Soaring energy prices will create a cost of living crisis for many families in the St Albans district
- Credit: PA Images
The conflict in Ukraine is driving a further surge in the global cost of energy and this will eventually be reflected in the gas and electricity bills paid by families living here in St Albans, creating serious financial problems for some of them.
An imminent increase in Ofgem’s energy price cap result in the average family seeing their annual gas and electricity bill increase by £693, taking it to £1,971. And analysts are now warning that bills could go up by a further £900 in October. The inevitable result is that more local families will be dragged into hardship.
The latest official figures for 2019, show that 5,627 households in the St Albans district were living in fuel poverty because their housing costs and energy bills left them without enough money to live on: a figure which is 9.3 per cent of all households.
And it is not just energy prices that are a problem. Families are being squeezed by large increases in other prices, including for essentials like rent and food, which are running well above rises in wages and benefits. The Bank of England was forecasting a peak inflation rate of 7.25 per cent in April, but that was before the conflict in Ukraine pushed petrol and diesel prices to record levels and a rate above 8 per cent now seems likely.
The government has announced measures to offset some of the effect of higher energy prices, including council tax rebates for some households and a repayable discount to energy bills. But these measures will be swamped if the average gas and electricity bill increases to almost £3,000 a year and many thousands more local families will find themselves in fuel poverty.
The local Citizens Advice office in St Albans sees people every day who are in this situation. Many are struggling because their incomes barely cover the costs of essentials like housing, food, heating and clothing. Some are in such a dire situation that they have to choose daily between eating and heating.
Tony Dolphin, campaigns coordinator at Citizens Advice in St Albans, said: “The people we are helping are reaching breaking point. The heart-breaking truth is that many families simply have nothing left in their budgets that they can cut back on. As a result, we are seeing record numbers of people needing crisis support like food bank referrals and help with energy and other debts.”
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The number of people approaching Citizens Advice in St Albans for help with their household debts fell sharply in the first months of the pandemic, but it has been increasing again in recent months and seems set to keep on doing so.
The scale of recent and forthcoming prices increases, and energy price increases in particular, means that even in a generally affluent place like St Albans there are thousands of families who are at risk of getting into serious financial difficulties.
Support organisations like Citizens Advice do all they can to help these families, but they argue that it would be far preferable if families did not find themselves in this position in the first place. They want more to be done to reduce the number of families for whom the cost of living crisis really is a crisis, rather than a reason for a bit of belt-tightening.
June Chapman, chief executive at Citizens Advice St Albans District said, “We are already seeing first hand that the budgets of local people are being pushed to the brink – and that is before massive increases in energy prices come into effect in April and again in October.
"Current measures announced by the government don’t go far enough to help. Citizens Advice is calling for urgent government help. First, benefits should be increased in April in line with the current rate of inflation, not last September’s much lower rate. Second, further support should be offered to prevent families having to choose between heating and eating.”