A TOP Citizens Advice official has revealed they expect to see a 60 per cent increase in the number of people who want help as living costs soar.

Victoria Rowe, bureau chief executive for the West Devon and Torridge area, told councillors that there were concerns that vulnerable people who need help were slipping through their net.

Ms Rowe, who was speaking to the authorities overview and scrutiny committee, said they were also still trying to gauge the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on residents with less volunteer staff.

She said they faced a tough battle trying to help more people with less staff.

Mrs Rowe said they had lost almost half of their volunteer staff – some of them unwilling to return to face to face meetings because of the threat of Covid –  although that number was beginning to recover.

Ms Rowe was speaking as prices rose by 6.2 per cent in the 12 months to February – the fastest increase for three decades – as fuel, energy and food costs surged. Prices are rising faster than wages with the Bank of England believing it could hit double digits this year.

She told the committee that a fuller report would be available for next month, but that in the previous six months, the bureaux in Tavistock and Okehampton had helped 1,000 residents and guided them through 2,000 problems.

They had managed to support people in claiming benefits worth £400,000, although that figure was expected to at least double by the time the annual report is published.

Ms Rowe said some of the main problems they were seeing involved people facing debts, with that number on the rise, and helping them to claim benefits.

She told councillors that 300 residents had been helped with debt problems in the last six months with some of those concerning ‘maxed out’ credit cards. There was also a rise in worries about fuel debts.

Ms Rowe said a lot of their was done digitally, but added it was known that 20 per cent of vulnerable people were ‘not able to manage a digital service’.

She said: ‘Prior to Covid, we had 150 volunteers and we lost 70 of them after the pandemic. Most stepped down, but there were some who were reluctant to do face to face meetings (with residents) even though the restrictions were easing.

‘You have to balance that against the increase in demand for our services.We recruited during November and we have recovered some of those and we’ve got 90 volunteers, but it takes many months to train someone and so they are ready to support people.’

The committee heard that the charity was only able to support 45 per cent of the people in need of them at the moment, which she admitted was not a happy position to be in.

She said: ‘We are just understanding the impact of Covid and we are expecting to see a 60 per cent increase in people struggling over the next two financial years. Our priority is how we address that and how we only manage to see 45 per cent of the people. It is an honest statement to say we have a battle ahead of us.’

West Devon Borough Council has agreed a three year funding, with the bureau being awarded £32,900 a year. They are now in year two.