How are councils helping communities cope with the cost of living crisis? Needless to say, they are in the front line, but what do these efforts look like and what do they tell us about the role of local government in public life?
There is always a risk that familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then at least a form of resignation. So it is worth reminding ourselves of the scale of the cost of living crisis faced by households across the country.
In June, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation surveyed low income households and found nearly half had family members cutting down on food or skipping meals and three in 10 were unable to adequately heat their homes.
Since then, we have seen inflation hit double figures, food prices have gone up by 15% in a year and the Office for National Statistics reports electricity prices rising by 54% and gas prices by 96%. Meanwhile, the pound is heading for parity with the dollar and rising interest rates are putting pressure on mortgage costs and on rent.
Against this background, councils across the country are acting to protect the most vulnerable in their community and are finding they are also needing to offer support to parts of the population that are not normally in need.
This support takes many forms. Councils have been administering the £150 council tax rebate for households in bands A-D for the past six months. But they are also taking more direct action.
South Tyneside, for example, is just one of many councils across the country setting up ‘warm banks’; their Warm Spaces programme sees over 50 spaces, including council buildings, community centres, churches and charities, now available to the public as places to enjoy a hot drink, access free activities or the internet and simply to keep warm – you would be forgiven for noting in passing just how dystopian this is.
Pretty much every local authority in the country has now set up a cost of living support hub on their website, offering advice on a range of topics, from accessing financial support, to using energy efficiently and seeking mental health support.
Councils are extending their work to support local businesses, often in inventive ways that have a direct community benefit.
Glasgow City Council is giving low income households gift cards that can only be spent in local shops, thus supporting those in need and local businesses at the same time.
And from Lewisham to Leeds, councils are feeding people: both working with local food banks and delivering food parcels directly to the most vulnerable.
It is a pretty bleak picture. Councils across the country are fighting a rising tide of poverty and standing, in many instances, as the last bulwark against complete destitution.
There is an important political debate to be had about how, as a rich country, we come to be here and what we do about it. But I would add three observations.
First, councils are providing heroic levels of support to communities but they do this from an incredibly insecure position themselves.
A decade of funding reductions has left local government financially vulnerable. It now faces huge increases in bills itself, not least on energy.
Many councils worry about where they will find further savings, whether they will be able to fund statutory services let alone non-statutory ones and there is a widespread expectation we will see more section 114 notices issued in coming months.
We still lack a settled process for funding local government, on top of which we have no stable local government policy and there is talk of new rounds of spending cuts. None of this is sustainable.
Second, councils are not doing this alone. They are working in partnership with local voluntary sector groups, the private sector and communities themselves. As through the pandemic, we find to a large degree, emergency protocols are also partnership protocols.
Finally, we should stress, only councils can do these things. It is only local government that has the granular local knowledge and networks to support communities in these ways. Warm space programmes illustrate this neatly.
It is only local bodies that can know where need is concentrated and what spaces are available in those locations and that will look different in different places.
Perhaps there is a library, or maybe there is a village hall, but maybe there is not, and a local church or café that could step in. You just cannot run that sort of intervention efficiently from the centre.
In these two final points we see the shape of something that works – locally led, collaboratively cross-sector and democratically accountable.
Some grounds for hope amidst the bleakness? Perhaps, as so often in our response to crisis, for better or worse, we see the faint outline of a future yet to emerge.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGiU