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‘How can I possibly afford it?’: people in UK on their energy bill difficulties

<span>Photograph: Yui Mok/PA</span>
Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

More than 3 million low-income households in the UK cannot afford to heat their homes, according to a charity’s analysis, as the country faces a cold snap and temperatures are expected to plunge to as low as -10C (14F) at night in some areas.

Three people who have been unable to heat their homes, or have greatly reduced their energy use, share how they have been affected.

‘I won’t be able to put the heating on at all’

Clifford, 48, hasn’t had the heating on yet, and won’t be putting it on at all this winter. He is increasingly unable to afford his food shopping and keep the lights on.

“By the time my bills are paid, I don’t have enough money left for food, so how can I possibly afford to put the heating on?”

Clifford, who lives in Grimsby and isn’t in work because of ill health, says: “To keep myself warm I wear my pyjamas, dressing gown and coat, with gloves and hat if it gets too cold. It’s ridiculous having to do this to keep warm in your own home, but it’s what I have to do – it’s dress like this or freeze. I can’t afford to buy enough food to last as it is.”

Clifford, who was recently put on a prepayment meter, says the damp in his home is getting worse. “There’s black mould in near enough every room. I go around cleaning it off and it just comes back again,” he says.

He has nowhere nearby where he can go during the day to keep warm. Sometimes when it gets really cold he will “just go for a bus ride and hope it’s got heating on”.

The 48-year-old suffers from fibromyalgia, and is finding the cold difficult to bear. He says it was 9C in his warmest room on Friday morning and 7C in his bedroom; NHS England recommends that rooms should be kept at a minimum of 18C. “I’m in more pain – my hands and legs are cramping up quite severely. I’m depressed quite a lot of the time.”

‘Mould has reared its ugly head’

Robert Glynn and his partner tried their best to keep the heating off this year, but when they started seeing their breath while watching TV, they decided it needed to come on. In the past week or so, they’ve started heating their flat in Glasgow for a maximum of 1.5 hours a day, in three short blasts. Even then, “it’s absolutely Baltic”. Once the heating goes off in the evening, they can see their breath again.

“We’re trying to keep it under control,” says the marketing specialist, 36. “But we’re still going over budget every month and putting it on the plastic and it’s accruing.”

Because of increases in other costs, including food and mortgage rates, he expects to be in thousands of pounds of debt by the end of the winter.

Glynn says they normally would have begun heating their “classic Glasgow flat” in September. “The heating just seems to vanish through the windows. There’s no insulation; it’s really draughty.” As a consequence, they’re dealing with damp, particularly in the rooms they are heating less. “Mould has reared its ugly head – we’re trying to stay on top of it, scrubbing it away. It’s near my bed, and has started to affect my sleep. My partner says I’m wheezing a bit during the night and my breathing is really funny. I’m fairly fit – I do 5Ks and parkruns. We try to open the windows, but it’s bloody freezing.”

‘I don’t want to end up on a prepayment meter’

Bryony, 33, is trying to keep her energy costs low as she is concerned about British Gas upping her direct debit and potentially forcing her on to a prepayment meter. Bryony, a single parent working in higher education in Plymouth and in receipt of universal credit, recently moved to a shared ownership property and negotiated to set her monthly direct debit to £140.

“I don’t want them to increase the direct debit up to something I can’t afford to pay for,” she says. “I just don’t want to end up on a prepayment meter, with the [risk] of self-disconnecting. I need to be able to keep my kids warm.”

Bryony, who has two children, aged nine and 12, is also cutting back because she is experiencing issues with her housing payment this month. If it doesn’t come through in late December, she says she will have to switch the heating off. “I think it’s probably an error, but until I know, I’m in financial limbo. I would have to find £330 more a month than I budgeted for. If I don’t get it, I’ll have to pay the entire rent myself, and that’ll take priority over heating.”