How can we go about tackling poverty in the aftermath of the pandemic?
By Graham Whitham, Director GMPA
Although the future spread of COVID-19 in the UK is uncertain, with concerns about further waves of the virus, minds are turning to how we recover economically and socially from the pandemic. Of importance will be understanding how we support the recovery in areas and communities hit hardest by the virus. To do this, the country can’t simply return to doing things in the same way as they were being done prior to the lockdown. The way the UK economy has functioned, and the way public services have been delivered and funded over the last ten years has reinforced longstanding inequalities and left some places and communities more prone to the pandemic than others.
How places shape the recovery is going to be crucial in the fight against poverty. How our local economies function, how localities use what powers they do have over the welfare, health and social care systems and how services shift away from crisis responses (necessary over the last 12 weeks) and towards prevention and early intervention, will all dictate the scale and nature the issue at a local level over the next ten years.
A common challenge for local decision makers is that many of the main drivers of poverty lie with central government. This can sap energy from responses to the problem and result in councils and their partners picking up the pieces; dealing with the consequences of poverty as opposed to dealing with the root causes. Spending cuts over the last ten years have exacerbated this challenge. In places up and down the UK we have seen many preventative services, the results of which may be harder to evaluate or not understood for years, withdrawn as local authorities and their partners are forced into making short-term budgetary decisions.
The consequence of this is a strong focus on mitigation, often dependent on crisis response services such as foodbanks delivered by the voluntary and community sector or food and energy vouchers delivered through local welfare assistance schemes. These responses deliver easily quantifiable short-term results at relatively low-cost, but don’t offer people a pathway out of poverty. It is perhaps not surprising that the number of foodbanks in Greater Manchester has rocketed from an estimated 11 in 2012 to 133 today (with a further 49 food pantries/ clubs and 38 meal providers focusing on supporting people on low incomes identified by GMPA) at a time when the capacity of welfare rights teams and funding for financial inclusion work has reduced.
A way forward in Greater Manchester
These issues will come into sharper focus in Greater Manchester over the coming months and years. The city region is home to 620,000 people living below the low-income poverty line and is beset by strong economic, health and other inequalities. Universal Credit claimant data since the onset of the lockdown has shown an increased level of need, and all ten boroughs are facing higher costs and reductions in income.
There are already some good examples of strategic approaches to dealing with poverty in Greater Manchester, but all areas will need to prioritise the issue if we are to ensure it doesn’t become more entrenched. GMPA believes each locality should adopt a strategic framework that would make tackling poverty a strategic priority and that it is taken into account in all areas of decision making, policy development and service design. This latter point is of heightened importance in light of the severe financial pressures public bodies will be facing over the coming months and years. As difficult decisions about budgets are made, it will be vital to consider the impact of all spending decisions on those on low incomes and we must get the balance right between focussing resources on reduction and prevention of poverty and mitigation.
A draft framework for tackling poverty
Figure 1 sets out the draft framework developed by GMPA. It is based on our work over recent years, from work in Scotland (where localities are required to develop Local Child Poverty Action Reports) and from existing and past local poverty strategies developed in places across the UK.
Figure 1: GMPA – Draft framework for tackling poverty at a local level version 1.0 (June 2020)
The framework should be adopted by relevant public bodies in each locality. Whilst councils will always be central to poverty strategy development, this is a crosscutting agenda that can only be successfully addressed through partnership working. The Scottish Child Poverty Act recognises the important role health has to play in this agenda, and as such, the requirement on localities north of the border to report annually on what they are doing to reduce child poverty falls on both local authorities and health boards. The framework could also be applied at a combined authority level.
The key elements of the framework
The history of successfully implementing local poverty strategies in the UK is mixed. There is much to learn from what has and hasn’t been effective. Strategies are only successful if they are supported by the other elements identified in the framework. All of these elements are complementary and interdependent. A strategy will only be successfully developed and implemented if it is informed by people who have experienced poverty, is built around strong partnership working, is ‘owned’ and championed by strategic leads with the necessary seniority within their organisation/s and only if progress is tracked against metrics relevant to the nature and scale of poverty in the area.
Strategies can only be successful if all decisions being taken, policies being implemented and services being designed by an organisation share the aims of the strategy and are considered against their impact on poverty.
Local socio-economic duties, like the one adopted by Newcastle City Council, can help enable this to happen in a systematic way and would complement existing legal duties on public bodies equalities legislation.
To develop the discussion about tackling poverty in the aftermath of the pandemic further, we are holding a webinar at 10.30am on Thursday 25th June. At the event we will consider a number of the issues discussed in this article. You can register for the Webinar here (the full agenda will be released shortly). We will publish an updated version of the framework on the GMPA website in July. Subsequent webinars in July will focus in on the key policy areas of decent work and local socio-economic duties.