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Gateshead Council: Supporting residents with debt and financial problems

Gateshead Council has seen unemployment rates rise, but the council is working with its partners to provide targeted support to the most deprived communities in a variety of ways.

The pandemic has increased financial insecurity with people losing income and jobs. Gateshead has seen unemployment rates rise, but the council is working with its partners to provide targeted support to the most deprived communities in a variety of ways.

This includes working in partnership with a third sector organisation that runs community hubs, providing support to those in council tax arrears and funding extra Citizens Advice debt adviser posts.

‘The same storm, but different boats’

Director of Public Health Alice Wiseman’s latest annual report lays bare the growing concern about inequalities across the borough. It is called Behind the Mask and includes a film of stories from people who are on the frontline offering support to the most vulnerable communities. The key message? The legacy of COVID-19 threatens to be long and painful for the most disadvantaged communities.

Ms Wiseman said: We have all been in the same storm - but we have not been in the same boat. Covid has highlighted and exacerbated the growing gulf between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.

“Life has been hard for everyone. But if your home was overcrowded, had no outside space, struggled to afford to heat your home, feed your family, provide a laptop so your kids didn't fall behind at school or you were furloughed or lost your job, it's likely that the pandemic has been even tougher for you than others.”

There are plenty of people in Gateshead who would find themselves in that position. Latest figures suggest around a third of children are growing up in poverty with around one in 16 working age adults out of work.

And Alison Dunn, Gateshead Citizen Advice chief executive officer, believes the situation is only going to get worse. “Furlough might have sounded good – 80 per cent of your pay to stay at home – but  when you are on a low income that has a huge impact – it’s definitely not a holiday. The stress and pressure it has put on families has been immense with many struggling to meet basic household expenses.

“There were a lot of people who were not visible before pandemic, they were just coping. Debt and rent problems have been building and now we are back in place where debt and rent enforcement is going to happen it is really going to become visible.”

Council tax arrears ‘are a signal’

To help tackle the problems, Gateshead is building on existing work as well as exploring new ways of working. The council tax team already used arrears as a way to identify people who needed help. It followed a pilot run before the pandemic which saw a dedicated team set up to provide extra support to those who genuinely could not pay their bills.

The team can provide debt and welfare advice as well as support in other ways. An evaluation of the approach found 75 per cent of those who were helped said their lives improved as a result.

Ms Wiseman said: “The team identifies the difference between the ‘can’t pays’ and ‘won’t pays’. As councils are now under a duty to prevent homelessness, there really is no point calling the bailiffs in if people can’t pay. It makes much more sense to work with the family to try to get them in a position so they can pay.

“Sometimes it is just about a few little things, arranging for food or a bus pass or some child care. It can help unlock things for families.”

This project has been accompanied by others steps. The council has funded an extra 12 debt adviser posts in the Citizens Advice service. The advisers have worked closely with community hubs, some of which are run by voluntary sector group Edberts House.

Edberts House has three community hubs – known as houses - with a fourth due to open in April.  They are in neighbourhoods experiencing the challenges of poverty and are run by a steering group of local residents. The “houses” employ community development workers and link workers to support the community. They also work closely with the local social prescribers, also employed by Edberts House, who are attached to GP surgeries.

Edberts House Chief Executive Officer Sarah Gorman said: “The key thing is that local people run them. They are not services that are put in by the council. It is the local people who decide what goes in and how they work with local statutory services such as social care or early help

“You need to give people control and agency. There is a level of distrust of organisations like the police and social services. It is the residents, after all, who know their communities the best.

“For example, because of rising need, we have been discussing how best to widen the scope of the service provided by food banks. They are a fantastic resource, but they are not the most dignified way of providing support.

“We are looking, with partners, at how we might access food supplies to set up a network of markets and shops where people can come in and choose what they want. The focus would be on avoiding food waste as well as alleviating poverty – everyone would be welcome, which takes away some of the stigma.”

To support with recovery from the pandemic, their community development workers have also received training in trauma-informed care via the Thrive training programme.

Two new posts are being created too – a health inequalities lead and a primary care network community development lead. They will work across the borough to join up gaps between different voluntary sector organisations.

Ms Gorman added: “There are so many other fantastic organisations in our borough that are doing great work. We don’t want to duplicate that, but we do want to join up the gaps. If there is a great toddler group in one area we want to make sure early help team know about it and that the toddler group know who to talk to if they have safeguarding concerns. Working more effectively together across the sectors, adding value to each other, is the only way to tackle the rising tide of need.”

Contact details

Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health, Gateshead Council: [email protected]