Almost every day for the last few months we have seen more evidence of Britain’s cost of living crisis: more and more people are reporting that food is unaffordable to them, that they are avoiding using their ovens because they cost too much to run, that they can’t afford the petrol to visit elderly parents, that they have never used food banks before but expect they will need to now.
Councils up and down the country – but especially in the most deprived areas – will be deeply worried by this. Firstly because of the human cost to their residents, especially coming after two exceptionally tough years. And secondly because having more people living in poverty makes things harder and more expensive for local authorities. If they are social tenants, they may fall into arrears on their bills. If they are private tenants, they may become homeless and need temporary accommodation (we have a separate project on this). They may not be able to pay their council tax. Extra pressure on families may mean they are more likely to need social care support. The list goes on.
While the crisis has been caused, at least in part, by international circumstances beyond the government’s control, it is in the government’s power to address it. First and most urgently, they must raise benefits so they meet the true cost of living, uprating them by the current inflation rate (not the one from last summer) and reinstating the £20 a week Universal Credit uplift which was in place at the height of the pandemic. Second, they must deliver a large scale programme for increasing domestic energy efficiency: home insulation, new windows and heat pumps, with carrots and sticks for private landlords to take part as well. This would create jobs, cut bills, and help the UK meet its net zero targets – it is a win on many levels, and it’s hard to see why the government isn’t going further with it.
But in the absence of effective government action, many councils are looking at what they can do themselves. This is hard, because benefits are set centrally, and because their main lever for raising more money is council tax – a nastily regressive tax which hits the poor hardest. But there are some ideas which are worth pursuing.
Firstly, councils can try to make sure that everyone in their area is claiming all the benefits they can. Some benefits – like pension credit, and the childcare element of Universal Credit – are particularly likely to be unclaimed. Pension credit is especially important as it is a gateway to many other benefits including free TV licences for over 75s, and help with energy costs. Some people who are entitled don’t apply because claiming benefits in this country is highly stigmatised and people assume that they are only for those who are out of work – which isn’t true. Similarly, they might be able to crack down on minimum wage underpayment in their area. Or they might be able to fund small scale, local home insulation programmes, deliver fuel vouchers for vulnerable groups, or work with local non-profit groups to set up or enhance local food banks and their equivalents, like Little Village or the Lewisham Bank of Things. It is really not right for people who need baby clothes or tampons, school supplies or groceries to have to get them from a charity. But it is better than not getting them at all.
At Centre for London, we want to do more work on this – looking at the evidence on what councils have tried to support residents in poverty, how much it has cost, and how well it has worked, so we can suggest what might work in the tough year to come. If you’d like to support this work, please get in touch with our Research Director Claire Harding.