Welfare reform and cuts threaten to worsen poverty

29th Nov 2012

In the second in a series of austerity reports for JRF, Mary O'Hara visits St Peter's ward in Ashton, Manchester, where cuts and welfare reform are adding to existing problems.

St. Peter's ward in Ashton, Manchester, is one of the most deprived areas of England and cuts have been biting hard.

Among a population of around 12,000, child poverty is running at a rate of 37 per cent (this compares with the UK average of 20.9 per cent) and it has a worklessness rate of 29.2 per cent, so the people of the area already had multiple problems to contend with before the Government’s austerity programme began rolling out.

Congregating at the premises of St. Peter's Partnerships – a community-based organisation that works closely with local people across a raft of sectors from housing to crime reduction to creating green spaces – residents, youth volunteers and community workers are anxious to talk about what they see as a gathering storm of upcoming cuts and changes to welfare provision.

As an area heavily reliant on social housing there is particular concern about housing benefit reforms scheduled for introduction in April 2013.

The problems people are experiencing are around the welfare reforms. People are very unsure about what’s going to happen,"
says Helen Bradbury, a resident representative on the local housing association.

Fellow-residents report concerns surrounding a lack of information about how the changes including the 'bedroom tax' – where benefits will change if a property is deemed to be "under-occupied" – will affect them personally.

"People are concerned about their young adults being able to move away from the area when there's going to be no housing benefit for the under 25s for example," adds Helen.

"The Government are talking about housing mobility, about people moving to different properties. What they don't consider is that this isn't a property; it's your home."

Catherine Hollinrake, a manager at Pioneer Housing Association, echoes Helen’s comments but warns too that when these changes are added to the extra pressure brought on by large increases in energy bills through the winter of 2012/2013 many people will reach financial breaking point.

"It's going to be a question of are we going to keep warm or are we going to feed ourselves?'" she says. '"It's just going to be a nightmare."

The staff and volunteers at St. Peter's Partnerships and the other organisations it works closely with believe they are uniquely placed to understand the full panoply of issues in their area. Karen Butigan, its chief executive, has witnessed first hand the early impact of cuts and says the future is a precarious one for local people and for the organisation.

Having benefited from government funding in the past, Ashton now faces enormous challenges, she suggests.

Organisations like St Peter's Partnerships are important [and] our learning, experience and knowledge are being held up by government, local stakeholders and policy-makers as best practice," Karen says.
Up until now, through a mix of income-generated surplus and grant funding, St Peter's Partnerships has been able to provide services free at the point of delivery to those most in need. However a 100 per cent cut in our local authority grant funding ... has put our work and the organisation at risk, leaving deprived communities vulnerable."

Ian Hughes, a resident who volunteers with local young people and who helps run a weekly youth club and other activities for teenagers, says it is vital that with child poverty already so high in the area, youth centres do not lose what little funding they have.

Hughes suggests that local businesses "need to be helping out as well" by playing a bigger part, perhaps by donating equipment like video games to youth projects.

For Kurt Hopwood, a long-time volunteer with younger children through the local children’s centre and a "dad's club", the lack of work and low incomes in the area are a strain on families. He says that services that support children and families are crucial, such as those run by St. Peter's that are currently coming under financial pressure due to local authority cuts. There are growing worries too about safety and crime rates.

When it comes to the future, Karen says the cuts to grant funding to support long-standing community organisations are compounding the fallout from welfare reforms and other cuts.

The crucial part of the picture that is being ignored amidst the policy shifts and funding cuts is that many of the community anchor organisations – which have long been driven by the principles of localism – and the vital services they deliver are at severe risk of closure. Sadly this is not a unique story and will resonate across the UK.

This insight is part of our Austerity in the UK project, looking at the the impact of public spending cuts, policy change and the state of the economy on disadvantaged people and places in the UK.

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