Economy > Poverty > The poor > Housing
The Pryde children in their bedroom, Moss
Side, Manchester, 1969
‘Our house on Moss Side was so derelict
that we couldn’t use all the rooms.
One door wouldn’t even open.
Then one day Dad bashed it in and the whole
ceiling just fell to the floor’
– read more from
who appears in this picture aged five,
on growing up poor in Manchester’s Moss Side
Photograph: Nick Hedges
'A failure of society': Britain's slum
housing crisis – in pictures
In the late 1960s the country’s crumbling
flats and tenements
were causing a breakdown in society.
Shelter asked photographer Nick Hedges
to document homes unfit for human habitation
Tue 2 Feb 2021 07.00 GMT
afford a home
deprived / deprived area / deprived boroughs
cold, damp homes
live in squalor
lives in British cities 1969-72
homelessness charity Shelter
is 50 this year.
Shortly after its
to cities in England
to document the lives
of families living in squalor.
Forced to choose eating or heating,
family burns furniture to
Demand for free parcels at food banks soars
as big freeze leaves
to pay for both food and warmth
Sunday 17 January 2010
This article was published on guardian.co.uk
at 19.06 GMT
on Sunday 17 January
A version appeared on p6 of the UK news section
of the Guardian
on Monday 18
It was last modified at 19.07 GMT
on Sunday 17 January 2010.
Holly Billen sat perched on the edge of her sofa, holding the
bump of her unborn child and nervously biting her lip. "It's nothing to be proud
of to say you don't have the money to feed yourself," she said. "But I'm not
ashamed to say it."
Aged 26 and eight months pregnant, she has had to endure most prolonged cold
snap in her lifetime. The soaring heating costs mean the choice between going
cold or going hungry has become a daily dilemma.
Food is sacrificed for warmth in her terraced cottage in Wilton, Wiltshire, not
least because her eight-year-old son, Brandon, has contracted a succession of
colds. "I've felt really bad some nights," she said. "He's in bed, and really
cold. But there's no money for the extra heat. So its extra blankets and socks
and vests under pyjamas."
Recently, she turned to a less conventional remedy for the sub-zero
temperatures. Completely out of money for gas, she took apart a shelf unit to
use as fuel in her fireplace. "I figured I needed it more for heat than
storage," she said. "My boyfriend came into the garden because he heard me out
there with a saw."
It may sound like a story set in the Victorian era, but Billen, a dancer, is not
alone. She is among thousands of people who have begun relying on food handouts
to free up money to spend on heating during what the Met Office is describing as
the longest spell of freezing conditions since December 1981. While some areas
had milder weather today, forecasters said fresh snow could arrive by Tuesday.
Four miles from Billen's home, the depot for the largest food bank in the
country is feeling the strain. In the cold weather, demand has doubled at the
depot, on the outskirts of Salisbury, and the shelves that normally hold fruit
juice, sugar and canned meat are nearly empty.
The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that runs the depot and a network of 56
others across the country, said the cold has led to an unprecedented demand for
its parcels, which contain enough donated items to keep a family fed for six
days. To qualify for a box of food under the scheme, an individual or family
needs to be provided with a voucher by a care professional such as a teacher,
social worker or doctor. In December – when the freezing weather in large parts
of the UK began to bite – demand more than tripled in some places. Some of the
busiest banks have been in Scotland, site of some of the worst weather and
lowest temperatures. A food bank in Ebbw Vale, south Wales, provided food to 118
families in December – up from 74 the previous month. During the same period,
demand for tinned food and drink from the Suffolk bank jumped from 29 to 197
The charity says initial feedback suggests there has been similar, if not
higher, demand for handouts in January, an increase it puts down to the rising
costs of heating homes.
There have been a raft of measures introduced in recent years to help people
cope with financial cost of cold weather, and over 12.3molder people will
benefit from winter fuel payments this year, totalling about £2.7bn. Already the
Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has paid out an additional £260m this
winter to families under the cold weather payment scheme, which grants £25 a
week to some vulnerable households when – as has happened across the UK – the
temperature falls to zero for seven consecutive days.
"As temperatures plummet, I don't want vulnerable people to feel left in the
cold," DWP minister Helen Goodman said recently. "The payments are automatic so
everyone entitled will get them and should not worry about turning up their
heating." But not every vulnerable family is entitled, and even those who
receive the payments complain they do not absorb the spike in bills.
Research by Age Concern has shown that, despite government relief, one in five
older people skip meals to save money for heating. Tonight the charity urged
ministers to do more to ease pressure forcing elderly people into the "cruel
choice" between food or warmth.
On Wednesday last week, Northamptonshire county council announced a serious case
review into the deaths of Jean and Derek Randall, a couple believed to be in
their 70s whose bodies were found in their frozen home. Their cause of death is
unclear but neighbours told a local radio station the couple were relying on a
single electric heater and the electric hob rings on their cooker for warmth.
"It's completely inappropriate in 21st-century Britain that pensioners should
experience such an ordeal and die such tragic deaths," said the couple's Labour
MP, Sally Keeble.
Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust, said people in poverty were more
likely to use expensive electric heaters and pre-payment gas meters. Aside from
higher bills, the Arctic climate has brought with it other expected costs, he
said. "We're seeing a lot of people who are in a crisis triggered by the cold
weather. Broken boilers. Broken cars. Things temporarily break down and cost
money, and these incidents can tip people into crisis. It's sort of sadly
The government's cold winter subsidies do not apply to Billen who, instead of
receiving income support, gets £140 in working tax credits plus child benefit.
Still, she said her frustration is directed at her energy supplier, Southern
When she struggled to pay a £500 bill last year, the company encouraged her to
sign up to a pre-payment meter that, she was told, would take a slice each time
she paid her bill in order to recoup the money she owed. A failure when the
machine was installed meant the debt was never paid, however, and Billen now
finds that, when she puts £10 in, Southern Electric automatically takes £7 to
pay the debt. That leaves £3, which pays for a few hours' heat. "I spent hours
on the phone to the call centre," she said. "I said to them, I'm expecting a
baby. I'm not working. I can't afford this. They basically said: 'Too bad'."
She was given a food bank voucher after explaining her predicament to her
midwife. "I loved the fact I could eat a meal without feeling guilty about not
spending the money on heating," she said.
A spokesperson for Scottish and Southern Energy, which owns Southern Electric,
encouraged anyone in Billen's position to contact them, and said it would
provide an "individual, tailor-made package" to help people keep warm.
Hours after the Guardian told the company it would feature Billen's story, she
received a call from the company. "They're coming as soon as they can to take
the meter out," she said. "They're lowering the repayment of existing debt to a
third of what it was. And I'm going to pay monthly. Really I'll end up paying a
hell of a lot less."
But not every family struggling to pay their energy bills can benefit from what
Billen thought was a brazen, though welcome, public relations stunt. Many feel
ignored; they say the nightly television news bulletins about travel chaos,
problems with gritters and school closures belie the more severe plight that
cold weather has brought to people in poverty.
Mark Ward, who manages the Salisbury food bank, said he had seen "much younger"
clients using it recently. . He recently delivered food to a young couple with a
baby in the nearby village of Dinton. All three were eating, sleeping and living
the single dowstairs room they could afford to heat.
Another beneficiary of the food bank, Donna Buxton, 38, a
partially blind mother from Great Bedwyn, had a similar story. "I've been
putting £30 a week in my meter and the heating wasn't keeping the place warm, so
I brought the mattress into the living room," she said. "Me and my 11-year-old
daughter, Libby, slept in there with two quilts and the cat."
A short walk from the Salisbury depot in Bermerton Heath, one of the poorest
areas in the market town, there are similar stories behind most front doors.
Lucy and Mark Mitchell, food bank recipients in their 20s, said they had taken
to sleeping in the same bed as their two young boys to keep warm.
Inside a cold flat on the edge of the estate, Mick Cutler, 56, an out-of-work
van driver, explained how his wife, Julie, and 10-year-old stepson were making
do with hot water bottles rather than radiators. They too have turned to the
bank for food.
"Really you're begging, aren't you?" he said. "But it's bloody hard to be honest
with you. I'm not too bad – I don't feel the cold as much as Julie and Matthew,"
he said. "He does go to bed with his clothes on sometimes. When he has a bath,
he wants to have the heating on, but I have to say 'no'. I feel guilty. How can
you tell a 10-year-old you can't keep him warm?"
Forced to choose eating
or heating, family burns furniture to keep warm,
The East End's poor
and teeming streets
The Guardian archive
It starts not
far beyond the centre of the world - the Bank of England, the stock exchange,
and a regular jungle of other banks and financial establishments. This golden
shore is almost washed by the black waves of east London. "Don't go there
without a guide," said the denizens of the West End, "and don't take much money
with you." Well, that is decidedly putting it too strongly.
Piccadilly or Fleet Street as a worse haunt of savagery than the Isle of Dogs or
Limehouse of ill repute. Nothing happened to me, but I came back feeling
depressed, although I have been through the abominations of the harbours at
Marseilles and Palermo. The streets are very unsightly with their filthy
cobbles, their swarms of children on the pavement, their drunken seamen, their
Philanthropic Shelters; and with their stench of scorched rags.
Yet I have seen worse places. But it is not that. The horrible thing in east
London is not what can be seen and smelt, but its unbounded and unredeemable
extent. Elsewhere poverty and ugliness exist merely as a rubbish-heap between
two houses, like an unsavoury nook, a cesspool. But here are miles and miles of
grimy houses, hopeless streets, a superfluity of children, gin palaces and
Miles and miles, from Peckham to Hackney, from Walworth to Barking, Bermondsey,
Rotherhithe, Poplar, Bromley, Stepney, Bow, and Bethnal Green, the quarters
inhabited by navvies, Jews, Cockneys, and stevedores, poverty-stricken and
downtrodden people, intersected by dirty channels of deafening traffic.
And in the south, in the north-west, in the north-east again the same thing,
miles of grimy houses, factories, gasometers, railway lines, clayey patches of
waste ground, warehouses for goods and warehouses for human beings.
There are assuredly uglier quarters in all parts of the world; even squalor is
here on a higher level, and the poorest beggar is not clad in rags; but good
heavens, the human beings, the millions of human beings who live in these short,
uniform, joyless streets, which teem on the plain of London. And that is the
distressing thing about the East End - there is too much of it. Not even the
devil would venture to say: if you will, I shall destroy this city, and in three
days I will build it, not so grimy, not so mechanical, not so inhuman and bleak.
If he were to say that, perhaps I would fall down and worship him.
· The Czech playwright is best known
as author of RUR:
which coined the word robot
The Guardian archive >
October 10, 1924 >
The East End's poor and teeming streets,
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