At What Cost is a series mapping the cost of living crisis in real time, visiting crisis hotspots around the UK to understand the unique challenges faced by those most at risk, and highlighting some of those fighting back.
A moustachioed man opens the door to the Seaside Community Hub in Eastbourne on the south coast of England. Clad in a black Fred Perry polo and grey sweat shorts, he drops £2 on the counter, picks up a basket and heads for the stacks of bookshelves, units and fridges lining the wall opposite, laden with store-cupboard essentials and treats. Stock in the fridges is low, but there are still a few prize bits to be had.
“Times are hard,” the man, who did not give his name but appears to be in his twenties, tells me. He explains that he’s not worked for four weeks and pays £600 for a small room in the seaside town. “I never thought I’d be in this position,” he sighs, packing up bags full of food and apologising that he doesn’t have time to talk. “It’s a struggle.”
Susan Norris is one of the trustees of the Community Hub, which has been in place for seven years now. They launched the community fridge in 2020 as the first lockdown ended.
“It's mainly a waste project,” she tells me. As well as food essentials the hub is filled with donations, toys and DVDs. A second storage room in the back contains even more supplies, like boxes of UHT milk and Pot Noodles for people who don’t have access to cooking facilities.
“We take food from the supermarkets that's just at its best before date, or sometimes the packaging is broken so they can't sell the goods,” Norris continues. They also receive food from the charity network FareShare, which redistributes surplus stock from major supermarkets to frontline services.
As with the man in his twenties, people are encouraged to pay £2 for 10 items but, as Norris tells me, this guidance is mainly in place so people don’t take too much. “If they haven’t got two pound, they haven’t got two pound,” she says frankly. “They can just help themselves.”
The Seaside Community Hub sits to the east of the famous Eastbourne Pier, which Norris, who has lived in the town for 23 years, tells me is regarded as one of the more deprived areas of the town. Set back a couple of streets from the regency facades of the once-affluent seafront, the area looks not unlike many others in worn down coastal towns. “Back in the 1800s, when the Pier was built and the royals and Londoners arrived, this is where they pushed all the fishermen to live!”
Over the winter, the hub also operated as a warm bank where people could come and sit for free to keep warm when they couldn’t afford to heat their homes. “We were given some money by the Borough Council to set up the warm space and to help with the fridge, so we did a lot of monitoring of who was using the service,” Norris tells me. The figures paint a depressing picture.
“Between December 2021 and March 2022 we saw 71 people. Between December 2022 and February 2023 we saw 182,” she continues. “This is different people, people that come every week. So we’ve gone from having 10 or 15 people a week coming in, to 40 to 50 people a day. We’re open three days a week, so that’s over 100 people every week.”
The demographics of those using the hub are changing and expanding. “There are people who never thought they’d be at any sort of food bank,” Norris explains. “They’ve maybe lost their job, or their car has broken down and they can’t afford to repair it, they struggle getting a job because they have no transport, and then they just fall into that downward spiral.”
The hub’s figures are stark, and part of a wider trend across the country and in Eastbourne particularly. In May 2022, the town became the first in the UK to declare a 'cost of living emergency.'
Huck analysis of figures from The Trussell Trust, who operate a number of food banks in and around the town and have a presence in local authorities that cover approximately 85% of the UK, show that Eastbourne had the highest number of parcels given out per capita in the country in the year up to March 2023. One parcel was given out for every 3.23 people living in Eastbourne during this period, compared to one for every 23 people nationally.
“I guess it’s a phenomenon in coastal towns isn’t it?” Norris begins, when I ask when she thinks Eastbourne is so affected. “Our main industry is leisure and that hasn’t really picked up since the lockdown. Hotel trade is picking up a bit now, but a lot of hotel workers are on temporary contracts so it’s easy to just say ‘goodbye.’ There’s food outlets and a very big shopping centre, but there’s not much industry really.”
Eastbourne has been a tourist destination for centuries. A Napoleonic-era fort perches on the front a few minutes walk from the Victorian pier, which first drew holidaymakers – though sadly it would be fair to say that its heyday, as with so many other coastal towns in the country, has passed. The age-old trope about Eastbourne is that it’s a giant retirement community, which isn’t entirely far off. The elderly population in the town is large, with the latest census showing the number of people aged 65 to 74 has grown by 22.1% while those between 35 and 49 years old has fallen by 6% – but there’s a much more complex picture here. Walking on the streets of town on a somewhat dreary day in early May, it’s hard to miss.
We take a pitstop for lunch at a fish and chip shop in town and chat to the staff about the cost of living crisis. “I’ve noticed a lot more poverty since the lockdown,” a woman behind the counter tells me. She points to an increase in the number of people sleeping rough on the streets, who are clearly in distress or under the influence of substances. When I ask why Eastbourne in particular is suffering, there’s a thoughtful pause in conversation before another employee, a man who had been leaning casually back on the wall behind the counter, chips in. “It's people being turfed out of Hastings,” he says, before musing: “It’s trying to be like Brighton.”
We talk about the disparity in investment between the towns and the high rental costs (though according to the latest HMRC figures Hastings is actually £125 per month cheaper than in Eastbourne, at £750 and £875 per month respectively). When I ask how the chip shop itself is coping, the owner explains that the price of potatoes is increasing – “if you can even get them,” he adds. The cost of living, they tell me, is hitting everyone.
It seems that everywhere you go people here are aware of the deteriorating situation, but no-one can put a finger on exactly why Eastbourne seems to be suffering so acutely. The town doesn’t rank particularly highly when you look at broader poverty rates, rates of child poverty, energy crisis hotspot neighbourhoods or other metrics. That isn’t to say there aren't deep levels of poverty and deprivation here, but that they don’t, on the surface, appear to be worse than anywhere else across the UK. To find out more, we visited The Trussell Trust office in the centre of the town, which acts as a base for the Eastbourne food bank and its satellite hubs.
In the basement of the office there’s a whir of activity. Finance advisers sit at one end of the room. In the middle a data analyst, Abby, sits at her desk, scrolling through figures and trying to identify trends that help decide where to place the satellite hubs to meet need.
“We often work on a hyperlocal level or with individuals,” Communications and Campaigns manager Jess Holliday tells me, explaining more about the nature of their work. “Yesterday there was a guy we’re working with who, for reasons absolutely outside of his control, hasn't had any money since the beginning of March, so we sat down as a team and said, ‘ok can we get this grant? No, what about this one? Can we talk to this councillor? Access this service?’ etc,” she continues. “Other times where people have got massive issues like mould in their homes, which is clearly going to be really detrimental to their child, we do similar: band together to try and find a solution. Elsewhere the work can be more localised to areas, or more generally across the town as a whole.”
I ask what drivers they’re seeing on the ground that are leading people to become involved with the food banks.
“Benefit levels are just not high enough,” Holliday begins. Her tone is soft but her passion and drive for the people of the town she’s called home for decades drips through with every word. “There are lots of people coming to us with large amounts of debt. Often those are issues around council tax, which is something really impactful for a lot of the people we work with. We have people who have seen massive hikes in rental costs, which has affected those on local housing allowance.” Housing Benefits have been frozen in the UK since 2020, at a rate of £74 a week in Eastbourne, with the Conservative government recently confirming that local allowance rates would again be frozen for 2023/024. “When we look on any kind of rental sites there’s nothing for that price,” Holliday continues. “We work with lots of single parents, particularly young parents.”
Those within this demographic are often the hardest to help. As Holliday explains, the point of food banks is to enable people to not use a food bank. In an ideal world, food banks would not exist. The satellite hubs are there for people in an emergency, signposting to services to help people access support they need. But for single parents under the age of 25, whose Universal Credit rates are lower and who can’t take on more work because of childcare or other issues, there is no route out. Food banks across Eastbourne, and around the UK, are seeing more and more people in this position.
I ask why they think Eastbourne has the highest distribution of parcels per capita? The stories I heard in Eastbourne, gut wrenching and horrifying as they are, are similar to those I’ve heard up and down the country. There was no obvious reason for this statistical fluke, which was also the case in the data up to March 2022. They both take a second to think before Communications and Campaigns Officer, Juliet Mead, offers up an answer.
“All food banks operate differently. Obviously, not all food banks are Trussell Trust, but even within the trust, we don’t all operate in the same way. With the rising prices lots of people can’t afford to donate, so everybody’s a step or two down. A lot of food banks have found they can’t keep up with demand, and have struggled for donations.”
“For this reason,” she continues, “a lot of food banks will limit the amount of food vouchers [which are swapped for emergency parcels] that somebody has. They’ll say, for example, ‘ok we’ll give you three vouchers [equivalent to nine days' food across three parcels].’ This is not to criticise anyone else, but we don’t do that here. That means what you’re seeing here is a true reflection of the need in the UK at the moment.”
This is, perhaps, the most depressing conclusion to have come to. We embarked on this journey hoping to discover something specific to the area, some unique set of circumstances that would have a unique set of solutions, however complex. Instead, the truth is much darker. Across the country there are millions of people suffering. Whole communities struggling and fighting to survive, with organisations and charities struggling and fighting alongside them to meet demand. Rather than being an exception, then, Eastbourne is the rule.
In amongst the bleakness I ask Mead and Holliday how they keep going. Where is it that they find hope?
“I'm gonna give an answer that’s trite but very genuinely true,” Holliday replies. “Hope is being alongside and working with our guests. It’s a massive privilege to do that every day.”
In March of this year, Conservative MP Lee Anderson rose in the commons and spoke of families ‘abusing food banks.’ In May of last year, he spoke of food bank users being ‘unable to cook.’ This was, to put it lightly, a red rag to a bull where Holliday was concerned. She instantly marched down to the satellite hub closest to the office to get quotes from guests to rubbish his claim. “It started from a point of rage, not hope,” she admits, but this rage soon dissipated when she sat down with people who excitedly told her about all the ways they utilise the food, sharing recipes and tips.
After this, Holliday and Mead got a single ring hob and took it down to one of the hubs. Guests were invited to cook dishes and show others how to do things. Before long, the sessions had taken off, being led by guests and garnering a huge sense of community as Holliday and Mead ran back and forth from the hub’s food store, grabbing ingredients and chatting with people. Meanwhile, guests would help each other with their own struggles, give pointers or suggestions for services that had helped them along the way.
Clearly, there are solutions to the levels of need in Eastbourne – as there are in towns and cities across the country. The rate of support, access to it, the price of housing, the ability to engage with mental health services – these are all things that can be solved if the political will in Westminster existed. To try to shy away from this, or spin a line that community alone can bridge all these gaps, would be disingenuous. That being said, communities like the one around Eastbourne food bank or the Seaside Community Hub are vital in building a route out of the crisis where no others are forthcoming.
It’s within these communities that connection and meaning are forged, and hope fostered. Hope for a better world where there is no longer need and suffering. For a time when places like Eastbourne bask in the sun each day, rather than catching snippets amongst the never-ending clouds.
Follow Ben on Twitter.