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The cost-of-living crisis in the South Wales valleys

Most communities in Britain have been affected by the cost-of-living crisis. But for those already struggling, the current emergency is having an even bigger impact.  

Ashley Comley, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice in Rhondda Cynon Taff, talks us through how he sees things in the South Wales valleys.  

We’re seeing a lot of people reaching crisis point at the moment – but, truthfully, a lot of them have been in crisis for many, many months.  

We’re an old mining community. Since the mines closed in the 1980s, we’ve not had the employment opportunities that we’d liked to have had.  

Most of the employment opportunities are south of the M4 so we’re very reliant on an old transport network. If you haven’t got a car, it limits any opportunities and leaves the valleys quite isolated.  

We have a fairly large population, standing at around 237,000 people – but we’re in the 10% most deprived communities in Wales. Some 31% of our households are deprived in at least one way, with health measures standing at some of the worst in the country.  

Our population is ageing rapidly. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen an 18% rise in 65-74-year-olds in the area.  

And when you add in that our housing stock is generally very old, mainly terraced housing from the early 1900s, making it very hard to apply energy efficiency measures, it doesn’t paint a positive picture.  

All in all, people in Rhondda Cynon Taf are facing multiple barriers already – before you factor in the energy crisis.  

That manifests in lots of different ways, and we’re having to be flexible to meet the needs of an ever-widening client base.  

People are often reliant on food parcels and were heavily reliant on the fuel vouchers, so now those have come to an end, I’m hoping that gas and electric prices may fall over the summer. But with inflation as it is and food prices as they are, I’m already concerned about next winter.  

The prepayment mater issue has been very visible in our communities, too. Recent policy changes are welcome, but the issue has already affected some of the most vulnerable people in our area. We’ve had people not wanting to take their medication out of their fridge in case it sparks an electricity cost that they simply can’t afford. It’s simply an awful position to be in. So, we’ve been in an unenviable situation where we’ve had to give advice about alternative ways of storing medication like outside in shaded places.  

We’ve seen a huge spike in debt and housing advice we’re giving to people too – especially around black mould in people’s homes, which is a direct response to the energy crisis. People aren’t turning their tumble dryers on, and instead drying clothes indoors which then creates condensation and mould. It’s a viscous cycle.   

But this current crisis is cutting deeper and hitting further. It’s affecting everyone, including our staff members.  

In-work poverty is one of the things we’re most concerned about at the moment. And that’s where the funding from British Gas Energy Trust has really helped us.  

The flexibility of the funding allows us to be innovative in our delivery. Instead of being prescriptive about supporting people in X situation to get support with Y, we can be a bit more creative in our thinking and flex to the needs of the people who need our help.  

Traditionally, most of our services have been geared to support people who are out of work. With this shift change happening, we’ve been able to use this funding to work with medium-sized employers to support people in work, offering up some bespoke advice about the cost of living.  

Our doors have historically been open 9-5, Monday to Friday, which is good for people who are out of work. But for people who are in work or have childcare responsibilities, we’re often quite hard to engage with. So, we asked the question, can we start a bit earlier, open for a bit longer and offer weekend support for people? The funding from the Trust has enabled us to think a bit differently.  

I remember from when I used to do case work that trying to give really important advice to someone in a small room when there’s a child being a child, can be quite challenging. So we’ve also been able to rent some space in a soft play area to help people with children during the day.  

And being out and about at a supermarket is a game-changer. Just like you’d see the RAC giving out information about their products and services, we’re there now, supporting people out and about. 

As a result, we’re able to support more people than ever before, including many who we’ve never seen before. And instead of just providing support for people who are at crisis points, we’re able to be proactive to prevent issues from arising in the first place – that’s a huge shift for us, and can only be a benefit to the community.  

It’s important that we’re seen face to face as that personal touch can’t be replicated. But we’re also offering more support online than ever too. Times change, and it’s important we change with them. In 1939, we gave out information about ration books. I can remember in 2005, we used to give out so much information about bus timetables – but that’s all available online now, we don’t have to. In the future, we might even be able to ask Alexa if she can help reschedule our debts – you never know. We’re always evolving to the ever-changing needs of our communities.  

Our goal is to strike a balance between offering support in crisis and offering preventative advice to pre-empt issues from occurring. We’re not there yet, but this funding is helping us on that journey.  

They say prevention is cheaper than the cure, it’s also just better.