From Covid-19 to the rising cost of living, local government have been frontline dealing with back-to-back crises. In this article, South Tyneside Council’s Leader, Tracey Dixon, outlines the intervention methods their council and partners are taking to try and help ease the financial struggles facing the most vulnerable in their community.
As councillors, there are so many challenges that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. But the cost of living crisis is of such magnitude that it is taking monumental efforts, not just from ourselves, but from a whole host of partners across South Tyneside too. If there can be a silver lining from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that, as a local authority, we gained vital experience from it.
In South Tyneside, as with other councils across the country, when the pandemic struck, we established a COBRA-style group to make sure risks were assessed and solutions were put in place in a timely fashion. Although these were testing times, the experience of the pandemic meant that when the cost of living crisis hit, we were able to respond that much more quickly and effectively.
The partnerships had already been forged. The flexibility and agility of staff and partners had already been proven. The commitment to help and support our communities is unwavering.
The cost of living crisis, following so quickly on the heels of the pandemic, has hit us hardest than most. Almost half the population of South Tyneside live within the most deprived 20% of England. So any rise in fuel or food prices was always going to most affect those already struggling or ‘just about managing.’
Last autumn, we held our first Anti-Poverty Summit which brought together partners from organisations such as:
- Faith groups;
- Community organisations;
- Food banks;
- And the NHS.
The combined efforts and determination across the board have seen rapid and effective support rolled out to those most in need. Thanks to our strong partnership, more than 70 welcoming places (formerly warm spaces) have been established across the borough in public buildings, community spaces and family hubs. Many of these have stayed open throughout the summer in recognition of the valuable role they play in combatting social isolation.
Over the past year, an evaluation has been carried out of our welcoming places by the University of Liverpool and NIHR ARC North West Coast. The research found welcoming places to be incredibly valued by those using them, with people perceiving them as ‘special places’ where they were made to feel very welcome. They were also viewed positively as a way of avoiding putting the heating on at home and as a means of reducing loneliness. Following our second Anti-Poverty Summit last month, we have affirmed our determination to support the sustainability of these places and will look to secure external funding along with our partners.
Throughout the year, with the support of our partners, we have worked at pace to help those at the sharp end of the crisis. More than 1,000 families whose children started or moved schools in September received extra financial help towards the cost of school uniforms. Those in receipt of free school meals whose children joined reception, started secondary school in year 7 or moved into junior school at year 3 from an infant school received up to £70 in vouchers to help with the cost of kitting out their children for the new school year. And because we understand that the cost of living crisis is affecting so many people just above the government threshold for help, we gave every school a payment of £600 to help support those families who aren’t eligible for free school meals with the costs of school uniforms. Our schools know their families well so by working in partnership with them we can help those families for whom other help is simply not available.
Working with our partners, we have continued to provide the Holiday Activities and Food programme. Each year, we see more and more families using these schemes with some of those accessing them describing them as a ‘godsend.’ This work was complemented by the provision of food vouchers during school holidays to families where a child is eligible for free school meals.
We are planning to introduce a fairer and more transparent Council Tax support system to help those struggling to pay their bills. By moving to a banded scheme, we will create a system which is easier for our residents to understand. Around 17,500 households are benefiting from the Council Tax Support Scheme.
The soaring prices of energy remain a key consideration for so many of our residents and to that end we have developed a fuel poverty strategy. With around 10,000 residents in South Tyneside estimated to be living in fuel poverty, this is a core pillar of our approach to tackling poverty. By working in partnership, we aim to tackle the three main causes of fuel poverty – low household income, the energy efficiency standard of a home and energy costs. The first of these will be addressed by helping residents to maximise their household income, manage their money and reduce excessive bills. Our Welfare Support Team play a pivotal role in this, helping residents navigate the benefits system to ensure they are receiving the help they are entitled to. The team also helps people recover benefits at appeal which have been stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions.
In the past year, more than £7.5m was recovered for residents. In addition, the team leads a social navigation project which provides short, intensive support to residents facing chronic financial hardship by assisting them in dealing with issues such as debt, housing and health, which are adversely impacting their financial and mental wellbeing. The work of the project helps residents with their resilience and ability to deal with the challenges they face.
As a council, our medium-term financial plan includes measures aimed directly at boosting the financial security of our residents while targeting support to try and make things fairer. This includes boosting capacity in teams tasked with combatting poverty. One example of this is the appointment of an Anti-Poverty Strategy Coordinator who is working to bring together all the anti-poverty work being carried out in the borough and to work in partnership to create a strategy to forge an inclusive economy.
Going forward, we recognise there is still much to do but with a collective determination, we believe we can continue to make a difference. At our latest Anti-Poverty Summit, we agreed that even closer collaboration with our partners was the key to helping people as effectively as possible. By working with the DWP, Age Concern, Citizens’ Advice and other partners, we will seek to drive further progress on benefits maximisation. By working with local businesses on issues of pay, conditions and flexible working, we will seek to reduce in-work poverty. Working together, we have developed a ‘Winter-readiness’ card for frontline workers, volunteers and key organisations prompting them to ask vital questions of those most at risk, allowing them to signpost them to the required help and support.
Of course, we realise that there is only so much that can be achieved by teamwork and determination. The real levers to make a difference lie with central government and so we will continue to lobby for a fairer deal for our Borough.
Although the challenges we face are huge, the way South Tyneside comes together in times of need fills me with hope. Those who are able to offer support do so without question and by harnessing that determination to make life better for those really struggling, we are seeing a difference on the ground. While acknowledging the scale of the challenge, our partnership approach is truly transformative and the list of our achievements is nothing short of incredible.
Explore our collection of resources on how local governemnt are tackling the cost of living crisis