To take genuine action, councils have to begin re-establishing real local democracy
Cambridge City Councillors, Labour, Lib Dem, Independent, Green and Tory, unanimously passed an emergency motion at the last full council meeting calling for a reconsideration of George Osborne’s ‘Emergency Budget’ measures.
Cross bench unity of this type is rare and remarkable, especially in a city where local politics is often very tribal.
Bold speeches condemning the government’s position echoed round the chambers from councillors of every colour. Concerned members of the community and stakeholders passionately defended the need for the council to provide secure affordable homes to the people of Cambridge.
But whether local government in Cambridge has the power to protect its most vulnerable residents is in extreme doubt. That alone, it does not have the power to reverse the economic trends pushing more and more people into poverty, is completely certain.
This article does not intend to be unfairly critical of local councillors and their actions to tackle poverty in Cambridge. The most revealing section of the Cambridge Commons ‘Wealth not Want’ report1 details the severe weakening of local government and its ability to meet need.
Rhetoric from ministers about devolution of power to local government has amounted to nothing more than devolving the decisions on where to make cuts, effectively shielding national politicians from the shameful task of withdrawing support from society’s most vulnerable people.
Councils will have lost roughly 37% of the central government funding they had in 2010-2011 by 2015-2016 (1). This comes as the costs of the services they provide are rising fast. Services provided by the council such as planning and housing have had to take huge cuts (between 17 & 24%) over the time of the last parliament2.
National welfare reform was seen to be significantly contributing to increased poverty locally (2), even prior to the latest announced round of cuts.
So clearly the council has a big challenge on its hands. How can it reduce poverty and its effects with fewer resources at a time when more and more people need help?
Firstly, local government must understand exactly what is happening in its backyard.
An effective assessment of the needs of specific communities at risk is vital if the increasingly scant resources available are to be directed most efficiently.
The adoption of the anti-poverty strategy and the work of the council, in partnership with other organisations as part of the ‘Child Poverty Champions Group’3, is a good start. But there is worryingly little evidence of a specific understanding of the needs facing some of the groups deemed to be at high risk.
People with disabilities are far more likely to experience poverty because of their inability to find well-paid work, coupled with a much higher average cost of living (2). The council’s anti-poverty strategy commendably recognises this.
But there is no specific investigation of the issue in Cambridge and no discussion of the varied local factors that may affect the community. Does the exorbitant cost of living in Cambridge prevent families with people with disabilities from making the necessary home adaptions? How does the polarised Cambridge job market with its low levels of unemployment affect the ability of these people to find good jobs?
The same goes for the other groups identified as being more at risk of poverty. These include the elderly, women, black and ethnic minority communities. What are the effects of the particular problems of Cambridge society; the hugely unequal job situation, the vastly inflated housing market and the high prevalence of in work benefits, on these groups?
These groups, most alarmingly, have the most to lose as welfare reform continues. We urgently need to do more to understand and monitor the effects of ‘reform’ to be able to protect these people.
Secondly, local government has to be relentless in its pursuit of policies and actions that reduce the burden on those struggling to get by.
This means targeting its decreasing resources at those who need them most, which makes sense both morally and financially.
The Cambridgeshire Local Assistance Scheme (LAS), provided by the county council, provides last ditch practical assistance to those facing destitution. Yet even this last safety net was threatened with closure last year.
Saving people from homelessness and extreme poverty is a moral obligation and will pay for itself many times over. Local government must not allow projects like this to disappear.
wanderer-814222_640A council obviously has a duty to all its residents. But those on lowest incomes face the toughest challenges. Regarding housing, average house prices are now 13.7 times that of the average wage. But for those on low incomes, who have seen a bigger wage drop in comparison to even cheaper homes in the city, the figure is 16 times4.
Though finance is now hard to come by, all additional investment in at risk communities prevents costlier work in the long run. Preventing the accumulation of debt arrears for example is far cheaper than paying the cost of emergency accommodation following an eviction. And repairing the damage done emotionally and mentally to families who are homeless or in huge debt is a herculean task.
So the council must focus its resources more and more on those who need them the most.
Crucially, there must also be zero tolerance of policies that will worsen the situation.
No housebuilding if affordable housing is not substantially included. Currently even ex-council land is supporting the development of expensive student housing in place of genuinely affordable homes5.
And no invitation to investment and plans that put economic growth in the region ahead of the wellbeing of local residents. ‘Wealth not Want’ makes it clear beyond doubt, economic growth in Cambridge is actively making life worse for many of its people. The council has a duty not to contribute further to this trend, however unpopular this may be.
If there is to be any hope, councils need to work together to halt the flood of policies from government that further weaken their ability to serve local communities. As stated at the start of this article, Cambridge Council showed remarkable unity to condemn the latest of Osborne’s measures. But alone they are powerless. And they will be the first to be blamed by local people who struggle to afford housing, energy and transport. To be able to take genuine action councils must attempt to start the process of re-establishing real local democracy.
This will not be easy. The council faces significant challenges in a number of regards. But there is also room to do much more.
There are also a number of measures, not currently within the power of local government, which could be taken to ease the pressures on the cost of living and reduce poverty. Clearly there is a growing need to think imaginatively about how to solve these problems. In the third article of this series these will be examined.
- Cambridge: Wealth not Want, The Cambridge Commons
- Anti-Poverty Strategy
Reproduced and edited with permission of the author: