London’s high and rising poverty rates could be addressed and reduced by tried and trusted national policy initiatives, according to the chief executive of one the capital’s leading anti-poverty charities.
Speaking at think tank Centre for London’s annual conference, Manny Hothi, chief executive of Trust for London, told the audience at the University of London’s Senate House in Malet Street that “fundamentally, tackling poverty is about solutions we know already work”, principally building more homes for social rent, “a decent welfare state and social security system that stops people falling into destitution” and more jobs that pay a good wage.
Unless such measures are taken, funded by “taxing people more than they are taxed now”, Hothi said he found it difficult to envisage a future London that isn’t populated overwhelmingly by wealthy people. “We are beyond the point now where those problems are confined to people on low incomes because the children of the middles classes can’t get by in this city either,” he maintained. “People on decent incomes who may have owned a house cannot see their children, who may also have decent incomes, having the same life that they did.”
Fellow panelists highlighted particular steps they would like to see taken, with Katherine Hill (pictured) from the 4 in 10 campaign, a network of organisations seeking to alleviate child poverty in the capital, stressing that the cost of childcare in London is “right up there alongside housing as a driver of poverty” because it is often too high to make taking a job financially worthwhile.
Describing the current government free childcare entitlement as “wrongheaded, confused and just not fit for purpose” she argued that childcare provision in the city should be regarded as a form of infrastructure, as basic and as vital as transport networks. She characterised good, affordable childcare as reducing child poverty by enabling parents to work and earn more and also as an investment in younger children, revealing that under-fives are “hugely over-represented” among children living in poverty in London.
Twickenham MP Munira Wilson described her local campaign to have the disused former Teddington police station sold by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) for use as a GP surgery as part of a development scheme that would also provide homes for social rent, for which she said there is a “desperate need” for in her largely prosperous area. MOPAC’s understanding has been that when selling property it must do so to the highest bidder, but is now seeking legal advice about whether this is still the case.
Wilson strongly advocated extending free school meal provision, saying “the levels of food insecurity are shocking”, and drew attention to local housing allowance levels in her constituency simply “not covering what you have to pay in the private rented sector”. She called for the restoration of the pandemic period’s temporary £20 Universal Credit uplift and described the welfare system as it stands as “mean”.
Completing the line-up, Hounslow Council leader Shanantu Rajawat described efforts his local authority is making to help the least well-off, including facilitating connections between schools and skills training programmes and local employers paying “meaningful wages”, and trying to learn more about “barriers” stopping more of them paying the London Living Wage.
Rajawat spoke also about his council’s “community solutions” approach to identifying early problems residents are facing in partnership with the borough’s voluntary sector organisations. This product of the pandemic period entails “not people coming into the council but the council going out to residents and community groups” with the aim of “preventing crises happening” in the first place, he said.
He also issued a plea for government financial support to be provided with fewer strings and prescriptions attached: “For me it’s about having the freedom to tailor the packages that are available. So often when you get grant from government it has a lot of conditions. What we saw during Covid was that a lot of those packages gave us a little bit of discretion so that we could really innovate.” Rajawat described this freedom as “absolutely vital”.
There was a mixture of optimism and foreboding about how London’s social support networks will cope with the new cost of living pressures that have only just begun to take effect. Katherine Hill warned that much voluntary sector work was done during the pandemic unpaid by people who are now “very tired” and “mentally bruised by what they have seen”. She described food bank workers who have become food bank customers with “worries about how they’re going to keep the lights on” at their premises.
However, there was also a feeling that public opinion about cost of living pressures has been shifting. “I think there is a change in attitudes now,” Hothi said. “They are just a bit fed up with crisis mode for a decade and stagnant living standards. I think the mood is there for a political party to bring some hope for the future.” More austerity, he thought, “isn’t going to land very well.”
Watch the whole of Centre for London’s annual conference here. The session about poverty, chaired by Geeta Nanda, chair of the G15 housing association group, is at 4 hours 45 minutes.
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