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Local government must be at the frontline of the fight against poverty

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 16

Katharine Knox, policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), on why we must make sure local areas have the powers, incentives and capacity to tackle poverty.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote and with austerity hitting people hard, poverty is no longer a peripheral issue, but one that demands attention and action at all levels – from central and local government, employers, voluntary organisations and communities and public service providers. 

With a staggering 13.5 million people living in poverty in the UK and over one million people facing destitution last year, we need a renewed focus on action across the political spectrum and from all parts of society. 

This is why the JRF has developed a new five-point plan to address poverty and is calling for action to: 

  1. Boost incomes and reduce costs – including by building 80,000 genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy in England each year, by investing £1bn per year. Local authorities have a key role to play here
  2. Deliver an effective benefits system – reversing the cuts to the work allowance under Universal Credit and setting it at a level that provides a decent safety net
  3. Improve education standards and raise skills – closing the attainment gap for children by raising standards, continuing to direct additional funding to children from poorer backgrounds, supporting professional development of teachers and experimenting with pay premiums
  4. Strengthen families and communities – building a family hub in every area so parents and families can access parenting support
  5. Promote long-term and inclusive economic growth – by giving mayors and city-regions the powers, incentives and budgets to generate growth that reaches everyone in their boroughs 

Addressing poverty was fundamental to the establishment of the welfare state and core services like public health and social housing. Today, poverty is estimated to cost £69bn for related public services, including health, education, justice, and child and adult social services – £1 in every £5 spent on public services. 

Local government and other public service providers are central to fighting poverty. But their ability to take action has been curtailed due to austerity, with councils in England losing over a quarter of their spending power due to budget cuts between 2010-11 and 2015-16. The most deprived local authorities saw cuts of £220 per head compared with under £40 for the least deprived. 

In this context, it is critical that public service providers do what they can to protect those services that provide a vital safety net for people in poverty, including support for those with complex needs. But they cannot afford to take their eye off the long term and there are significant opportunities for policymakers at all levels to drive poverty reduction. Preventative action will save money and costs to public services later. And risks like climate change cannot be ignored. 

Devolution provides major opportunities to use new powers to support people on low incomes.  Local authorities can take a leadership role, developing an economic vision for their area which supports more and better jobs, bringing partners together to support local skills and labour market development and enabling people on low incomes to be better connected with job opportunities through improved transport or digital provision. They need to champion inclusive growth, using opportunities like public procurement and apprenticeships to help people on low incomes. 

We need to make sure local areas have the powers, incentives and capacity to tackle poverty. 

Poverty will not be solved from Whitehall or by central government alone – but by the policymakers closer to those people experiencing it. 

While local authorities face unprecedented reductions to their budgets, greater powers in vital areas such as transport, housing, employment support and skills could be harnessed to help those on low incomes. But they will need support from central government to deal with the fallout of Brexit, which jeopardises substantial EU regional investment. Changes to the future funding of local government, and reliance on business rates, also risks further polarising the wealthier and more deprived parts of the country. 

Solving poverty won’t be easy and won’t happen overnight, but local leaders can be at the frontline of the fight.


JRF’s strategy to solve UK poverty can be accessed at:


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