The Heating and the Meeting

May 2023
David Barclay

On 15th May we published our Impact Evaluation Report for the Warm Welcome Campaign 2022-23. Having worked on it for several months with the excellent team at Eido Research, it felt like a significant moment as we were able to share publicly for the first time the incredible difference that Warm Welcome Spaces up and down the country have made. It also marks a crucial opportunity for reflection as we consider what there is to learn from the extraordinary journey we’ve been on in the last 9 months and what it might mean for the future of Warm Welcome.  

Some of the numbers contained within the Impact Evaluation Report are quite remarkable. We estimate that our network of just over 7000 Warm Welcome Spaces received around 2.4 million visits over the winter. More than 50% of those visiting the Spaces said that they would otherwise have been at home with the heating off. 60% said that attending the Space had helped them financially. Taken together, these numbers indicate the Warm Welcome campaign achieved what it set out to: providing practical and material support to as many people as possible who were struggling to heat their homes due to the Cost of Living Crisis. As one person said of their local Warm Welcome Space, “it’s helped me cope with the hard times...knowing if I don’t have food there’s somewhere that I can get help from that’s close to me is also a big relief.”  

But perhaps the most striking numbers in the Impact Evaluation relate less to the economic impact of Warm Welcome Spaces and more to their social purpose, particularly in tackling loneliness. When we asked people how often they felt lonely before they started coming to a Warm Welcome Space, almost 40% responded with ‘always’ or ‘often’. But when asked how often they felt lonely since coming to the Space, this number dropped to just 6%. And we got similar levels of positive change when we asked about feelings of isolation and sense of purpose. It’s clear from these numbers that whilst many people came to Warm Welcome Spaces for the warmth, they came back for the welcome, the sense of belonging and the connection that they found. And although the largest group of Warm Welcome visitors were over 65 and retired, we did also see a significant proportion of younger people (and particularly parents with small children) getting involved. Throughout the winter we were inundated with individual stories that bear the scale of the impact on visitors, even including one person who said “If I didn’t come here I would have killed myself, now I look forward to coming and seeing people who care about me.”

Of course stories like that make all the hard work that’s gone into the Warm Welcome campaign more than worth it. But as well as the stories of individual lives transformed, we’ve also been amazed at how many local organisations have been revitalised through their engagement with Warm Welcome. Almost 30% of Spaces said they wouldn’t have been open without the national Warm Welcome campaign, and around 70% of Spaces said they’d seen more people coming to them as a result of their participation. This story from a Warm Welcome Space Co-ordinator was typical of the feedback we received:

“Although our venue is in the heart of the community not many knew about it. On promotion as a warm space, it has now been recognised. People have visited the venue and have expressed an interest in getting involved in our activities.”

And this sense of Warm Welcome Spaces becoming genuine community hubs seems to be filtering through the whole of society, with funders, Local Authorities and even National Government starting to direct their attention and their resources to build on the extraordinary work that has taken place throughout the winter months. In Birmingham, for example, the Council now talk about their 200+ Warm Welcome Spaces as ‘the new normal’ in terms of how people can find connection and support as well as accessing all kinds of public and commissioned services. And in Sheffield we’ve seen the local Citizens Advice Bureaux employ a trainer to work with Warm Spaces to upskill volunteers in order to create a more resilient system across the whole city. In was notable in our Impact Evaluation that more than 50% of Warm Welcome visitors had been signposted to other forms of support, whether on benefits, housing, mental health or legal advice.

So, what have we learned from the Impact Evaluation overall, and what are the implications for the future of Warm Welcome? The primary takeaway seems to be, as Gordon Brown often says, that Warm Welcome is “about the heating and the meeting”. That might seem like a simple observation, but we think it has huge implications. The Warm Welcome campaign was started as a response to the Cost of Living Crisis, and particularly in the context of millions of people who were unlikely to be able to keep their homes warm.  The Cost of Living Crisis isn’t likely to disappear any time soon, but it does look like energy bills will start coming down significantly in the coming months (although it’s worth noting that they are still predicted to be more than £1000 a year higher than in 2021). Should we therefore declare ‘mission accomplished’ and pack up the Warm Welcome campaign?

If Warm Welcome was a purely economic affair then that might be worth considering, but if we are equally interested in the relational impact of Warm Spaces as the material impact then it seems clear that we’re just getting started. In a study that could just as easily have been produced in the UK, the US Surgeon General recently released a report that concluded “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.” Our Impact Evaluation suggests that Warm Welcome might be the single most strategic opportunity to increase social connection in the UK, yoking together efforts to tackle economic injustice and social dislocation and giving a collective identity to thousands upon thousands of organics grassroots organisations and initiatives. With 74% of Warm Welcome Spaces saying they joined the campaign ‘to be part of something bigger’, and 78% saying they would want to be involved again next winter, we have an enormous opportunity to crowd in more and more resources towards building on the efforts of the last 9 months.

In Birmingham they sometimes talk about Warm Welcome Spaces as a flotilla, with ‘ships’ of every shape and size all operating with a common mission. So perhaps we should think of the national Warm Welcome campaign as an Armada, with thousands of faith groups, libraries, community groups, theatres, sports clubs, businesses and others fighting the dual enemies of poverty and social disconnection. And if the British Navy was once the pride of the nation and the envy of the world, then perhaps we should set our sights on Warm Welcome becoming a defining feature of British social life and an example to the world of the possibilities of modern civic revival.

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