Responding to cost of living challenges: Newham

An interview with Jason Strelitz, Corporate Director for Adults and Health, London Borough of Newham.

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Newham is an economically vulnerable borough with many residents affected by high London costs but low wages. It has a young and ethnically diverse population with many large families who have been affected by the benefits cap. The cost of living pressures has tipped people who were just about managing into poverty. At the start of the winter the borough was starting to see significant impact on services, particularly people seeking help from the hardship service due to debt and increases in homelessness.

Planning and coordination

The Director of Public Health is the council’s corporate lead on cost of living, working closely with the Director of Community Wealth Building and with colleagues across the council and wider partners.

Newham’s cost of living response builds on, and scales up, partnership initiatives developed in the pandemic, and the learning from these. A crisis summit was held in September to share information and mobilise collective resources. A multi-agency cost of living taskforce, chaired by the Mayor, meets monthly to oversee the partnership response and deliver an action plan, which includes leveraging information and advice, direct support, and community partnerships. Resources from the Household Support Fund are being used to increase capacity in these areas.

Cost of living support

Information and advice – partners aim to make best use of online services across all sectors so people can access consistent, comprehensive advice and how to access support available. Events are taking place with communities and businesses. The borough is also being proactive, carrying out telephone winter welfare checks to reach vulnerable people who may not otherwise seek support. Newham Social Welfare Alliance drives work on reducing poverty, including training for frontline workers to provide information and referral pathways on social welfare topics such as income maximisation, debt advice and housing. Thousands of workers from across the borough have undertaken this training, so can provide cost of living information and signposting.

Newham Food Alliance involves over 40 organisations who provide surplus fresh food to people with the highest levels of need across the borough, including food banks and parcels. The alliance has a single online front door for access.

Newham’s warm havens programme will run until 31 March 2023. So far, 10 libraries and six community centres have been set up as warm havens. All libraries have extended their opening hours until 8pm Monday to Saturday and many will open on Sundays. Hot meals will be provided through the Food Alliance. A small grants programme of up to £500 has been set up for voluntary, community and faith organisations to support residents facing difficulties.

Impact on future plans

Public health works with partners to tackle the underlying reasons for poor health, such as bad housing and poverty, and these are priorities in Newham’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy. Public health is a partner in Newham’s Community Wealth Building Strategy which aims to increase inclusive growth and investment, and this will be a key priority going forward. One element of this is to work with local employers, such as the NHS and schools, to develop progressive employment and procurement policies that provide opportunities for local people. This is at an early stage, but local leaders are starting to see an impact.

The rising cost of living  is seen as an acute challenge on top of a chronic crisis, and the extent of the challenge means that it has taken priority over some other health and wellbeing strategy actions. The winter response will be monitored and evaluated to identify whether additional support will be needed beyond March and, if so, for how long.

Partners and communities in Newham who worked together in the pandemic still have lots of energy and creativity to make a difference and are keen to support people in the current crisis. One of the key lessons from COVID-19 has been to build stronger relationships with communities, based on co-productive approaches and reaching out – taking services to people.

The concern is that although much good work is being done, it will prove insufficient for the scale of the challenge. If economic pressures continue, poverty and economic distress will increase and inequalities, such as homelessness and ill health will continue to grow – local partners will be left trying to pick up the pieces without the resources to tackle the problems.

National change that could make a difference

  • One of the priorities identified in the cost of living summit was for Newham to continue to lobby government for a fairer deal to tackle poverty and inequalities, including the London Living Wage and a two-year rent freeze.

Councillor perspective

Newham is taking a one council approach to cost of living support, working closely with partners in a borough-wide task force. Public health leads this work, facilitating partners to coordinate action that has the greatest impact. Cost of living is also a developing workstream for North East London ICS.

The role of the voluntary, community and faith sectors, and health champions, was vital in the pandemic and now again in the cost of living response. Learning from the pandemic reinvigorated how the council works with communities – developing relationships based on coproduction and co-design, which public health is well placed to support.

Newham is culturally diverse, and we need to ensure that helpful cost of living messages reach people. We keep communications under review – for instance homeless organisations have reported that people want more holistic information and advice. Cost of living leaflets have been revised and made widely available, including through councillor surgeries.

The crisis is bringing more people, such as those working hard at several low paid jobs, into poverty. It is vital to provide as many opportunities as possible to reduce the impact of the crisis, such as warm havens so people avoid isolation and can get a hot meal.

Cllr Neil Wilson, Cabinet Member for Health and Adult Social Care