Last winter, in the midst of the worst Cost of Living Crisis for 70 years, something remarkable happened. Despite themselves still reeling from the Covid pandemic, local community organisations like churches, libraries and community centres stepped forward together as Warm Spaces and created what former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called a ‘Chain of Hope’ to support those who could no longer afford to keep their homes warm due to spiralling energy bills.
Now in the middle of our second winter, the Warm Welcome Campaign has been reflecting on what we have learned so far and where the Campaign might be heading in 2024 and beyond.
Lesson 1 – Prioritise Inclusion
One of our early lessons in running Warm Welcome was that building something which was inclusive at both a local and national level was key to gaining traction. For local groups we set the bar to participation as low as possible – all they had to do to become an ‘official’ Warm Welcome Space was to promise to offer something warm, welcoming, safe and free to enter.
At the national level, we tried to engage as many different types of organisation in the emerging coalition as we could – Christian denominations and charities were early adopters but so too were library groups, social connection charities, food and climate organisations and many more. This led to the widespread buy-in we needed to get the word out through the combined networks of these allies, resulting in thousands of local groups registering a giving the campaign the momentum required to succeed.
As we look forward, we know we have much more work to do to make Warm Spaces truly inclusive and welcoming for all. We have developed an Inclusion Strategy which identifies several key population groups who we know to be most likely to be excluded from Warm Space provision, as well as three areas for future activity – firstly in ensuring broader geographical coverage of registered Warm Welcome Spaces, secondly in targeting our messaging and communications work to reach particular communities, and thirdly in supporting Spaces to become more inclusive in their local provision.
Lesson 2 – Invest in learning and be prepared to pivot
Our early investment in impact evaluation has paid dividends for Warm Welcome, allowing us to paint a rich picture of the deep impact of Warm Spaces. Crucially, our impact report enabled us to put quantitative numbers to the lesson that almost all Warm Spaces learned in their first winter, which is that people came for the warmth but they stayed for the welcome.
Moving into this current winter, we used a rebranding process to broaden our focus and shift the language of the campaign away from that of ‘crisis response’ and towards a longer-term mission of turning poverty and isolation into warmth and local connection.
Having a more stable and developed core offer and narrative for the campaign has helped us build a wider range of partnerships to support local Spaces this winter, whether that’s been through Rotary on volunteering, Eden Communities on the Big Lunch at Christmas, 64 Million Artists on their January Challenge or the National Grid and Local Giving on their Community Matters Fund.
Lesson 3 – Connect the work happening locally, regionally and nationally
Having this more mature platform has also helped us to begin to explore the next frontier in Warm Space innovation, which is the potential of local co-ordination. Distributing resources from a national campaign to thousands of individuals Warm Spaces is great, but we’ve realised that where Warm Welcome Spaces are proactively working together locally, their power as a network becomes hugely significant.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Warm Welcome Campaign is exploring potential future possibilities for these kinds of partnerships. We’re talking to MySociety about their efforts to use technology to help people act together on home energy improvements, and how Warm Spaces could play a catalysing role for this. We’re also speaking to FairShare about whether local Warm Space networks could unlock further surplus food from industry and distribute it to people at the sharp end of the Cost of Living Crisis through community meals and pantries. And we’re talking to energy-related businesses about how partnering with and supporting Warm Spaces could help them reach vulnerable customers. More broadly, we remain committed to working with corporates and other funders to connect their support to local communities.
What unites all of these conversations in the critical role of local co-ordination in turning these dreams into reality. We’ve set up an online Community of Practice for these Warm Space Co-ordinators, and would love to welcome anyone else who might be playing this role across the UK. We’d also love to talk to Community Foundations and other place-based funders about the potential for organised networks of Warm Spaces to transform not just vulnerable individuals but whole communities.
Conclusion – creating sustainable social infrastructure
Against a backdrop of so much bad news in 2023, the continued rise and development of Warm Spaces reminds us that there is still much to be hopeful for in terms of the resilience and creativity of our communities. With the Cost of Living Crisis showing no signs of abating, and with civil society itself struggling in a new age of austerity, the road ahead is far from easy. But nothing worthwhile ever came easy, and the constant flow of stories of individual lives touched and transformed by Warm Spaces will keep the Warm Welcome team fired up for 2024 and beyond.