More autonomy for councils is crucial

By Shazia Hussain | 25 August 2020

This month, Brent’s Poverty Commission, an independent body, launched their much-awaited findings into the causes and consequences of poverty, in one of the most diverse boroughs in London.

Chaired by Lord Richard Best, the former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, it sets out over 40 recommendations dealing with the root causes of poverty, from housing, employment and financial inclusion to local welfare. Devolution of power and funding are key recommendations in the report.

This vital piece of work began prior to COVID-19 but concluded against the backdrop of the pandemic, which has taken a terrible toll on communities in our borough and brought many of the issues the commission examined into sharp focus. Our local hospital, Northwick Park was the first to declare a critical incident in mid-March and our borough suffered one of the highest death rates in the country.

In its report, the commission explains the cumulative impact of rocketing housing costs, precarious employment and a welfare system which it says all too often puts process before people. Drawing on powerful interviews with residents who have experienced poverty first-hand, politicians, as well as expert local and national organisations, it highlights how organisations, including the council, can make the most difference. The practical, evidence-based recommendations set out a roadmap for addressing the causes and consequences of poverty.

One in six households live below the poverty line in Brent, doubling to one in three after housing costs are taken into account. The prognosis is worse for children. The proportion living in poverty once housing is considered stands at 43%.

To tackle this, the commission stresses the urgent need for more social housing. Without it, those on low incomes are left to the mercy of high rents and, too often, poor quality accommodation in the private rented sector. In Brent we currently have around 700 council homes under construction, the highest out of any borough in London. We are well on track to deliver our ambitious target of 5,000 affordable homes, including 1,000 council homes by 2023. The report calls for greater government backing in this area – with increased funding, councils could build more homes suited to the needs of local people.

The pandemic has intensified the urgency of interventions to support employment: as we go to press, large numbers of Brent residents have been furloughed. Here, the commission underscores the importance of active labour market policies to support job creation and improve local earnings.

To help tackle financial exclusion, the third big focus of the report, the commission recommends a focus on breaking cycles of debt, likely to be exacerbated by coronavirus. On this, we have already stepped up work. In the wake of the pandemic, we launched our own resident support fund worth £2.6m in two steams – a grant fund and an interest-free loan. Rather than turning to unsavoury lenders, local people can request support with their mortgage, rent, household expenditure and debts. The fund will also support residents who do not have access to a computer or cannot afford home internet and need employment support with new skills and training.

In local government, we are at the heart of partnerships that engage communities and help civil society to thrive. As they delivered their findings, Lord Best and his commissioners emphasised the value we add, demonstrated once more by our response to the pandemic. The report recommends enhanced powers and finances for councils, and we will be using the findings in this report to make a strong case for this. It is indeed an important moment for local government. Councils have earned their place and need to be granted more autonomy.

Shazia Hussain is assistant chief executive at Brent LBC

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