Don’t let ‘warm banks’ become as vital as food banks, Scottish charities urge

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Scotland’s leading anti-poverty campaigners are urging councils and communities “not to repeat past mistakes” by allowing “warm banks” – for those unable to afford heating their homes over the winter months – to become as entrenched as food banks.

The plea was made in a joint statement from the Poverty Alliance, Trussell Trust Scotland and the Cyrenians that cautions that emergency responses to escalating fuel poverty, however well-intentioned, risk shifting the focus away from government responsibility to ensure all citizens are able to heat their homes.

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The notion of warm banks first entered wider discussions about the cost of living crisis in July, when it was raised by the consumer rights campaigner Martin Lewis. He suggested libraries and other public buildings could become “the equivalent of ‘food banks’, where people who can’t afford heating are invited to spend their days at no cost with heating”.

Since then a number of councils across the UK, including in Bristol, Dundee and Aberdeen, have confirmed they are considering such measures. Last month Scotland’s largest local authority, Glasgow city council, voted unanimously for Green proposals to create a network of “welcome places”, which will offer welfare advice and refreshments as well as a warm, dry venue.

But those on the frontline of fuel poverty are worried these efforts – though intended as a last resort – could normalise the experience rather than challenging governments to act.

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Peter Kelly, the director of the Poverty Alliance, told the Guardian: “Of course we appreciate why these warm spaces are being set up and they will be a lifeline for some, but it entrenches the idea that the welfare state is peripheral and contingent. Compare this to food banks – they were supposed to be an emergency response to austerity and now we have an established and sophisticated network across the country.”

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The joint statement said: “It is important to ensure that we do not repeat past mistakes where community responses to income crises become hardwired into the state’s response to poverty.”

It added that while warm banks may be “a compassionate response to an emergency situation … these cannot meet our aspirations to protect and respect our human rights and to ensure that people are treated with dignity at all times”.

Kelly underlined that all research concluded that a cash-first approach was the best way to alleviate fuel and food poverty, through investing in the benefits system.

“We understand councils are doing this with the best of intentions but we would rather they raised their voices with the Scottish government, for example about increasing the Scottish welfare fund, which gives local authorities greater discretion to support households facing extreme financial duress and who have not been able to get support from elsewhere.”

Ruairi Kelly, the convener of neighbourhood services at Glasgow city council, said the administration believed neither food banks nor warm banks should be a feature of the UK in the 21st century, “but unfortunately we have a Tory government that prioritises cuts in corporation tax over the welfare of its citizens”.

The SNP councillor added: “While none of us wish to normalise this, we simply have no control over the universal credit cuts, energy price hikes and inflation impacting Glaswegians right now. We do, however, have a responsibility to help the residents of Glasgow where and how we can, which we take very seriously.”

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