It’s a balmy Friday evening in Canary Wharf as over 100 people gather outside the offices of Ofgem. The energy regulator, who’s headquarters sits in the middle of the east London financial district, announced an eye watering 80% rise in the energy price cap just hours previously, taking the typical household’s gas and electricity bill to £3,549 per year. The increase comes after a 54% rise in April, with the regulator citing soaring global gas prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the primary driver of the price hike.
Here in London, people are struggling.
“People are scared because they don’t now what’s going to happen after October 1st and what I’m telling you is you have to organise. You have to get to know the people you live near… You have to dare to struggle and dare to win and don’t pay your fucking bills”
Dan, an organiser from nearby Lewisham addresses the crowd, urging them to take action. The protest has been organised by Don’t Pay UK, a grass roots campaign set up in the wake of the price surge. The concept, which draws from historic campaigns like that against the poll tax, is simple. On October 1st, when the latest rise in energy prices is due to take effect, one million will pledge to cancel their energy bill direct debits and go on payment strike. So far almost 125,000 people have signed up to take part, with numbers increasing daily.
Outside Ofgem activists and organisers are addressing the crowd. They speak of the pain already being felt in communities across the city and country, warning that, without government intervention, what comes next will be even worse. A banner with “Freeze people not profits” painted on it is held aloft in the direction of the energy regulators headquarters whilst the crowd chants the words between speeches. It’s a sentiment echoed by MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis earlier in the day who told Good Morning Britain, “I’ve been accused of catastrophising this situation and the reason I’ve done that is because this is a genuine social and financial catastrophe that is putting lives at risk. If we do not get further government intervention on top of what was announced in May, lives will be lost this winter.”
He is right to be worried. Though the price hike will impact the vast majority, it will be the poorest who will feel it the most acutely. A report from New Economics Foundation for Friends of the Earth released last week stated that the poorest 10% of families will see energy costs increase by 7.5 percent larger portion of their disposable income than the richest 10%. This comes after the poorest families have already seen a cost of living increase by over 10 percentage points compared to their incomes between April 2021 and October 2022. Single parents, pensioners and families with one or more disabled person are likely to be the hardest hit with 6 million households now categorised as being in fuel poverty. There are concerns that another meteoric rise in January could see that number rise to 18 million households – or one in three.
Joe, a local organiser with Don’t Pay London, tells Huck, “Ofgem’s total failure to regulate the energy market over the past decade is a key reason so many of us are now facing a cold and hungry winter. Today’s price cap announcement confirms the catastrophe we’re facing: millions of us won’t be able to keep their homes warm, thousands will freeze. Whether you can or can’t pay these extortionate prices, we have to protect each other and say we won’t pay until there’s serious action from the government.”
After speeches conclude activists briefly take the road outside the offices of the energy regulator, chanting “they say bill hike, we say price strike’. A brief confrontation with the police follows as they attempt to clear the road which they eventually achieve. The protest, which is less well attended than organisers might have liked, ends without a hitch with the compere promising it is just the beginning.
Jess, a spokesperson for the Don’t Pay campaign tells Huck, “Our movement is growing fast, as people refuse to foot the bill for a crisis that isn’t of their making. We can’t rely on Ofgem to protect us from these colossal price hikes. We demand that the government and energy companies come forward with immediate solutions to tackle the true scale of this crisis.”
Photographer He Xin Run was there to capture the action.