The number of families unable to make ends meet across the city is higher than ever, according to experts.
Energy debt advisers from Preston’s Citizens Advice Bureau say the number of people with “priority debts” – such as council tax, gas and water – is higher than it has ever been, with many having to choose between “heat or eat”.
As part of Big Energy Saving Week, teams will be on hand to help families in fuel poverty, with advice on making their homes more efficient or help applying for grants.
But the experts say the problem of debt, in their eyes, has never been as severe as it is now.
Energy debt adviser Caroline Cameron says: “We’ve never had as much issue with priority debt as we do now.
“Council tax arrears never used to be such a high percentage.
“What we would find is people would come in with non-priority debts, they would be managing the priority debts like council tax, gas, water, they would mainly be catalogues and store cards.
“Since the council tax changes came in, everybody has to pay council tax.
“We didn’t see the same number of people with council tax arrears as we do now, and that has a knock-on effect.”
Fellow adviser Cheryl Conroy says: “The Council Tax Support generally is around £4 a week, so clients who would normally get full benefits, who didn’t pay anything, now have to contribute around £4 a week.
“For somebody who’s living off £73.10 a week, the Council Tax Support generally is about £4 a week, they might potentially have bedroom tax which could be about another £12 a week, it’s all adding up to extra money that they’ve got to find.
“Then they’ve hardly any money to put on gas or electricity – it’s just a culmination of everything.
“There’s been a real increase in food banks and it’s all a knock-on effect.”
She adds: “With a lot of clients we see, it’s what we call “heat or eat” – do they put the heating on and not eat, or eat and not put the heating on.
“It’s getting to that level, and we are talking about elderly and vulnerable clients.”
As part of Big Energy Saving Week this week, the team will be working to help people in fuel poverty, with advice on making their homes more energy efficient or on making ends meet.
Caroline says: “There’s lots of information we are providing as part of Big Energy Saving Week, like switching off lights, drawing the curtains through the winter.
“When people come to us in debt, we look at making an application to one of a number of trust funds or grant schemes to help write off the debt.
“If they have high usage we look at how they can reduce it at the same time so they don’t get into those problems again.
“We look at sustainability – if we get people out of fuel poverty and into the position where they are monitoring the gas usage and they are paying regularly, it’s sustainable going forward.”
Cheryl adds: “They are simple things but it all adds up to the bigger picture.
“A lot of people don’t think closing the curtains will help keep warm, or turning the heating down one degree will make a difference.”
The experts say many cases of fuel debt are because of estimated bills, meaning when families are later given accurate readings, they are unable to pay.
Smart meters, being rolled out by 2020, are hoped to help.
The team helps clients to switch tariffs or energy providers, and also educates people to give regular meter readings.
As part of Big Energy Week, debt advisers will be at the outdoor market in Preston on Tuesday between 9.30am and 1pm.
On Wednesday, they will be at the Citizenzone Bus at Deepdale Shopping Park from 10am to 4pm, and on Thursday they will be at the Minerva Health Centre from 9.30am to 1pm.