“The scarves are free, but they come with a catch, you have to let us take your picture”, said the young man standing at the entrance to Fenton Town Hall.
At his feet was a box filled with scarves in a vivid shade of orange and behind him a stall set up by the local branch of Friends of the Earth offering advice on how people could reduce their carbon footprint and stay warm this winter.
The scarves, he told me, had been provided by Warm This Winter as a symbol of their campaign showing the steps people were having to take to keep out the cold.
Concern about the latter was what had probably brought most people to what was until a decade ago one of the city’s magistrates courts and before that, when Stoke-on-Trent was still six separate towns where Fenton’s town council met.
In recent years, volunteers have revived this ornate late Victorian building as an arts centre and community space. The result is a little like your staid maiden Aunt coming over a bit bohemian in her old age.
It is home to a community café and hosts all manner of touring exhibitions and concerts, and on a chilly Saturday in early December it was hosting a ‘set piece’ as part of a nationwide day of action organised by the Warm This Winter coalition.
Warm This Winter brings together more than 60 groups campaigning on anti-poverty and environmental issues including Citizens UK, Fuel Poverty Action and Friends of the Earth. Their aim is to influence the government to do more to help people who are struggling with soaring energy costs this winter.
Simon Francis of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition said the national day of action was “a final chance for the UK Government to take notice of the problems caused by living in cold damp homes and pledge to do all it can to end fuel poverty once and for all”.
National Energy Action estimate that there are 6.7 million households in the UK living in fuel poverty, meaning they cannot keep their home warm at a reasonable cost. This figure has risen dramatically along with fuel bills. Government efforts to help struggling households have been criticised for not doing enough to help those hit hardest.
The Stoke-on-Trent event was, Ben the ebullient said, an exercise in ‘artistic’ protest, meaning one that used poetry, performances, and film to make its point rather than direct action.
Neil Dawson a member of the North Staffs branch of Friends of the Earth, said the day was all about “including people in making changes that help them and the planet”, adding that the crisis playing out over the winter months was “massively influenced by twelve years of Tory austerity”.
In July of this year, research for the Centre for Cities identified Stoke-on-Trent as one of the cities in the West Midlands likely to be hit hardest by the cost-of-living crisis.
The event brought together council services and community groups offering support with heating bills and other costs, all in one place. Last month the city council launched its Stronger Together Through Winter initiative offering help to residents. This is modelled on the response put in place during the pandemic and brings together council services and local charities. Help is also available from the city’s food bank, and the local branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau.
In the café attached to the town hall, they were providing free food and hot drinks to anyone attending the event. Over a bowl of lobby – a stew involving carrots, beef and potatoes traditional to the area – several people described their feelings as the temperature drops and the bills rise.
One described getting up in the morning, putting on four layers of clothing and still feeling cold, another suggested making a draught excluder out of odd socks and an old pair of tights. Everybody I spoke to sounded tired and angry in equal measure, even more so since in 2019, many had loaned their vote to the Conservatives on the understanding that their forgotten city was going to be ‘levelled up’ at last.
The impact of the cost-of-living crisis on people’s everyday lives was also a feature of two powerful short films shown at the event made by Darren Washington and describing the struggles of communities in Stoke and West Bromwich. Danny Booth a youth worker for the local YMCA who spoke at the event, said many of the people he met were “scared” about what the future held.
Also speaking at the event former Stoke North MP Joan Whalley said that a city which had been the “cradle” of the first industrial revolution and had the potential to play a leading role in developing green industries for the future had been let down by a lack of investment. The time had come, she said, for pressure to be put on Rishi Sunak to put forward an energy policy that addressed both environmental and social justice concerns. Adding that the way to do so was through campaigners speaking with “one voice”.
The Fenton event was hosted by Centre Space Arts and featured performances from several local artists.
These included performances by local poets Nick Degg, Jenny Spice, and Ben McDonnell-Evans and a short play written specially for the event by Patrick McConnell.
Nick Degg performed a powerful poem about the city’s lost industries and indomitable spirit, leavening the agit-prop lump with comic pieces on the joy of eating crisps and the antics of the city’s own superhero Oatcake Man. Ben McDonnell-Evans took a darker comic tone parodying the fatuous advice on thrift given out by government. Sell your Kids, eat your pets, get rid of your phone and just shout at people instead, ideas a little too bleakly close to the truth for comfort. Jenny Spice issued a call to direct action in her poem Twelve Years to Save the Planet.
Ending the afternoon’s performances compere, Ben said he hoped he wouldn’t see us all again next year because things will be sorted out. Right now, bills and interest rates are only going in one direction, so I fear we’ve both got Warm This Winter 2023 pencilled into our diaries already.