Jack Brown: Londoners were resilient during the pandemic but more hardship is coming

Jack Brown: Londoners were resilient during the pandemic but more hardship is coming

The Greater London Authority’s second mass Survey of Londoners, a major study providing great insights into the lives of the capital’s citizens, has been published. Consulting 8,630 Londoners at the end of 2021 and building on work from 2018-19, the survey also provides a detailed and useful snapshot of how the pandemic affected London life.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how little appears to have changed in terms of Londoners’ finances. For the report’s authors, the survey demonstrates their “resilience” throughout the pandemic. Government support, such as the Treasury’s furlough scheme, appears to have done its job, perhaps alongside non-governmental efforts by mutual aid groups and food banks. The average Londoner is not significantly worse off than beforehand. The percentage of lower income adults reporting food insecurity has not changed between surveys, at 44%.

In fact, the economic situation across the capital had actually improved by the end of 2021, with fewer adult Londoners reporting being “food insecure” than in 2018-19. There are also fewer with unsecured debts to pay (down by 5% to just under a third) and the percentage of Londoners with less than £1,500 in savings had dropped from a third to a quarter. Although this does not apply to all Londoners, it should be a relief to policymakers to discover that, at least by some measures of economic security, Londoners as a whole have not been left worse off by the pandemic. However, there are two important caveats.

Firstly, it is important to remember that this survey was undertaken before the first rise in the energy price cap and, arguably, before the worst effects of the cost-of-living crisis hit. In this survey, 13% of Londoners reported being unable to keep their homes warm enough in winter. It should go without saying that this figure is still too high, but it was almost exactly the same as in 2018-19. Sadly, though, we should expect it to increase this year. Secondly, among Londoners on low incomes – defined as earning less than £14,900 a year – it rises to almost a third.

Overall, hardship measures tend to correlate – those experiencing food insecurity are less likely to have savings, more likely to have debts and find those debts a ‘heavy burden’, to report being unable to keep their homes warm enough in winter, and to use food banks. And of those who reported using food banks, around a quarter were in insecure employment (defined as being on a temporary contract, agency employment or self-employed in a job considered insecure), and a quarter were on state benefits.

Whilst some Londoners appear to have built up savings during the pandemic, those without a degree were much more likely not to have savings of over £1,500 by the end of 2021. Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Londoners, alongside those of mixed ethnicity, were also particularly less likely to have savings to rely on.

Some of this may seem obvious, but it demonstrates the interconnected vulnerability that exists in the capital at the bottom end of the income scale, and the inequalities inherent in who is exposed. With the national economic picture seemingly quite bleak, great inequality persists across the capital, and many will be particularly vulnerable to cost of living and energy shocks. And while the percentages of Londoners in economically vulnerable positions may not grab headlines, the capital’s sheer size means they represent huge numbers of people. In response, Sadiq Khan has called for a “lifeline tariff” as part of a package of “Covid-style” economic measures to support Londoners most at risk.

As winter approaches, there is support already available. Londoners are aware of some of this, particularly food banks and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, but there is much less public awareness of other sources of help, such as the Law Centres Network, employment rights hubs, or Debt Free London. Awareness is lower among non-UK born Londoners, Muslim Londoners, Londoners who said they were not proficient in English, and Londoners who have lived in London for more than five years. Nearly half of Londoners not proficient in English also said they were not well informed of their employment rights.

A major, targeted information campaign could help improve this situation. However, there is a more complex task to strengthen community cohesion and neighbourliness in lower-income neighbourhoods. Just under half of Londoners reported that they borrowed things from, and exchanged favours with, their neighbours. But this figure was notably higher in more affluent areas than in more deprived ones. The same pattern could be found when Londoners were asked if people in their local neighbourhood pulled together to improve the area. The figures are not shockingly low, and perceptions of community cohesion generally remain high across the board, but strong neighbourhoods surely cannot be the preserve of the middle classes.

A final point of personal interest. I was pleased to see that my home London Assembly constituency of North East reported the highest levels of feelings of “belonging” to London, at 86%. It was not surprising to see that this figure was lowest, at 68%, in Bexley & Bromley, some of which is semi-rural. Overall, however, the figures were pleasingly high. It is surely impressive that such a diverse city, with all its inequalities, still engenders a sense of belonging amongst its citizens.

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