26th April 2020
Today started with a discussion with a local journalist on child poverty here in Cambridge and ended in total frustration at the apparent inability of the UK government to organise a free school meal voucher scheme that actually works. One that maybe gets food to children and families that need support. We are starting to hear about families, here and across the UK, who are unable to use the vouchers provided in the supermarkets, because their systems don’t recognise them. The solution? To print them at home on their non-existent printers and go back. That’s just not feasible for many parents, so children are going hungry or, more often, their parents are going without.
When the journalist asked what practical measures we, as local councillors, could take to address child poverty here in Cambridge, the initial answer that sprang to mind was – as it often is – that we need major national structural change. An overhaul of the benefits system. More secure employment with better conditions and fairer wages. All of which is, of course, much harder to make happen.
It can be frustrating fighting against this mixture of inaction and inefficiency from central government. The DfE knew who children on free school meals (FSM) were. They had the evidence on food poverty and they knew this was coming. They were offered solutions, and they ignored them. All of them.
We have just reached the end of the first month of a revised version of our holiday lunch scheme that delivers out meals to families across Cambridge who are at risk of food poverty. The level of frustration rises when we look at the amount of effort volunteers are putting into getting their communities fed and contrast it with the inadequacies of the FSM voucher scheme.
We are currently developing our third iteration of Cambridge’s anti-poverty strategy. There are real pockets of hidden poverty here and, while we are a wealthy city overall, hidden behind that prosperity is considerable (and growing) inequality. For example, the difference in life expectancy between Kings Hedges ward in the north of the city and the more prosperous centre is ten years. Our anti-poverty strategy is an attempt to tackle this, not just through providing support for those who are struggling but also trying to ensure we deal with the underlying causes.
At a time of government cuts to council funding, we try to find the money we need to support the strategy. We employ a Living Wage officer to encourage local businesses to sign up to the real living wage. We give well over a million pounds’ worth of grants to voluntary and community groups who are working with those in need, including the homeless. We support digital inclusion projects, debt advice, support for people on universal credit, cookery classes, food poverty initiatives, and offer free exercise referrals from GPs. We do our best to make sure that our public spaces are a great place to relax and exercise for those in cramped homes with no gardens, and we have secured funding to build over 500 new council homes.
COVID-19 has underlined both the challenges we face in Cambridge and the strengths within the community we serve as a council. Almost overnight, a network of mutual aid groups has sprung up, with neighbours offering support to each other. Local charities, voluntary groups, residents’ associations and businesses stepped forward to offer help, as did hundreds of individual volunteers. Thousands of pounds have been raised for relief efforts, and hundreds of food parcels have been donated. Our city officers have been working to help co-ordinate this effort, providing practical and financial support to groups and helping to set up a network of ward clusters, feeding into a central co-ordination point and helplines. Things have moved fast, without many of the barriers that can often slow down progress, thanks in large part to the agility and responsiveness of officers. Their readiness to adapt to new ways of working is something we, as councillors, need to support.
This all sounds wonderful, and it is. Its moving to see our city community responding so positively. Almost every day we see overwhelming acts of generosity.
But the fact is that whilst some of this work has been made necessary by social distancing measures, we are also feeding families who were in need before and will still be in need afterwards. Probably even more so. As a group we are now thinking through what our strategy needs to be over the coming months as we regroup and rebuild.
1. Keep things moving quickly and encourage more flexibility
We will need to look at how we were able to move so swiftly to help, and to see what we can do to maintain that responsiveness. Government structures, whether at the local or the national level, aren’t particularly known for the speed with which they usually move. They can be unwieldy and get in the way of progress. But the current crisis has shown that change can happen, and new schemes can be quickly set up to respond to emerging needs.
2. Harness the power of the hyper-local
Communities have really stepped up over the past few weeks to support their more vulnerable members. Residents – whose knowledge of their neighbourhoods is invaluable – are working with councillors and officers, as well as lead organisations identified for each ward, to identify where the needs are and to find the right solutions. This is something we have not seen happening before, and we want to make sure it continues into the autumn and beyond.
3. Engage with residents’ expertise
We need to keep these conversations going, focusing on communities’ strengths. We will all have to think about how we can work in a better, more creative way with our whole communities – to value their contributions more, listen to their ideas more effectively, and to see what we can all do to make our city, as our Labour council’s tagline puts it, “One Cambridge, fair for all”.
This is particularly true when it comes to putting the finishing touches to the new anti-poverty strategy. Too often, people in poverty are seen in terms of deficits, rather than what they bring to the table. We need to build in that sense of community ownership, of strength and resilience.
Not that that lets central government off the hook. Above all, we must keep putting pressure on central government to fund councils properly, and to end the austerity measures that have tipped so many people, including so many working people, over the poverty line. The answer from central government after this crisis is over cannot be to use these community efforts to withdraw even further from addressing poverty and inequality.
Rather, it should be what happened after World War Two, a complete rethinking of what matters to us as a society, and a renewed, properly funded, programme to ensure that people will never again be left behind.