The UK Cost of Living Crisis: Soaring energy prices, closed restaurants, salary stagnation – see what residents are saying about this pressing issue
The United Kingdom finds itself in the worst cost of living crisis since the 1970s, as prices have increased by 11.1% since last year. As with any national or global phenomenon, the cost of living crisis is not a theoretical debate, but a tangibly felt issue impacting the daily lives of residents and the local community. In light of the topic’s urgency and following requests from Zencity’s partner communities in the UK, we looked at how the growing cost of living crisis is being discussed across communities in the UK.
Part 1: Soaring energy prices and their impact on individuals and businesses are the top concern
From May to October 2022, the online conversation about the cost of living consisted of 637K resident feedback points (or interactions). It is not surprising that the topic generated 2x higher negative sentiment than positive (24% and 12%, respectively), as residents mainly spoke about this topic with concern, alarm, and dissatisfaction.
The cost of living is a broad topic, encompassing and affecting many aspects of life. To better understand how UK residents speak about the crisis, Zencity looked at the various issues referenced and discussed in the context of this crisis.
Energy prices: The main issue surrounding residents’ conversations over the past six months related to the rising energy prices and consequent concerns about the looming winter, which accounted for 13% of all cost of living conversations. A significant amount of discourse was centred around the effects of rising energy costs on small businesses, many of which will be forced to close down due to their inability to pay rising utility bills. Residents’ ability to heat their homes was also a leading concern.
Residents lamented the lack of government-led initiatives and the urgent need for them to step in and do something about the impending crisis, referencing the lack of a “functioning government.” Many also mentioned the inadequacy of government grants, expressing that they needed to tackle the core issue and not just cushion the consequences of it.
Employment and strikes: Conversations about salaries not keeping up with the rising costs of living and layoffs (in many cases, due to businesses struggling to keep afloat due to utility costs) were also prominent issues, as were conversations about labour strikes taking place across the country.
Restaurants and bars: As noted, loved local pubs and eateries closing due to difficulty paying energy bills was a driver of negative sentiment, as residents expressed sadness about the loss of loved institutions in their communities. In many cases, residents expressed concern about how closing businesses will affect the local landscape, with many towns expected to become increasingly derelict, continuing the damage left by the economic implications of Covid-19.
Community service and charity: Conversations about food banks, available aid and resources for those struggling to keep afloat, and stories of charity and aid provided by residents or businesses also emerged as a leading topic of conversation – reflecting the need for solidarity. In one case, a local library offering itself as a place where residents could benefit from heating warmth received a particularly high positive reaction. Similarly, restaurants offering free food and drink to children in need and struggling families also received positive sentiment, as well as the provision of advice and guidance on tackling the cost of living crisis.
Part 2: A partner city drills down on the cost of living conversation in its community
Given the growing urgency of this situation, and in the hope of finding ways to communicate with its residents about this topic and provide assistance, one of Zencity’s partner communities in the UK sought to better understand the cost of living conversation among its residents. The Council asked for an analysis of the main themes and concerns voiced by their residents, as well as insight into whether residents are aware and appreciative of available aid programs provided by the Council.
Using Zencity Organic to track conversations and understand discourse across hundreds of online channels specific to this community, we were able to provide the Council with several key insights:
Energy costs are the leading cause of concern: Much like the rest of the country, the leading issue in the cost of living discourse was the rising energy prices, primarily for homes. 32% of all online conversations about the cost of living centred on the topic of Electricity and Gas and 47% of all negative interactions were related to this topic. Drivers of conversation were news stories about residents expressing concern that they would be unable to heat their homes during winter, conversations about energy consumption and conservation, and crippling school energy costs.
Private charities and donations are the central drivers of positive feedback: Community Service and Activism accounted for 18% of the online conversation, led by local food banks and a story about a resident raising money through a JustGiving campaign to buy food. Community and charity support generated 42% of all positive interactions, mainly reflecting gratitude for the service provided by the charity and the people who donated. The response to posts by the food banks was split between appreciation and thanks and expressions of need and intent to take advantage of the service being offered.
By contrast, reference to Council’s programs or policies is minimal – yet critical: Notably, references to the Council or its assistance program were negligible in the cost of living discourse, making up less than 1% of the conversation. Reference to the Council was primarily made in response to news reports about investments, such as cycling lanes, which elicited criticism about misplaced spending, given the economic struggle experienced by residents.
Additionally, comments about the struggle of living costs emerged in response to other services provided by the Council, such as a breastfeeding support group or posts promoting fitness through swimming. Commenters argued that residents could not take advantage of such services – as they literally could not afford to travel there.
The cost of living concern permeates other aspects of the conversation: As noted, rising energy costs were the leading cause of alarm, yet the cost of living issue emerged across numerous topics of conversation in the city. Residents also noted the rising prices of alcohol in pubs, the cost of feminine hygiene products, wage stagnation, and the impact of financial hardships on people’s health (malnutrition and mental health, specifically).
Part 3: What does this mean for local councils?
Only 4% of the conversation about the cost of living crisis has been initiated and driven by local councils – with local news and charities making up the bulk of the conversation about this pressing and urgent issue. A disconnect between residents and their local councils on an acutely felt issue speaks to either lack of expectation from local councils to provide remedies and assistance or a lack of awareness about the availability of such services and resources.
The cost of living crisis is a national challenge, impacted by geo-political events, like the war in Ukraine, and political developments on the national level. The discourse indicates that residents understand this, attributing the crisis to a range of factors – the UK government, the Russia-Ukraine war, and energy corporations – but do not assign blame to their local councils.
However, residents are also aware that the cost of living crisis will manifest itself tangibly in their local communities: restaurants they have long loved will be closed, their neighbours will struggle to afford their children’s school uniforms or Christmas gifts, and food banks will be overburdened with demand.
Our UK partner community, seeing the report about the cost of living conversation among its community, acknowledged that it had to do considerably more to inform the public about its aid program and adapt its communications more broadly to be sensitive and attuned to the struggles facing its residents.