Cllr Laura Blumenthal is Shadow Executive Member for Levelling Up, Equalities and Social Housing on Wokingham Borough Council
We all know that whoever becomes the new Prime Minister will have a cost of living mountain to climb, especially in attempting to cushion the blow for those already in poverty. But what is poverty? Most people imagine Victorian-era children in rags but it is simply when someone’s income doesn’t cover their essential needs. A fear that more households in the UK are facing.
For the past year, I have been leading the creation of Wokingham Borough Council’s first ever poverty strategy. As Councils across the UK, and the Government, try their best to support the most vulnerable through inflationary pressures, below are some valuable priorities I learnt to focus on that have Conservative values at their core. The Left like to think they have a monopoly on helping those on low incomes, but as we know, there are key Conservative values that can prevent and help people out of poverty. I hope they help concentrate minds on how politicians and policymakers can help our communities.
Keeping families together. Prevention of poverty is crucial and relationship breakdowns often lead to individuals being significantly worse off financially, including struggling to provide resources for children. In 2018, the price of family breakdowns cost the taxpayer £51 billion. Money worries are also one of the main reasons for relationship breakdowns. We know that prevention is better than cure which is why keeping families together is crucial, as well as supporting individuals to have strong networks and resilience. Wokingham Borough Council is planning to use household income data from CACI Paycheck to pair with census data, out in Autumn 2022. This will help predict which families have a household income which means they’re vulnerable to tipping into poverty. The data allows the Council to target tailored communications to them, letting them know about support on offer, before they get into financial difficulties.
Prioritising experience over misguided goodwill. The expertise of local charities has been key in helping to create the Council’s poverty strategy. We had four key local charities create a Hardship Alliance with the Council and focus their in-depth knowledge into forming the plan. All policy needs to be informed by front-line services who are brave enough to challenge policymakers. They often have the ambition, honesty, and commitment, to deliver on policy aims and get buy-in from the wider community. This also helps to safeguard against ideological misguided policies.
Empowering the individual to make the right choices for them. We’re responsible for our own lives but we have all been in the position of not knowing about all the opportunities available to us. Too many times feedback from local charities has been that people don’t know about the support on offer or how to get to their next step in life. This is why our Council launched an employment support service earlier this year, including an outreach team, to help people know about their options and secure the right job for them. We’re also focused on doing a better job in publicising the financial support which is on offer, such as the Household Support Fund or National Databank. There are also ambitions to support cash-poor asset-rich older residents who may not know the options of downsizing and moving to more appropriate accommodation.
Using common sense to create a positive collaborative culture. Listening to others on the emotive and important topic of poverty is crucial. Not only to the public, service users, and local charities, but also to fellow councillors across the political spectrum. I set up a cross-party working group of councillors which contributed well to the strategy and means it has been a smooth process to getting it approved. We’ve also looked forward to working together to use our roles as school governors to ensure schools keep the issue of poverty high up their agenda.
Being ambitious and long-term solutions driven. The goal of our strategy is to do everything we can to end poverty in our Borough. We know that people never having financial problems again is unrealistic but if you’re not going to be ambitious about the support and culture you want to establish, then you may as well pack up and go home. Using data to know where you want to go and staying focused on driving high-quality outcomes for residents is a must. Making sure results are sustainable and not being afraid to change direction if something isn’t working out, is common sense.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping people who are financially struggling, but the above goes some way to ensure those on a low income can be informed, supported, and empowered. Personal responsibility is a key Conservative value and we all have an obligation to contribute and to support our local communities to flourish.