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Knitting the net to tackle hardship

Speaker at New Local's upcoming Stronger Things 2024 Katie Schmuecker argues councils are key to providing the local social safety net to protect people from hardship – and a plan is needed urgently.

Poverty in the UK is deepening, and we can see the consequences in communities all around us. The Trussell Trust foodbank network gave out a record 3.1 million food parcels last year. Homelessness is rising. One million children experienced destitution in 2022 – growing up in families unable to meet their most basic physical need to be warm, dry, clean and fed.

We need an urgent plan to tackle hardship. Any such plan requires a partnership that spans all the way from grassroots community organisations to central government.

A plan to tackle hardship requires a responsible central government doing its part by making sure work pays, housing is affordable and our social security system – at the very least – makes sure people can afford life's essentials.

But there is a crucial role for local public services, local authorities and voluntary and community organisations. Providing people with emergency support, building social connection, strengthening community power and finding advice and practical help all happen at this scale. This is the support people need when they face a crisis, to help them get back on their feet.

Knitting these different elements of the local system together, so we're drawing on all the resources in a community, is what we at Joseph Rowntree Foundation call strengthening the local social safety net.

But a safety net cannot operate on good will alone. To function well it needs funding to support people in a time of crisis. In England, prior to the pandemic, this offer of local welfare assistance had been pared back repeatedly by local authorities under pressure.

The HSF must be made permanent, strengthened and reformed to create a ‘back on your feet fund'. This would be a more flexible resource to provide a combination of cash-first help for individuals and families. And it would provide funding for organisations to offer support to people experiencing hardship, connecting them to the advice and practical support they need, such as debt management, employment support or community mental health services.

It could be further bolstered by allowing local authorities to combine other funding streams – for example, Discretionary Housing Payments, locally administered rent deposit schemes and local council tax support – to create a single, flexible, long-term pot of funding to address immediate hardship and help people back on their feet.

But strengthening the local social safety net is not just about money – vital though that is. It is also about stitching together the resources available in a community, so everyone has somewhere and someone to turn to in a time of crisis.

Being able to find connection, purpose and the right help at the right time are vital to protecting people from hardship. This is the everyday stuff of community life that makes it more likely lives will go well

The state, on its own, cannot provide this, but it can support those that do, with funding, in-kind resources and physical spaces. This is particularly important in doubly disadvantaged neighbourhoods – those not only economically deprived, but lacking social infrastructure in the form of the places, spaces and organisations that enable people to come together.

From the seeds of connection, community confidence and power can grow. Organisations such as Back on the Map in Sunderland, People Focused Group in Doncaster, Wharton Trust in Hartlepool – and many others besides – demonstrate this, building resilience in communities to weather shocks, reaching out to shape services and systems and moulding them to the aspirations of communities.

This is not a call for communities to step in where the state has vacated. Thinking they could was the mistake of the coalition Government's approach to the Big Society.

Shifting the dial on hardship requires this work in communities to be met by a like-minded local state – one that puts people and relationships at the centre of its work, shaping services around people's strengths and what matters to them.

Pioneering local authorities, like Gateshead, are showing how this can be done, but the work needs to be strengthened and spread.

A strengthened local social safety net, with a ‘back on your feet fund' acting as the thread to stitch it together. That would protect more people from hardship and help ensure a moment of crisis becomes a gateway for getting back on your feet. It is a crucial part of an urgent plan for hardship.

Katie Schmuecker is principal policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She is speaking at a breakout session on overcoming the powerlessness of poverty and inequality at New Local Stronger Things 2024 on 4 June

X – @KatieSchmuecker

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