Source > voice.wales
Joy Carter has seen the difference her flowers have made to her customers’ lives in the last 25 years. Standing on the junction of Victoria Square and Bute Street, Aberdare, Flowers by Joy used to be well-lit, with chandeliers adorning her shop’s passageway, directing customers to the infinite arrangements of flowers inside.
Today, the shop looks colder, with a dim light bulb and clumps of bouquets huddled together. The sole customer in the store was most likely finding refuge from the heavy rain pouring on the High Street.
A lot had changed since the onset of winter in Cynon Valley, but Joy wasn’t expecting it to be this drastic. “It’s much quieter, footfall is far less for the shop. People are holding back on spending money because they obviously don’t know what’s coming,” she says. “It’s getting harder.”
The cost of living crisis, as it’s so often referred to, has hit residents here particularly hard. According to a survey conducted in Cynon Valley by the local MP Beth Winter, people cannot afford grocery shopping, fuel, clothing, school supplies, and educational materials, let alone be able to pay their debts or get insurance. Three out of four people have had to cut down on heating due to soaring energy bills.
Joy, 60, is one of them. “My husband tells me, ‘Don’t put the heating on. Keep another jumper on instead because it will keep the cost down’”, she says, stating that she became the sole income provider of her household two years ago when her husband was made redundant, making it harder for them to afford heating.
This was the situation even before people were struck with rising energy bills, food costs and fuel prices. In 2019, the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation discovered that Cynon Valley had some of the poorest parts of Wales.
Earlier in the year, people shared the impact of the rising cost of living with the Welsh Government’s Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee. One participant in the focus group said, “If they (food prices) continue to go up, I’m not going to be able to have two meals a day. I’ll be on one meal a day if things increase anymore.”
Public Health Wales also warns that households may end up paying double the energy cost they used to pay last year.
Joy has experienced this issue in the last few months, despite barely switching on lights and with no heating. “My electricity bills used to be £300-400 maximum. My last electricity bill was £973,” she says. “It is going to be tight. Let’s hope it is a mild winter.”
In the weeks after we met, however, the area was plunged into freezing depths of winter.
As temperatures continue to drop across Wales, people here simply don’t know how they will get through this winter safe and secure, says Pastor Michelle Warren, owner of Lighthouse Charity, a cafe-style church next to Aberdare Market.
“The whole community is worried about how they’re going to keep themselves fed over this period, never mind keep warm. A lot of people can’t afford to do either. I don’t think they are going to survive,” she says.
Heledd Fychan, Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd for South Wales Central, echoes this sentiment in the starkest of terms. “People will die in Wales this winter because they can’t afford basic human rights,” she says. “We are in crisis. It is a national emergency.”
The lack of intervention from Government is worsening the issue.
“I don’t see the urgency of response from either the UK or Welsh Government. If you want to help people, there’s always more you can do,” Heledd says pointedly. “We have a system that allows a small percentage of the wealthiest to keep getting wealthy, whilst more people are being pushed into poverty. It’s a broken system.”
With more people finding it difficult to cope with the cost of living crisis for the first time, Heledd thinks they are reluctant to seek help directly. Such people have started relying on food banks for their daily groceries and sustenance, with the Trussell Trust reporting that the number has gone up to 320,000 people in the last six months.
Unfortunately, these support systems face dire conditions due to a lack of donations. “Donations are down but more people need food than ever before,” says Heledd.
The Trussell Trust operates four banks in Rhondda, which are situated in Tylorstown, Tonypandy, Ty Newydd and Pentre RTC. According to Wales Online, these food banks need long-lasting non-refrigerated juice, tinned fish, fruit and carrots, packet smash, and strong carrier bags to support their residents fully.
Many people have also started frequenting thrift stores and charity shops to shop at affordable prices. Michelle, 54, recalls never having seen such a massive demand for second-hand goods in Aberdare, with people actively purchasing jumpers, presents, and toys for children at her store. “A lot more people are coming in. We’re trying to help,” she says.
But as inflation hits a 41-year-high, Wales faces a fresh wave of austerity cuts from both the UK and Welsh Government.
The recent Welsh draft Budget, released on 13th December, was described as the “toughest” since devolution – often code for cuts to public spending. The £200 winter fuel support scheme that was intended to help people on benefits pay their energy bills will not return next year due to financial restraints and instead will be replaced by a discretionary assistance fund, which provides people with grants during economic hardships.
“The UK Government have followed the policy of austerity, which is disastrous,” says Heledd, who criticises Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the wealthiest PM the UK has seen to date, for not understanding the day-to-day struggles of the majority of people. ”They are still prioritising the wealthiest in our society. They’ve done some things for headlines, but not enough action to help the majority of people who will be struggling and suffering.”
Recently, the local MP, Beth Winter, spoke in Parliament about the deductions from Universal Credit that are being taken from more than half the recipients in Cynon Valley to repay debts and overpayments. She says, “A majority of those using Universal Credit as a lifeline, are having some taken away. People cannot afford these deductions.”
The Welsh Government says that their hands are tied, as Westminster holds power over the tax and welfare system, making it difficult for people to get money back into their pockets.
But according to Heledd, the Welsh Government can do more. “We’ve had a Welsh Labour government since 1999 that has been responsible for health and education. Policy interventions could have been put in place that would have made a difference and put us in a stronger position to cope with the cost of living crisis,” she says. “It is time for Labour to take accountability for it.”
These missed opportunities have had a severe impact on people. There aren’t enough jobs in the valleys, says Michelle, which forces people to seek employment in the cities. However, a lack of consistency in transport becomes a barrier.
“Transport here in Aberdare stops early. A majority of people want to work, but they can’t get to work because the transport system doesn’t allow them to do that,” she says, adding that this results in high unemployment rates in the Valleys. “That causes depression and anxiety. It’s a kickoff event, and if the transport were a lot better, it would be a lot easier.”
Almost half of people in Wales are finding that their current financial situation is adversely impacting their mental health, according to Public Health Wales. These problems have already affected people in the valleys for years, says Michelle, who used to be a mental health nurse in Slough.
Customers in her charity shop come and discuss their anxieties with her daily. “I support about 30 people here, and over three-quarters have mental health problems. Three people I’m looking out for at the moment are suicidal. All of them are struggling so much.”
Support for citizens of Cynon Valley is available online through schemes such as the Winter Fuel Support Scheme, where eligible households can receive a payment of £200 to pay for winter fuel bills.
Another such scheme is the Welsh Government’s Discretionary Assistance, a last resort fund that intends to help people who are going through extreme hardships and are severely impacted by the cost of living crisis.
While such resources are present, they are tough to access, especially for vulnerable citizens who are old, who don’t know how to use the internet and who can’t read or write, as per Michelle. “It is not very clear what help is available. People are not getting enough,” she says.
With Christmas around the corner, Aberdare looks far from festive. People’s hardships have barred them from joining in with the celebrations as they struggle to make do.
“All the houses around, no one’s got lights in the windows. A lot of people can’t afford a Christmas tree, baubles and decorations this year because they have to use that money for food,” says Michelle, who believes that people have noticed this change but feel helpless about the situation. “It’s dampened everybody, really. It could be life-threatening, this Christmas.”
Michelle demands the Welsh Government support the residents of Cynon Valley through this crisis period with a response similar to the pandemic. “If they can help at times with COVID, then they can help people now. We need something to keep us going into next year because it’s just really hard.”
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