss that opportunity again in October.
The current problems are the result of volatility in the global wholesale price of gas, exacerbated by tragic events in Ukraine, a lack of storage infrastructure in the UK and energy companies under capitalised and under financial strain.
The government must help smooth out volatility in prices by giving energy companies access to a credit facility, for example, £25bn, which they could pay interest on, as they draw down funds to get through any sudden spikes and smooth the increases over the next 10 years. It is possible to keep the energy price cap in place if we are courageous enough to do it.
Nearly one-third of my constituents have lost income due to the cut to Universal Credit
The people of Liverpool were being pushed into poverty by austerity – now things will get worse for the most vulnerable, writes Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside
The 12 years of austerity cuts under the Tories have meant more people are living in poverty and experiencing higher levels of debt, living in poorly insulated homes.
My Liverpool Riverside constituency has some of the highest levels of in-work poverty in the country. Almost one in five residents are over 60. The cost of living crisis is already hitting, with 85 per cent experiencing more expensive energy bills. Nearly 70 per cent are paying for more fuel and transport. Nearly one-third of my constituents have lost income due to the cut to Universal Credit.
The 54 per cent increase in fuel costs will push more people into financial crisis. It is the most vulnerable groups, including pensioners, benefit claimants and disabled people who will be significantly impacted. Significant numbers of Riverside constituents are paying more for energy on pre-paid meters, meaning the small amount of money they have has to stretch further. It is a known fact that pre-paid meters are far more expensive than other tariffs, credit can run out at inconvenient times, and energy can be shut off until people have money to buy more. The current price cap for pre-paid metres was set in February 2022 and stands at £2,017 – it will next be updated in August 2022.
Even before the pandemic, people in Liverpool Riverside and constituencies across the country had been faced with significant financial difficulties: the roll out of Universal Credit, the impact of the bedroom tax and the increase of unscrupulous employers using precarious zero-hour contracts, and stagnation of benefits and pensions.
This government has failed to take action on household energy bills: suggesting a loan to be spread over five years places the burden on those least likely to afford it. Offering a pitiful 3.1 per cent rise to those on benefits is a political decision that seriously needs to be reviewed and overturned.
The government ignored my pleas on fuel regulation – and rural areas like Kilmarnock will suffer, writes Alan Brown, SNP MP for Kilmarnock and Loudon and energy spokesperson
Kilmarnock and Loudoun consists of a large town with several outlying villages and rural properties. Unemployment is above the UK average and we have areas of social deprivation. Many were already struggling before the cost of living crisis. Several rural properties are off the gas grid and some have been in touch about the unaffordability of filling their oil/LPG tanks.
Cashflow becomes a real issue when a tank fill is required, and it could cost £1500
March 2022 saw prices of liquid fuels three times higher than March 2021. Worse, these properties are not protected by the electricity cap and pay higher tariffs. Unlike others who are struggling, they cannot simply top-up their tanks with small amounts of fuel. Cashflow becomes a real issue when a tank fill is required, and it could cost £1500.
This off-grid market is unregulated, and my constituents feel they are being ripped off. I wrote to the BEIS Secretary about regulating these fuels, and the answer I received advised regulation wasn’t necessary – a study in 2011 showed the market was working well and that the free market keeps prices competitive! This takes no cognisance of the current crisis and I challenge him to tell my constituents they should simply shop around to get a better deal for their LPG/oil.
Those in the rural area are further impacted by the petrol pump prices – even after the duty cut, petrol is still 33 per cent higher than 12-months ago. For those “protected” by the cap the reality is energy is 75 per cent higher than April 2021 and, therefore, the Chancellor’s VAT returns on energy are 75 per cent higher than a year ago. His extra VAT on petrol increases more than pays for the duty rebate, with oil and gas revenues up by billions.
My constituents are angry about the £200 rebate being applied as a loan. However, the most worrying of all, is I know those who will be struggling the most are less likely to flag up if they need help.
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