Many councils are making heroic efforts to support their communities during the cost of living crisis. Councillor Ruth Berkley from South Tyneside Council outlines their approach with partners and wonders why this is necessary at all in one of the world’s richest economies. Find out more about the work of councils to support their constituents during this cost of living crisis.
Find out about more approaches to the cost of living crisis in our collection of resources.
South Tyneside is an amazing borough full of history, passionate people and beautiful natural and coastal assets, as well as an innovative business base which is leading the way on the green economy, from minewater and electric vehicles to offshore wind. However, as one of the most deprived areas of the country, poverty has been an issue in South Tyneside for many years. Back in 2019 the People Select Committee started an in-depth investigation to ensure the Council was doing all it could to help people escape poverty while supporting those in difficult circumstances. Little did we know then that things were set to get so much worse. Firstly, the pandemic plunged many of our residents into dire straits while those already struggling with their finances found things so much harder. Now a cost-of-living crisis is making life so much tougher for many more of our residents, including middle income earners who have never struggled financially before.
The extent of the challenge cannot be understated. South Tyneside is an area of deprivation with almost half its population living within the most deprived 20 per cent of England. Over the last three months our Welfare Support Team has seen a doubling of applications for local welfare provision, Citizens Advice has seen a 23 per cent increase in clients over the last six months, the number of those in work accessing food banks has risen and we are seeing a rise in loan shark activity.
The reality is stark and there is little sign that we can expect things to improve any time soon given the current macroeconomic picture.
So the problems are huge but if there is one thing that sets South Tyneside apart it is our partnership working and determination to pull together for the benefit of our residents. We recently organised a cost-of-living summit which demonstrated this fact. More than 60 representatives from 28 organisations including charities, faith groups, food banks, the NHS, transport and other partners joined the Council to see how we could effectively respond to the challenges.
Direct action has already been taken. Since the summit, the Council has launched its Warm Spaces. More than 50 spaces in venues such as our public buildings, community centres, churches and charities are now available where people can beat the chill and the cost of living as well as access free activities.
A cost-of-living directory of support has also been prepared, highlighting the breadth of support people can access, from food banks and debt advice to subsidised travel and energy efficiency.
Moves will also be taken to better promote the Welfare Support Service which helps people navigate the benefits system to ensure they are receiving the help they are entitled to. Last year the team secured £4.6million for residents who were either not claiming the benefits they were entitled to or recovered benefits at appeal which had been stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions. Our debt caseworkers are currently advising people with a total debt of £863,624.63. Last year our team helped their clients write-off or manage £672,000 of debt, allowing people to spend their money on essential living costs instead of throwing it at bad debt. The impact of this work is simply transformative and we are looking to see if we can boost capacity in the team to allow more people to be helped.
We are also looking to establish an online cost-of-living support hub which would allow ourselves and our partners to see where demand is greatest and ensure we all have access to the most up to date support for residents and can target it effectively. This includes regular partner surveys and intelligence reports to enable us to look at the issues in real time. This is not a situation that one organisation can tackle independently so signposting to one another and using each other’s resources and expertise will be critical.
As a Council, we already support vulnerable people through donations to the Borough’s food banks with more than £440,000 given since 2020/21. Going forward, we, together with our partners, will consider how to support the expansion of community shops and pantries which provide subsidised food. We are also considering further dedicated support and funding to debt advice agencies which have seen a surge in demand as well as how we can work with local businesses to maximise support, be that on funding or volunteering. We are also taking a partnership approach to the Household Support Fund by working with partners to identify those just above the benefits line but who are really struggling and in need of support.
Despite our strenuous efforts, there is only so much that local government can do. Our Leader, Councillor Tracey Dixon, has already written to the Chancellor to highlight the devastating impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on our residents and to call for additional support. We believe there is a genuine safeguarding issue and need more support to be able to help our residents through this incredibly challenging time. Letters have also been sent to the energy companies to ask them for more support for those hardest hit by soaring energy prices.
Despite high levels of deprivation, I am uplifted by the resilience that is shown by the people of South Tyneside. I am also proud that as communities we pull together in adversity. This was shown very clearly in the pandemic and that resilience will be needed again now. When times are hard, we support each other and our sense of community shines through. There is also a determination and a willingness from those with the means to offer support to pool our resources to best effect. It is only by working together that we can seek to make a real difference to those at the sharp end of this crisis. Strong partnerships and a genuine desire to be part of the solution are what sets us apart. The question remains, however, whether this ought to be necessary in the fifth richest country in the world.
Cllr Ruth Berkley is the Lead Member for the Voluntary Sector, Partnerships and Equality, South Tyneside Council