On the face of it, it’s a mystery: how does the affluent, Tory-voting home counties town of High Wycombe find itself the UK’s number one hotspot for hunger and food insecurity?
Roughly one in seven households in the Wycombe district of Buckinghamshire, among England’s most prosperous areas, went hungry during the last lockdown, while one in three struggled to access food, according to a Sheffield University study. Its unexpected ranking as the nation’s hunger capital has raised eyebrows locally, but few dispute it.
“That parts of Wycombe are struggling isn’t really public,” says Lisa, a single mother. “But there are definitely lots of areas around the town where people are struggling. All my neighbours complain about the cost of living; they all say they are working just to make ends meet.”
She herself has found it tricky to keep afloat on her monthly universal credit payment of £1,300. She gives a quick run-down of her spending; after rent and food and energy bills, there is barely anything left over. “I feel I’m just one big bill from going massively into the red,” she says.
She was unaware until speaking to the Guardian that the government planned to cut universal credit by £20 a week in the autumn. “That’s terrible. It’s a lot of money for me – a week’s food shopping, or five days of the electricity meter in the winter. It’s hard to imagine how I’m going to make it work.”
The Sheffield study has stirred much debate in Wycombe and brought to the fore wider issues that some locally might once have thought only affected deprived areas: rampant inequality, a sense that the town is drifting economically, the high cost of living, in-work poverty and universal credit problems.
Julia Wassell, a Wycombe Independence party councillor, says that while deprivation indicators suggest the area is relatively well off, there is persistent, hidden poverty, particularly in High Wycombe. “In some parts the issues are more urban inner city than the ‘leafy Bucks’ stereotype”.
Wassell recalls delivering food parcels to newly hungry households under intense financial strain during lockdown. Several had cookers or fridges that had broken down and had been unable to afford to replace them. “I’d put a £50 microwave under my arm and deliver it with the food parcels,” she says.
The One Can Trust food bank, based in a warehouse behind High Wycombe railway station, has experienced at first hand the local surge in hunger over the last 16 months. Before March 2020, it gave out food parcels to 80 households each week. This March it helped 300 households, supporting 670 people each week.
One Can Trust’s chair, Graham Peart, a retired businessman and former Conservative councillor, says demand has eased off since then to 170 households a week. But he is nervous about a potential explosion of need in the autumn, when furlough is fully withdrawn and the £20 Covid bonus to universal credit is stopped.
Peart wants to see more practical support and advice for struggling families, and a more generous universal credit system, including a relaxation of its tough loan repayment conditions: “Why are we struggling away trying to fix the consequences of poverty, when we should be fixing poverty itself?”
At Hills cafe, a not-for-profit business in the heart of Micklefield, a former council estate on the edge of the town, co-founder Matt Knight reflects on the town’s startling inequalities: there is a 13-year gap in male life expectancy between Micklefield and the village of Penn and Tyler’s Green, a few minutes’ drive away to the east, reflecting an entrenched wealth divide.
Those inequalities put a lot of pressure on residents “to look like you are doing well” even when you are struggling, says Knight. The pandemic revealed that many households had only just been managing, even if they were working. When income dried up overnight, the choice was paying the rent or eating regularly.
Tristan Tipping, who helped set up a food kitchen for struggling families at Buckingham University last autumn, says the scale of hunger in High Wycombe has come as a shock: “It was suddenly right in front of you, on your doorstep: parents who were struggling to feed their children.”
In a relatively affluent place like Wycombe, it was easy to be oblivious of people going hungry, he says, until the pandemic brought the issue into the open. “Some donors to the food kitchen were entirely unaware. They thought poverty was happening in the north-east of England or somewhere, but not in their town.”
Trevor Snaith, who helps run Wycombe community food hub, serving 100 people a week with cut-price food parcels, says before the pandemic, many people would never have dreamed they would need charity help. He delivered one food parcel to a home in Daws Hill, where houses sell for £750,000. “They don’t realise they are just two pay cheques away from the edge until it is too late.”