Warm Hubs, Warm Spaces, Warm Banks, Warm Havens: whatever they’re called, thousands have sprung up across the country in a matter of months – a nationwide community-led response to the cost of living crisis.
The scale and speed of their growth – there are at least 7,000 up and running in cities, towns and village – has formed the backbone of a people’s movement reshaping the social landscape. Warm Hubs are held in a variety of community spaces ranging from village halls, community centres and church halls to public libraries, sports clubs. Each provides residents with safe, warm and friendly environments with refreshments, social activity, information and advice.
As well as offering a refuge to people struggling to heat their homes, hubs support people suffering from loneliness and isolation – a huge national problem exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdowns. According to South Cambridgeshire District Council, the hubs deliver a “new community-led approach” to these intractable problems.
Driven by the community
The essence of the Warm Hubs movement is that they are community-led, coordinated, and hosted by trained volunteers within the heart of local communities.
The Warm Welcome campaign began when senior faith leaders met with former prime minister Gordon Brown to discuss the growing cost of living crisis and its impact on low income households. Brown mentioned hearing of plans for ‘train station waiting room-style heated spaces’ for those unable to pay their energy bills. According to David Barclay, one of the Warm Welcome founders: “We built a website, held an online launch event and watched in awe as thousands of groups of every shape and size signed up and got involved.”
Churches and other faith groups, voluntary organisations, businesses and local authorities have all pitched in. Some hubs have started from scratch, others have evolved from existing activities, community cafés, coffee mornings, breakfast clubs, play groups or older people’s friendship clubs.
In Warwickshire, the Rural Community Council (WRCC) has led on this initiative. It launched a Warm Hubs mobile service in 2021, when people were still unable to meet indoors, converting one of its community minibuses to go round villages providing open air community cafés. This hugely successful service will continue through 2023 and visit local communities on a weekly, fortnightly or occasional basis. It has been supplemented by static Winter Warm Hubs and there are now nearly 90 Warm Hubs and Winter Warm Hubs in the WRCC network.
The county and district councils, Act on Energy , South Warwickshire Mind and Warwickshire public libraries (who offer Warm Welcome places where residents can have refreshments, sit and read books or use computers), are all part of the movement, along with churches.
A lifeline for many
Barclay says that Warm Welcome has “provided a brand and a banner for many organisations to grow and expand their existing activities. For others, it has been a catalyst to try something new. The collective impact of these spaces has been enormous. Spaces are described by many who use them as a ‘lifeline’.“
Warm Welcome Spaces are also evolving into community hubs helping people to make connections, build friendships and create the longer-term social support networks to sustain people all-year round. Many churches now have more people attending their Warm Welcome activities than coming along to their Sunday services.
There are also the first signs of Warm Welcome providing a catalyst for systemic change. In Birmingham, Warm Welcome Spaces found a number of people with issues of damp and mould in their homes. So, they organised themselves to work with the Council and ensure that all Spaces have access to a senior Council Director who can fast-track cases for a response. This creates a blueprint for other Spaces to work together to listen and act on the issues facing local people, ensuring that Warm Welcome can go beyond just a short-term practical response to deep systemic challenges.
What of the future?
With the end of this winter, the campaign is changing gears, signposting those who want to carry on running activities to other sources of support. The Warm Welcome campaign has raised £300,000 to support hubs in the most deprived areas, though some hubs will fold because of a lack of funding, volunteers or, in the worst-case scenario, both.
With the cost of living crisis showing no signs of abating, and, crucially, the hubs having become embedded in many communities, preparations are already under way for a Warm Welcome campaign bigger and better for next winter, “nurturing and further developing a movement which feels like it is just getting started”, says Barclay.
“When faced with crisis and despair, the community response to the cost of living crisis has been nothing short of heroic. Now it’s up to the rest of society to follow where local people are leading”, he adds.