Great Britain: In Britain, “hot hubs” are emerging to counter soaring energy costs

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: On a blustery late winter day in Shakespeare’s birthplace, the foyer of the Other Place theater is a cozy retreat. Visitors have meetings over coffee, check their e-mails, write poetry, learn to sew.
It looks and feels like an arty cafe in the quaint streets of Stratford-upon-Avon, but it’s a ‘warm centre’ set up by the Royal Shakespeare Company theater troupe to accommodate people who are struggling to heat their homes because of exorbitant energy prices.
Hot hubs sprouted through Britain by the thousands this winter, as soaring food and energy prices cause millions to turn down the thermostat or skimp on hot meals. Research by the opposition Labor Party found nearly 13,000 such centres, funded by a mix of charities, community groups and the government and tucked away in libraries, churches, community centers and even a tea room in the Highgrove estate of King Charles III.
Wendy Freeman, artist, writer and seventh-generation Stratfordian, heard about the CBC’s heartwarming center from a friend. She lives in “a small house with no central heating” and relies on a coal fire for warmth. Like many, she cut spending in response to the cost-of-living crisis caused by the highest inflation since the 1980s.
“You just fit in,” said Freeman, 69, who used the center as a warm, quiet place to work on a poem. “Little things, like putting less water in the kettle. I was brought up with ‘save the pennies, and the books will take care of themselves.’ I always cook from scratch and eat what’s in season.
“But it’s nice to go somewhere warm,” she added.
A perfect storm of Russia’s war in Ukraine, lingering pandemic disruptions and economic aftershocks from Brexit puts more people in Britain under financial pressure. Households and businesses have been particularly hard hit after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove up the cost of natural gas needed for heating and helped push the UK to the brink of a recession.
The UK’s annual inflation rate was just above 10% in January, with food prices up almost 17% on the year. Some 62% of adults use less natural gas or electricity to save money, according to the Office for National Statistics. A quarter of households regularly run out of money for basic necessities, according to the Survation survey.
Although oil and natural gas prices have fallen from last year’s highs, the average UK household energy bill is still double what it was a year ago. Costs for many are expected to rise by a further 20% on April 1, when a government-set price cap increases.
Anna Bolger, a retired math teacher, passed through the hot center on a walk one day and has returned every week since. She comes to check her e-mails, to prepare for math lessons or to do a puzzle.
“Today is the day I appreciate it, because the house is freezing,” she said.
The hub operates one afternoon a week in the smallest of the RSC’s three theatres. On Tuesday, the space hosted a mix of theater staff, actors on their way to rehearsals and visitors looking to warm up. Organizers provide puzzles, games, toys for kids, free tea, coffee, and Wi-Fi — even a sewing table.
“I love that it’s such a creative space,” Bolger, 66, said. “People have meetings there, they talk, they work. I just feel a little more alive than sitting at home, a little more connected.”
This is exactly what the organizers want to hear. They say warm hubs exist to relieve loneliness as well as energy poverty.
“The warmth is in the welcome as much as a warm building to come to,” said Nicola Salmon, who oversees the hub as the RSC’s Creative Places Lead. “There’s always someone here to talk to.”
Stratford, about 160 kilometers northwest of London, is a prosperous town that lives well on William Shakespeare, its most famous son. Even on a wintry weekday, tourists roam the streets of half-timbered Tudor buildings to see the house where the bard was born, tour the classroom where he studied, and stand above his tomb in the medieval church of the Holy Trinity.
The RSC is one of Stratford’s main cultural attractions and employers. Salmon says the warm center is part of the company’s efforts to connect with its surrounding community, a city that “is often seen as affluent and affluent” but contains “areas of great deprivation.”
Like Britain’s food banks – now estimated to number 2,500 – heat centers are a crisis measure that are showing signs of becoming permanent.
The Warwickshire Rural Community Council, a charity covering the county around Stratford, set up a mobile heat center – a beer garden converted into a minibus – in 2021 as pandemic restrictions plunged many rural residents into isolation.
A year ago the charity ran five centers across the county, with support from Cadent, the private company that distributes much of Britain’s heating gas. As winter and energy bills soared, the number soared to 90, offering everything from meals to repair shops and slow-cooking classes aimed at reducing gas consumption.
About 30 hubs will remain open this summer – with a view to becoming permanent – and the mobile hub will be on the road five days a week.
“People say we shouldn’t be in this situation, and we shouldn’t be,” said Jackie Holcroft, the association’s warm-hearted centers manager. “But we are. And I think one of the most amazing things is that you have hundreds, thousands of volunteers in Warwickshire and they’re all coming together to make a difference.”
The cozy RSC space will close at the end of March, but the company is already planning its return next year.
“I’m going to miss it like crazy,” said Bolger, one of the regulars. “I don’t hope the fuel crisis lasts forever, but I do hope this place stays open.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

GreenLeaf Tw2sl