One of the many tragedies of Covid-19 is the way that it has brutally exposed and exacerbated longstanding inequalities across the UK. In Brent, poor quality privately rented homes, overcrowding and health inequalities have taken their toll.
The uncomfortable truth is that these inequalities were known to us. Back in January, I commissioned a piece of work, independently chaired by Lord Best and involving a range of local partners, to make practical, evidence-based recommendations on how to reduce poverty in the borough. After housing costs, 43% of children live in poverty and, with the second highest number of people furloughed, a proactive effort will be needed to rebuild our local economy.
This work was important back in January and is non-negotiable now. One immediate step we’re taking is using money left over from the hardship grant from government to create a support fund for residents. We’re proud to have a fairly generous Council Tax Support Scheme and, as a result, after allocating the £150 reductions to council tax liabilities for anyone of working age in receipt of CTS, we have a pot of just over £2.5m to put to immediate use.
The fund is being used in two ways: either going directly to residents as a grant or used to assist residents access an interest-free loan from a local credit union. We’ve kept the criteria as loose as possible. It can be used for anything from paying off credit card and other household bills, rent, mortgage or council tax arrears, getting access to the internet or accessing skills training.
In its first week, the fund has had over 300 applications. The need is real, and the money – though a drop in the ocean – is exactly the sort of action local government can and should take to provide immediate relief to residents.
In the medium term, there’s much to do to rebuild our local economy. Our schools and results are excellent, but our economy is relatively low wage and low skill. Post-Covid, it is also terrifyingly fragile.
It’s clearly also time to take a more interventionist approach to our local private rented sector. In contrast to relatively low levels of pay, our housing costs are very high, forcing many families into poor quality homes that they can barely afford.
Our commission was about identifying systemic interventions that would work locally and not just act as a sticking plaster for deep-seated inequalities. Developing this fund has been a sobering reminder that sometimes, if it’s all you have, a sticking plaster is better than nothing. But it’s also a reminder of the absolutely essential role of local government and the ways we must galvanise ourselves to respond in the longer term.