A cost of living "emergency” has been declared by a collective of more than 100 Norfolk organisations offering advice and welfare support amid the national economic woes.

The desperate declaration arrives with Rishi Sunak taking over as prime minister when unprecedented demand on service providers is creating “unbearable” stories of suffering, with a 1,300pc rise in requests for debt help and some support groups "buckling under pressure".

The Norfolk Community Advice Network (Ncan) is a Norfolk-wide partnership of advice and community experts, such as local branches of Age UK, Shelter and Samaritans.

And its steering group - which represents more than 100 free advice and support providers - has written to a number of organisations to declare a cost of living emergency unfolding across the county.

How has this unfolded?

Ncan’s director, Emily Balsdon, revealed that demand for free legal and social welfare advice and humanitarian support services had never been higher – including during the pandemic.

“This is all before the impact of the next wave of cost of living increases and interest rate rises expected this winter,” she said.

“Providers are buckling under the pressure of this excess demand, with some already unable to respond to everyone who needs help.

“This is a humanitarian emergency and we must all respond accordingly, with urgency and determination.”

Eastern Daily Press: Emily Balsdon from Norfolk Community Advice NetworkEmily Balsdon from Norfolk Community Advice Network (Image: Norfolk Community Advice Network)

Ms Balsdon added that without immediate additional resources many of its members would be forced to withdraw support, with potentially “devastating consequences” for those facing domestic abuse, homelessness, debt, or poverty.

How are people using the services affected?

Dan Mobbs, chief executive of the Mancroft Advice Project, which specifically offers support to young people, said services across the board were enduring similar experiences.

Eastern Daily Press: Dan Mobbs, chief executive of Mancroft Advice Project (MAP)Dan Mobbs, chief executive of Mancroft Advice Project (MAP) (Image: Supplied)

"If we are talking specifically about young people, many are at a point in their lives when they should be thinking about their hopes and dreams for the future and not if they are able to eat that night or not," he said.

"They should be looking forward to life.

"It's a really sorry state of things for a country like us to be in. We are starting to get really worried about what is happening and the consequences."

The facts and figures

Chief executives involved with Ncan reported hearing about people’s "unbearable" suffering daily, including issues surrounding poverty and mental ill health.

This year, advice charities saw a 405pc increase in the average value of secured loans debt, rising from an average of £1,151 owed per person last year to a new average of £5,821.

Ncan also reported a 1,300pc increase in those requesting help with debt assessments, as well as a similar increase in demand for charitable support and foodbank parcels.

And three times as many young people have been asking for help with homelessness while direct referrals have increased 68pc compared to this time last year.

What action is being called for?

In Ncan’s joint letter, its members asked for immediate action to stem the emergency.

This included things such as:

  • Reviewing all budgets and considering the prioritisation of frontline advice services.
  • Reviewing contingency funding allocations and awarding advice charities.
  • Helping Ncan to find and fund more advisors and offering training.

Ms Balsdon added: “We are also asking Norfolk politicians and policy decision-makers for their support in implementing these emergency measures, which would quickly make an impact on tackling the root causes of poverty and on demand for our services."

What else can be done?

Locally, Ncan would like to see policies introduced such as the introduction of no-strings-attached vouchers for food, rent and utility costs, a pause in bailiff action and evictions, and highlighting awareness of free debt advice.

Other measures suggested are charity and not-for-profit investment, free sanitary products in public buildings and workplaces, and proactive promotion of cost of living payments to people on means-tested benefits.

Eastern Daily Press: Energy bills are a major driver of the cost of living being on the riseEnergy bills are a major driver of the cost of living being on the rise (Image: Brittany Woodman/ Archant)

Looking nationally, suggestions have included measures to insulate homes, maintain the “pension triple lock” rule of rising each year, increase benefits in line with inflation, and increase the National Living Wage to the Real Living Wage.

It would also include greatly reducing the processing time for all new and ongoing benefit claims, health care assessments, mandatory reconsiderations, and appeals so claimants are not left without benefits for prolonged periods of time.

Finally, a pause on all periodic benefit reviews and health care assessments other than claimant increases, and the introduction of an immediate regulation of the Buy Now Pay Later industry.

  • All the advice agencies, service commissioners, and funders have been invited to an online partnership emergency meeting on November 9, when every viable solution will be explored by professionals and agencies across the sector.