The United Kingdom is facing its worst cost-of-living crisis since the 1970s, as prices have risen 11.1% since last year. The cost of living crisis is not a theoretical debate, but a tangible problem that affects the daily lives of residents and the local community. Given the urgency of the issue, and at the request of Zencity’s partner communities in the UK, we explored how the growing cost of living crisis is being discussed in communities across the UK.
Part 1: Key Concerns
From May to October 2022, online discussion of the cost of living included 637,000 resident feedback points (or interactions). Not surprisingly, the topic generated twice as many negative responses as positive ones (24% and 12%, respectively), with people mainly expressing concern, alarm, and dissatisfaction.
The cost of living is a broad topic that encompasses and affects many aspects of life. To better understand how residents are experiencing and talking about the crisis, Zencity examined the various issues raised and discussed in online discussions across the UK.
Energy prices. The main topic of conversation among residents over the past six months has been rising energy prices and resulting concerns about the upcoming winter. This accounted for 13% of all conversations about cost of living. Much of the conversation centered on the impact of rising energy costs on small businesses. These businesses may be forced to close because they can no longer pay rising utility bills. The ability of residents to heat their homes was also a major concern.
Residents lamented the lack of government initiatives and the urgent need for the government to step in. Citing the lack of “functioning government,” many also mentioned inadequate government grants and expressed the need to address the core problem, not just cushion the impact.
Employment and strikes. Talks about salaries not keeping pace with the rising cost of living and layoffs (in many cases due to companies struggling to survive due to utility costs) were also important topics. Talks about labor strikes taking place across the country were also common.
Restaurants and bars. As noted above, the closure of popular local pubs and restaurants due to difficulties in paying energy bills was one reason for the negative sentiment. Residents expressed distress at the loss of popular establishments in their communities. In many cases, residents expressed concern about how the closure of businesses will affect the local landscape, with many towns expected to become increasingly deserted and the damage left by Covid-19’s economic impact to persist.
Community service and charity. Conversations about food banks and other resources for those struggling to stay afloat, as well as stories of charity and help from residents or businesses, also became major topics of conversation. Positive conversations included the opening of a library as a warm place for local people, restaurants offering free meals to families in need, and organizations offering advice and help in coping with rising costs.
Part 2: A Case Study from a UK Partner Community
Given the increasing urgency of this situation, and hoping to find ways to communicate with residents about the issue and provide assistance, one of Zencity’s partner communities in the UK wanted to better understand the cost-of-living conversations of its residents. The council asked for an analysis of the key issues and concerns residents were expressing online, as well as insight into whether people were aware of and appreciated the support programmes the community had put in place.
Using Zencity Organic to track conversations across hundreds of online channels specific to this community, we were able to provide several key insights:
As in other parts in the UK, energy costs are the leading cause of concern. Similar to the rest of the country, rising energy prices were the top issue in this borough. 32% of all online conversations about the cost of living revolved around energy, which accounted for 47% of all negative interactions. Top topics of conversation included residents’ concerns about not being able to heat their homes in the winter, energy consumption and conservation, and the crippling costs of schools.
Charities and community initiatives are the central drivers of positive feedback. Community groups and local activism accounted for 18% of online conversations, led by local food banks and an account of a resident raising money to buy food through a JustGiving campaign. This topic accounted for 42% of all positive interactions, mainly reflecting gratitude for the services provided by charities and the people who donated. Responses to food bank contributions were split between appreciation and expressions of need.
Discussion of Council policies is minimal, yet often critical.Comments about the Council or its aid programmes were negligible and accounted for less than 1% of the conversation. When reference was made to the Council, it was mainly in response to news reports about investments such as cycle paths, which were criticised as inappropriate spending given the economic difficulties faced by many residents. The council’s advertising of services such as a breastfeeding group or swimming lessons was also criticised as residents were unable to take up these offers due to travel costs.
Cost of living concerns are widespread. The rising cost of energy was the main cause for concern, but the issue of the cost of living came up in numerous conversations in the city. Residents also pointed to the rising price of alcohol in pubs, the cost of feminine hygiene products, wage stagnation and the impact of financial hardship on people’s health (particularly malnutrition and mental health).
Part 3: What does this mean for councils?
The analysis shows that residents do not blame their communities. Rather, they attribute the crisis to a range of factors, including the British government, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and energy companies. However, the impact is undeniably local: favourite restaurants are closing, neighbours cannot afford school uniforms for their children, food banks are overwhelmed with demand.
However, our data shows that only 4% of the online conversation about the crisis was initiated and led by councils, with local news outlets and charities driving the bulk of the conversation. This lack of engagement suggests councils are not doing enough to engage with their residents on these issues, or raise awareness of their services and resources.
Following our report on the cost of living conversation among its community, our UK partner city acknowledged it needed to do considerably more to inform the public about its support programmes, and to adapt its communication to better meet the needs of residents.