People ‘taking food back to foodbanks’ because they can’t afford gas to heat it

Every so often in politics you hear a quote or a statistic that seems to suck all the air out of your lungs.

Murad Qureshi AM is London Assembly Labour Group environment spokesperson

“We’re actually finding people taking food back to foodbanks because they can’t afford to top up the gas and heat it.”

Peter Smith, National Energy Action.

Every so often in politics you hear a quote or a statistic that seems to suck all the air out of your lungs. Sat around a table at a debate I had organised on rising fuel bills I tried to take in the enormity of what I had just heard. I ran it through my head again.

There are people in London in 2014 who are experiencing Dickensian levels of poverty that not only are they dependent on the support of foodbanks but find the cost of cooking the food so great they have to return it. As a London politician for well over a decade I was well aware of the levels of poverty and deprivation too many Londoners live with.

But when I began our report on the rising cost of living I realised that what we were hearing from Londoners was only a tiny snapshot of the true scale of the Cold Homes Crisis facing London.

There are no shortage of reports on fuel poverty and how we can tackle it. But this report seeks to contribute something new to the debate: the voice of ordinary Londoners. Whether through the statistics from our survey or the comments of one elder who told us “life at our age is becoming frightening”, Londoners have given their voice to the debate.

In response to my London Cost of Living Survey, 85 per cent of respondents identified gas and electricity prices as the price rise that concerns them the most. We often hear people talk in the media about the difficult choices that the cost of living crisis is forcing on families. But when 68 per cent of respondents told me they have to cut back on heating as a result, I knew the consequences could be tragic.

Research has shown that at its worst, between 30 and 50 per cent of excess winter deaths can be linked to cold indoor temperatures. Last winter 2,700 excess winter deaths took place in 2012/13, meaning that between 810 and 1,350 Londoners died because their homes were simply too cold.

In recent months I and my colleagues have campaigned hard to get this issue taken seriously by Mayor Boris Johnson. The fact that we have no executive power hasn’t stopped us from intervening on behalf of Londoners against utility companies that have sought to turn the screw on Londoners’ finances still further.

When Thames Water applied to Ofwat for permission to increase prices for millions of Londoners by £29 per household during 2014-15, I intervened twice with the regulator and made arguments that were quoted in the decision notice to disallow the increase.

The Mayor on the other hand did not lift a finger to stand up for Londoners.

My report sets out how the Mayor is failing Londoners by refusing to take the side of ordinary consumers in the debate over soaring energy bills. It looks at how the Mayor’s insulation programme is failing to deliver and how the Mayor’s obsession with fracking and nuclear energy is not helping deliver the local community owned decentralised energy that will deliver affordable energy to Londoners.

Finally I put forward two recommendations of ways the Mayor could tackle the Cold Homes Crisis. We need much stronger joined up working to identify and support those at risk of fuel poverty and provide targeted interventions that could transform lives.

We also need to look at how small scale community energy co-operatives could deliver much greater diversity of supply and help up skill communities for the green jobs of the future too.

That is what serving Londoners is all about. Identifying the core problems, listening to what effect it has on the lives of ordinary people and formulating radical ideas to deliver change. A job for a Mayor of London you might say. Sadly this one just isn’t interested.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.