At time of writing, the London Borough of Brent, in North West London has one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in London and the United Kingdom.
Underneath this terrible headline, we’re working round the clock to understand the so called ‘causes of causes’ – the stories that become the story. One thread that runs inexorably between Brent and the worst afflicted communities is undoubtedly poverty.
Sadly, this is no surprise to us. Deprivation spurred on by a decade of austerity has entrenched inequalities that have been brutally exposed by COVID-19. The stark fact is that the life expectancy between our poorest and richest ward is at least six years. Unsurprisingly, applications for support with council tax and other benefits have rocketed in the past couple of months.
Brent is one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in London and proudly so. However it is our large BAME community that has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The data shows perhaps what many of us have long held to be true, that poverty expressed through low-pay, unstable hours, precarious living arrangements – these all affect our health.
Before the pandemic blew through our communities, I commissioned Brent’s Poverty Commission. Chaired by Lord Richard Best, former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; it has been designed to get to the heart of how residents are experiencing hardship and make evidenced base recommendations for change.
This work has never felt more urgent.
Through the course of hearing from residents falling through the safety net and organisations working in the borough, we are beginning to build a common definition of poverty in Brent. From housing to financial inclusion; to food and fuel poverty; the commission has heard how poverty has many comorbidities, with one complexity in life begetting another, in a complicated cycle to break.
For example, one in three (29%) households claim housing benefit in Brent compared with only 13% nationally. We know though that for far too many of our residents, housing benefit does not even begin to touch the sides – with the cost of housing in the capital tipping many residents into debt.
The information the Poverty Commission gathers, will be used by Lord Best to put together recommendations for Brent’s Council’s Cabinet and partners later this year.
My sincere hope is that the work of the Poverty Commission gives a clear road-map to help us improve lives locally, not just for the present day, but for generations to come.
Cllr Eleanor Southwood is Cabinet member for housing and welfare reform at Brent LBC