The little van trundles on to the estate, and out of the small terrace houses pour mums clutching a purse in one hand and a child in the other. They’re not hurrying for 99 Flakes but for the essentials of life, such as bread and soap. Things that they can’t easily afford anywhere else.
If you want a closeup on the cost of living crisis, don’t ask an economist – speak to someone living it. The people in this queue in the town of Shotton, north Wales have their monthly budgets memorised down to the last decimal place. “Went down the shops this morning. Guess how much they’re charging for a cucumber?” asks Deana. “£1.10.” There are gasps. One woman frets about feeding her ginger rescue cat, Thomas. A couple of years ago £2 bought 10 cans of his brand of cat food; today, she says, it’s £4.95 for eight.
The mobile shop, from the local firm Well Fed, undercuts even the local Iceland. Deana gets her cucumber here for 50p and walks home with a big bag of fruit and veg. She and her five-year-old boy won’t go without for now, but within weeks she thinks they may have to. “When winter comes – bang.”
By Deana’s reckoning, the only thing standing between her and disaster is this summer’s surreal warmth. Once that fades away then it’s “lights on at 3pm, heating on” – and fuel bills up by the kind of sum that will capsize her family. “Am I going to get through this winter?” she asks unprompted. “I don’t really know.” I have rarely heard someone discuss the prospect of their own ruin in such an even tone.
Newspapers cover the cost of living as a crisis of economics, society or politics, but it is now larger than all those pigeonholes. Britain is sliding towards a humanitarian catastrophe.
That term is usually reserved for faraway countries devastated by hurricanes or drought, rather than rich societies whose citizens wear Apple watches and enjoy a cheeky Deliveroo. But if we use the UN definition of a humanitarian crisis as “a singular event or a series of events that are threatening in terms of [the] health, safety or wellbeing of a … large group of people”, then that’s exactly where we are heading.
By this time next week, the energy watchdog will have announced that fuel bills are set to rise by 80%. As that increase comes into effect on 1 October, plus another in the new year, some 45 million Britons – two-thirds of our entire population – are projected to sink into fuel poverty.
You can hear panic even among the adults whose job it is to get us to keep calm and carry on. The governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, has talked of the outlook for food prices as “apocalyptic”, while radio phone-in hosts say their callers now sound desperate.
Amid all this, Westminster has gone awol. As inflation this week hit a 40-year high, the prime minister was sunning himself on a Greek island. Keir Starmer has spent months scraping together half a policy on gas and electricity bills, which is effectively a backstop for the big six energy firms. Meanwhile, daily life for millions of people is rapidly becoming unaffordable. Rents are shooting up, petrol remains high and, as Deana and her neighbours know, food prices are rocketing.
Over at the offices of the local Senedd member, Jack Sargeant, they’ve noticed a big change in the volume and type of requests for help they’re getting. The usual targeted emails from familiar constituents are being replaced by Facebook messages sent by those who’ve never before got in touch.
“They’re vague, because they don’t know what to ask for – just that their mum needs help or their neighbour’s in a bad way,” says staffer Ed Stubbs. “And next week we’ll get more, as parents start thinking about school uniforms.”
When some country in Africa is hit by a humanitarian emergency, the impeccably coiffed TV correspondents point out how long it has been teetering on the brink of disaster. What will they say here in their potted histories? In Shotton you might start the story in March 1980, when the giant steelworks shut and 6,500 locals were slung out of work in one day – at that time the largest industrial redundancy in western Europe. A much smaller plant today finishes steel that comes out of Port Talbot, while a couple of miles away is the real indicator of Shotton’s present-day fortunes: an Amazon warehouse. Together with shops and food factories, it makes up a big chunk of the local labour market. For everyone else, there is universal credit and the kind of low-income ducking and diving that statisticians classify as self-employment. And I mean low income: in parts of this town, almost half of the kids are growing up in poverty.
Most of the UK is richer than Shotton, but our national story is not dissimilar. We have gone from the deindustrialisation of the 70s and 80s to the financial bubbles of Tony Blair to the austerity of David Cameron and Theresa May. Whether Tory or Labour, our political classes have lurched from crisis to crisis while feeding us a diet of lies and shoddy alibis.
Thatcher promised national rebirth, New Labour a knowledge economy, George Osborne a march of the makers, and Boris Johnson levelling up. None delivered. All the while, our institutions have been razed and our social fabric torn up, leaving us with little protection from the crisis just about to hit us. In four decades, we have gone from secure jobs to benefits to food banks – and now, as my colleague Josh Halliday reported from Liverpool last month, the food banks are running out of food to give.
Food banks began in the UK as a stopgap, yet donated tins and leftover bread have become a part of our welfare state. As Robbie Davison, who runs Well Fed, says: “It’s not food that people would choose for themselves. It’s a model that says, ‘We know you’re poor, and this’ll do.’ That’s right wing.” I have previously written about Davison and his alternative model of getting good food to everyone, regardless of their income. His business squeezes its profit margins to do meals on wheels and generous ready meals at £2 a pop, and he lobbies for councils and others to get on board.
At the local housing association, Clwyd Alyn, they now provide Well Fed’s lunches for free to all staff. The scheme began this spring after the chief executive, Clare Budden, noticed that some employees weren’t eating at work, while others were taking a lot of overtime to get by. Already paying in line with the market, Budden’s team concluded that another salary rise would get part-taxed away. Free lunches on the other hand can save full-time employees about £100 a month. When I met Budden at Davison’s kitchens, she had brought along Robin Rolfe, one of her guys in IT who noted that meal breaks were now more social than a sad sandwich eaten at a desk.
It was a rare moment of cheer before their thoughts turned back to the months ahead. Rolfe talked of starving his family’s pre-pay meter of money. Budden has plans to give out hot-water bottles and blankets to her housing association tenants. “I worry about some of our tenants not getting through the winter because they’re not going to put the heating on.”
“This is wartime, in a modern age,” says Davison. “All the lights will be on in the city centres, we’ll still have all the trappings …” Budden laughs: “We’ll still have the John Lewis ad and it [will make] us all cry and want to spend money we don’t have.”
And on an estate on the other side of Shotton the signs will still warn against ballgames being played on the grass, and for pet owners to pick up after their dogs. But God alone knows what will happen to the families inside those small homes.
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist