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Christmas in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis

Greenock town centre has high levels of multiple deprivation. In the cost-of-living crisis, more people are struggling to stay afloat

Christmas in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis

It is Christmas at one of Scotland’s biggest food banks. 

This time last year, the floor at Inverclyde Food Bank in Greenock was filled with festive hampers; donated meats, vegetables and toys for 500 households packed into donated bags-for-life. This year, there are none. 

Manager Adam Wines and Pastor Ian Stevenson of Hope Community Church, to which the lifeline service is affiliated, have known for weeks that there will be precious little extra to give: some selection boxes, a few Christmas puddings. Stevenson says the council-wide operation is far from unique in this.

“Everyone is struggling,” he says of similar services. “We’ve only heard of one food bank, which is a small one, doing Christmas this year. Everyone we have heard of is not doing it or not doing it in the way they normally would.”

It’s not that the food bank has nothing, but it’s getting harder for Wines, Stevenson and their volunteers to meet the needs of the clients they serve. Hundreds of people rely on the food bank –which is part of the Trussell Trust network – every month. And while there’s enough dried pasta to last for years, there are far fewer jars of sauce to go with that. There are just a couple of tinned hams to spare, and fewer than five jars of instant coffee. These “treats” that clients clamor for are in short supply as higher grocery prices make individual donors reconsider what they can hand in. The team spends £1,000 a month topping up basics as a result.

Every donation is welcome, but not all are useful. A trolley full of CBD drinks, infused with cannabidiol, lies to the side. Handed in by online giant Amazon, which has a base in nearby Gourock, its contents will be thrown away. Many of the food bank’s clients have addictions, and the soft drinks were considered inappropriate for them. No other group could be found to take them.

It's real, it's here, it's on our doorstep

It’s just one more frustration as client numbers continue to rise. “It’s real, it’s here, it’s on our doorstep,” Stevenson says of the cost-of-living crisis. Originally from Northern Ireland, the pastor moved to Scotland last year after hearing “the call of God to come over”.

“People look at this place in awe, they can’t fathom the size of what we were doing,” he says. “Two ladies from the council left in tears because of how big the need is. 

“You become accustomed to the people that are coming in but when someone is standing in front of you in tears, almost begging you for help, it’s very difficult not to be touched emotionally yourself.”

“There have been times when I’ve had to ask the client not to talk because I’m starting to well up,” says Wines, who left the Royal Mail for the role. “Some want a chat, some want to get stuff and just go.”

Stretching from farmland to shipyard, Inverclyde is one of the smallest and least populated of Scotland’s council areas. Its name, which translates as ‘mouth of the Clyde’, describes its geography and local MP Ronnie Cowan considers it “a wee Scotland”, such is the diversity of its hills and beaches, nature reserves and industrial estates.

But it also has the largest local share of deprived areas in the country, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), and almost half – 45 per cent – of data zones here are ranked amongst the nation’s poorest 20 per cent. Greenock town centre, where the food bank is based, is rated the worst-off of all.

And so size won’t spare Inverclyde from the maximum impact of the cost-of-living crisis now pushing households and public services to the brink.

Inflation stands at around 11 per cent, and, at 16.2 per cent, food inflation is at its highest level in 45 years. But that’s nothing compared to what we’re seeing for housing, electricity and gas charges. Grouped together by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as “housing and household services”, this area has seen charges spike by 26.6 per cent. The costs are, as always, higher for the worst-off, with ONS figures also showing that the 10 per cent poorest households in the UK spend one quarter of their income on housing, fuel and power, and 14 per cent on food.

It’s not hard to find evidence of the area’s historic affluence – mercantile mansions and ornate architecture initially funded by the sugar trade and slave labour, and later bankrolled by shipbuilding and electronics – but the big employers of the past are gone and in the glass-ceilinged, 90s-built Oak Mall, there’s no shortage of empty units. “It was entirely different here,” says one local pensioner of the changes she’s seen. Her relatives have moved away – England, Canada, Australia – and she’s the only one left. “You had the shipyards and the ropeworks, and it was a prosperous place. It’s sad.”

In the street behind the shopping centre, Inverclyde Food Bank – the largest in the west of Scotland – sits in what was once a retail palace itself. The West Stewart Street premises became home in 1977 to a flagship branch of Tesco, all laminate floor and strip lighting. The grocery giant had opened its first store in nearby Westburn Street five years earlier, but now needed premises four times larger. Forty-five years later, the unit’s clientele are those who cannot pay for their messages. 

They’re not alone. Trussell Trust food banks in Scotland distributed a combined total of 116,000 emergency food parcels in the six months to the end of September – a total that’s gone up 34 per cent in a year. Applications for Scottish Government crisis grants, distributed by local authorities, have risen by 31 per cent over the same period. 

During those six months, the UK economy underwent drastic change as the Conservative party burned through three prime ministers. The second of these, Liz Truss, blazed into office on promises of economic reform and crashed out 49 days later after enacting policies described by Dominic Raab as an “electoral suicide note” for the party, and which undermined market confidence. The Resolution Foundation think tank recently found her mini-Budget had created half of the Treasury’s £60bn fiscal black hole, and the Scottish Government says rampant inflation has wiped more than £1.7bn off the value of its budget. 

If Truss was, as her nickname would have it, “the human hand grenade”, the fall-out is certainly felt in Inverclyde. The food bank there fed 123 children in September, rising to 166 in October, when a total of 706 people received free food. Most – 227 – are in work, but their income is too low to meet their needs.

Research by UK homelessness charity Crisis revealed how four in 10 low-income families expect to skip meals to pay for their housing this winter, and that some have resorted to short-term fixes, like pawning wedding rings, to cover costs. Analysis by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) of YouGov research suggests almost half (48 per cent) of adults have cut back on household spending in response to the cost-of-living crisis.

Four in 10 of us – the equivalent of 1.7m adults – worry about paying energy bills and adequately heating their homes, CAS says. Average power bills are predicted to rise to £3,000 a year in April, and the £400 paid out to all by the UK Government this winter will not be repeated, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said.

There is a “very challenging economic situation here and across the world,” Hunt said this month as it was confirmed that the UK economy has shrunk by 0.3 per cent, “and it will get worse before it gets better”.

They earn too much... we can't bring them any more money

The UK Government points to the Russian war on Ukraine as a cause for some soaring costs, and says that prices are rising internationally, but work by the London School of Economics reveals that Brexit added nearly £6bn to food bills here in the two years to the end of 2021. And while charities find a way to help the worst-off save pennies, higher earners now increasingly find they too are in the red.

A few doors from Inverclyde Food Bank, advice charity Financial Fitness is supporting this new client base. The organisation has long provided benefits and money management help to a core clientele with disabilities, long-term unemployment and other barriers to earning, but many of the new faces are middle class, with two earners at home and full-time hours. Where fewer than five per cent of clients came from the leafy villages of Bridge of Weir or Kilmacolm on Inverclyde’s edge, that’s now risen to 15 per cent. 

It’s a new demographic for the caseworkers, and it can lead to some difficult conversations. “The problem with this client group is there’s a reasonable income coming into the house,” says manager Paul Findlay, “and therefore their entitlement to means-tested benefits is non-existent. They earn too much, but with the cost-of-living crisis their energy bills are higher and their shopping bills are higher and there’s less money to go round. We’re doing a lot more budgeting advice, but we can’t bring them any more money.”

The advice isn’t always welcome; the clients who spend money on Netflix or gym memberships don’t want to cut it out. “Three, four, five years ago they were buying a new car or going on two holidays a year and they were doing okay,” Findlay says, “but now their car payments are up and everything is up. We’re telling them to look at their spending, and people are saying, ‘all the good things in life, all the things I enjoy?’ That’s where some conversations can be difficult. We can only advise people; we can’t make them take the advice.”

The Bank of England has forecast a two-year recession – the longest since the 1920s – and expects unemployment to almost double. 

After the exit of electronics giant IBM – which had a base so big it warranted its own train station – Inverclyde Council is now the area’s largest employer, with a head count of 4,000 full-time equivalent employees. National councils body Cosla has warned that cuts are “inevitable” in the public sector without further Scottish Government support and Stephen McCabe, leader of the Labour-controlled local authority, is having to think, yet again, about how he can make his sums add up. “I’ve been through more budget audits than I care to remember, and this is the most difficult ever,” the veteran councillor tells Holyrood. “Everybody talks about ‘the perfect storm’, and that’s what we’re in.

“People were badly hit by the pandemic and a lot of people’s mental health suffered in particular, and now comes this. It is having a real impact in the community, and the greatest impact is on those who are least able to afford it. We are seeing the visible signs. As a council, we’re facing increased demand for crisis grants, for discretionary housing payments, and increased uptake for council tax reduction.” 

Meeting these growing needs is “a challenge; I won’t lie,” he says, not least as a result of rising operating costs. “The council itself is facing the cost-of-living crisis,” he goes on. “We have seen the cost of our utilities go through the roof.

“Most of our employees are on relatively low pay. If we are going to be able to afford a decent pay rise next year, we are going to have to be properly funded by the Scottish Government, because otherwise what we are doing is cutting jobs and services to fund pay.”

The youngest of seven kids born and raised in Port Glasgow, McCabe says applying cuts is “absolutely not” what he came into politics for and the stresses of the situation are telling on some newer councillors. Holyrood has spoken to administration members elsewhere too, and they also report feeling stressed and anxious about the decisions they face. “We are working hard to try and prioritise and minimise the impacts on the community,” McCabe says. 

Raising council tax by three per cent would be worth around £1m to Inverclyde, but it wouldn’t come near to covering the projected £20m shortfall between 2023-25. The Scottish Government removed its cap on council tax increases last year, allowing local authorities to take their own decisions. Few broke the three per cent threshold, but Holyrood understands that many are considering bigger uplifts this year. If that happens, it won’t be popular, but neither will service cuts.

“I’ve had situations in the past where a lot of the attacks for cuts we were making were personally directed at me,” McCabe says. “I had one party calling them ‘McCabe’s cuts’. Nobody wants to make cuts, but we are under a legal duty to balance our budgets.”

There have to be solutions. This can't be hard

At the food bank, Stevenson and Wines fear their funding will be cut. While the building’s previous owners charged a nominal rent, that’s not been true since its sale, and then there’s insurance on top. It costs around £18,000 a year to keep the doors open, which is, they say “a lot of food”. “The issues that people are coming in with now are much worse than last month,” Stevenson says.

“We’ve been trying to tell the authorities that this was going to happen and either they didn’t want to acknowledge that this was going to be the case, or they were hoping it wouldn’t be. What we do, we do it much cheaper than the public sector could. Without the impact of church, faith groups, whatever, things would be maybe 100 times worse.”

Politicians listen, he says, but “don’t get it”. “There have to be solutions,” he says. “This can’t be hard. There’s too much political in-fighting.”

Local MSP Stuart McMillan says his visits to the food bank have been “chastening”. The Greenock and Inverclyde MSP since 2016 and a West of Scotland regional politician before that, he grew up in Port Glasgow and went to school with Wines’ brother-in-law. In a community like this, there are many connections. “It’s never something I look forward to,” McMillan says of these visits. “I look forward to the day we no longer need food banks.” 

McMillan’s secured around £7,000 from donors to help tide the operation through the next few months, and it’s money that will go to buy in basics. He says the area has changed “vastly” since he was a boy, with depopulation a major factor. “We’ve lost a lot of people of working age who can contribute to the community,” he says. “The reduction of heavy industry plays a huge part.” 

It’s a big concern for McMillan, who studied business in France, Germany and Sweden and wants enterprise to reenergise the local economy. “When people leave, they tend not to come back,” he says. “Too many people have done what Norman Tebbit said in the 80s – if you can’t get a job in your area, get on your bike.

“There’s a resoluteness with many of the population, but I think there’s also an acceptance that economic and social challenges could be just around the corner.” 

National Records of Scotland expects a near-four per cent fall in headcount by 2026 – the second largest in the country – and notes a “downwards spiral of ageing of the local population, decreasing fertility rates, projections sustaining public services and undermining of the local economy” which in turn “discourages inward investment and in-migration”. 

With an ageing population comes higher health and social care needs, which must be paid for, while a lower working age population reduces the tax take. Local MP Cowan believes one answer is to turn Inverclyde into a renewables powerhouse, building on its engineering past.

Another, he says, is to use levelling-up funding from the UK Government to create larger-scale improvement. “I see it as compensation for the damage done by Westminster over decades,” he tells Holyrood. “We know we have issues, but if we take them in hand ourselves we can do really good things.”

Recent cost-of-living surgeries held with McMillan and third-sector partners were a “three-ringed circus”, Cowan says. “It was busy all day long; we could do it practically every day and it would be the same. It doesn’t have to be this way; there are better ways to handle the economy, there are better ways to handle welfare. Things can be better and should be better. It goes back to the powers of the Scottish Parliament. We are trying to run the economy of a country with one or both arms tied behind our backs,” he goes on. 

It’s an argument the Scottish Government often makes. Prior to his Budget statement, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said that “given the fiscal constraints of devolution, it is not possible to go as far as we would like” and funding under the Barnett formula, which gives Scotland a share of the value of the UK Government’s planned spending, will reduce Scottish Government funding from 2025.

I was feeding myself one week and starving myself the next to make ends meet

Thirty minutes away from Greenock, Rebecca Johnson is also thinking about funding. The business development manager for Glasgow North West Citizens Advice Bureau (GNWCAB), she says there is simply not enough money to support services like hers in Maryhill. It has helped 2,200 people this year, with 3,000 more calling its helpline. Like Inverclyde Food Bank, it will close for a few days over Christmas, but staff will remain on-call for emergencies – the people with no food, funds, heating or housing, and those fleeing domestic violence. It’s a tough workload and the team has access to counselling. “More than 50 per cent of our clients are living in poverty,” says Johnson, “people that are self-disconnecting because they can’t afford heating.”

That includes Mark (not his real name), who was “sitting in one room, wearing three layers of clothing” after losing his job. “I didn’t have a penny,” he says, and when he did find another job, it paid half what he’d previously earned. “It was horrendous,” he says. “I was feeding myself one week and starving myself the next to make ends meet.

“I built up debt of nearly £30,000. I couldn’t sleep worrying about how I would pay this back. I remember thinking there was no way I could.”

Mark was “embarrassed” to seek help, he says, but was supported by the bureau to apply for bankruptcy. His caseworker contacted a charity for help to pay that fee. “For the first time in six months I had a good night’s sleep,” he says. “It’ll be hard to build back up, but I know I will get back on my feet.”

Johnson estimates that Glasgow’s CAB network is currently meeting the needs of 60 per cent of those who need it, and the average wait for help after an initial appointment with her team is two weeks. “We would love to do more; there is so much need out there,” she says.

It’s a sentiment Stevenson shares. “We can’t plan for January and February, because Christmas is coming,” he says. “We’ll just be inundated.”

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