In a warehouse in the heart of his old constituency, Gordon Brown is riffling through boxes full of toothpaste and musing about how times have changed since he was a Labour chancellor with an anti-poverty mission.
Toothpaste, along with shampoo, toilet rolls and sanitary towels, are just some of the basic goods provided in a “bank of banks” scheme the former prime minister helped set up in Lochgelly in Fife. The Big Hoose project offers not only food, but clothing, bedding, toiletries, and anything else a struggling household may need during a cost of living crisis.
In a sign of rising cost of living pressures, 45,000 households in the county have benefited from the scheme since it started less than a year ago. Staff at the project noted an instant surge in applications for help when energy bills rose on 1 October.
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“This is what’s happening on the ground,” Brown says. “I don’t know whether any member of the government understands how big the problem is.”
This week, the Trussell Trust charity warned the cost of living crisis was driving UK food banks to “breaking point”, with almost 1.3m emergency parcels given to people in hunger over just six months. More than 320,000 people have turned to food banks for the first time.
View image in fullscreenGordon Brown helps with supplies collected by housing officer Gary Lynch for a tenant. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Brown views The Big Hoose as a necessary development of the food bank concept, offering a wider range of goods and self-help support. It is a slick, professional operation, with a click-and-collect system based in a warehouse provided rent-free by the Purvis Group, a local logistics company.
Amazon is one of 20 firms providing surplus goods. Bedding that can only be used so many times in hotels is donated by laundry companies. A team of volunteers is on call to repair household appliances when they break down. The idea is to be pro-environment as well as anti-poverty, with goods recycled that would otherwise be destroyed.
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The scheme has been so successful it is being expanded into Edinburgh and the Lothian region of Scotland. Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales, has paid a visit with the idea of setting up something similar, as has Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.
Even so, Brown is alarmed that projects such as the Big Hoose is needed in the Britain of 2022. With the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, preparing to announce a fresh government austerity drive in his autumn statement on Thursday, the ex-chancellor and former PM says: “It is sad to see everything we did as a Labour government – from sure-start centres to tax credits and educational maintenance allowances – being cut or removed.”
View image in fullscreenToiletries and nappies are a constant request from struggling households. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Food banks were a rarity in Britain during the financial crisis of 2008-09, but their use has grown steadily over the past decade. In the five years to April – before the latest surge – the Trussell Trust had increased the number of food parcels by more than 80%.
Brown says most of the people receiving assistance from the Big Hoose project are not unemployed but having trouble making ends meet on minimum wage jobs. The scheme has a coordinating charity, the Cottage family centre in Kirkcaldy, and operates through more than 500 separate organisations, which emails in orders for the goods they think are needed by people they are trying to help.
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“Everybody has got to be referred. You can’t just walk in and pick up stuff, then sell it on Gumtree”, Brown says. “It has become the last line of defence. It’s the effective safety net. I never thought we would go back to this.
“Families with children are sleeping on the floor under one sheet. Four children are taking it in turns one night in four to sleep on a settee. People are giving up heating their homes. There is demand for duvets, sheets, blankets, sleeping bags and hot-water bottles.”
Gary Lynch, who is making a pick-up on behalf of Kingdom Housing, a Fife-based housing association, says he has asked for help moving a homeless single man with nothing to his name into a flat. “Something like this is invaluable,” Lynch says. “It’s a lot of money to go out and buy this stuff.”
The warehouse is something of an Aladdin’s cave. It contains hedge-trimmers, hair-clippers, golf clubs, food-slicers, headphones, all of which will be sold to raise funds to cover the £300,000-a-year running costs. There are also big baskets containing must-have items for people in need: cots, changing mats, nappies; airers as substitutes for tumble dryers; air fryers to cut down on oven use. Every referral contains requests for basic toiletries.
Kelly Rogers, the team manager at the Cottage, said: “We knew there was need. We just didn’t know how bad it was. Before Covid 19 there were people on the breadline. Then Covid brought a second wave. Now the cost of living crisis has brought a third wave.”
View image in fullscreenThe Big Hoose stores food and goods ranging from toiletries, sanitary products, household supplies and furnishings, to clothing to needy families in a project involving Amazon and charities. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Brown says there are three essential ingredients to a successful scheme: a coordinating charity; a referral system; and warehousing capacity.
“We trust charities to know who needs what. If they say there is a shortage of beds we will go out and try to get beds. Companies have got goods we know people need and we know people who need the goods. We can link them without using the price mechanism.”
Lana Moffat, a family worker at the Cottage, said she used to help people manage their budgets, but now they have no money to budget. “We are now seeing how we can support them with things that are to them a luxury: cleaning products, toilet rolls. Toilet rolls should not be a luxury in this day and age.”
On leaving the warehouse, Brown – who misses being a constituency MP – pays a visit to Lochgelly town hall, where the volunteers of Lo’gelly Lunches offer a meal on Tuesdays and a food bank on Fridays to the 200 local families on their books. Mae Ferguson, the chair, says demand has been steadily rising. “Genuine folk come in here. They are grateful. They don’t abuse it.”