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Neighbourhoods and communities
Deep poverty and destitution

Tackling hardship within neighbourhoods

With hardship growing, we need to combine the resources available in our communities with support from government policy, to strengthen our social safety net.

Written by:
Katie Schmuecker
Date published:
Reading time:
6 minutes

The UK faces an urgent problem of deepening poverty, rising foodbank use and growing homelessness, and turning it around will require action on multiple fronts. This includes a responsible UK government doing its part to make sure that work pays, housing is affordable, and our social security system adequately protects people when they hit hard times. But there is also a crucial role for local authorities, their statutory partners and voluntary and community organisations, to support people in times of crisis and help them to get back on their feet.

We call this ‘strengthening the social safety net’; in short, it means everyone should have someone or somewhere to turn to in a time of crisis. It’s done by combining 3 things:

  1. Building community power, connection, purpose and relationships, the everyday stuff of community life that makes it more likely that people’s lives go well.
  2. Emergency and crisis support, the cash and in-kind help locally that tides people over in moments of need.
  3. Practical help and advice, to stop problems getting worse and helping people get back on their feet.

This work is happening in neighbourhoods up and down the country, but it is happening against the odds. We need to create the conditions for it to flourish.

Our social safety net is under pressure

All aspects of this social safety net are under growing pressure. Deep cuts to local authority budgets, which have been deepest in the most deprived places, have seen many areas scale back early help and preventative services, as these are often discretionary rather than statutory. There has also been increased rationing of services, which has seen the threshold for support rise. The result, especially when combined with a cost of living crisis, is more people experiencing more acute crises and spiralling problems.

In many places community organisations are doing their best to pick up the pieces, but struggling to keep up with demand. Grants from public sector partners are harder to come by and donations from the public have dropped, putting pressure on staff and volunteers. Moreover, community organisations report deep frustration at feeling stuck in crisis response mode when they would prefer to be working with people to make sustained improvements to their lives and neighbourhoods.

For people seeking help, this landscape is difficult to navigate. They are passed from pillar to post while they try to find help from siloed services, often having to repeatedly describe traumatising circumstances along the way.

We need to break this cycle.

Sustaining local crisis support with a ‘back on your feet’ fund

At the heart of a social safety net there needs to be funding to support people who hit a moment of crisis and face hardship. The £1 billion per year Household Support Fund (HSF), created during the Covid pandemic and continued during the cost of living crisis, has played a crucial role in bolstering this provision. 

In England in particular the system was in poor shape prior to the HSF’s creation. Local welfare assistance was created in 2013 when the system shifted from national provision to local provision of support (along with a budget cut). But the offer had been pared back repeatedly by local authorities under pressure, and by 2022 35 areas had no scheme whatsoever.

This is deeply short sighted. The National Audit Office has shown how local welfare assistance generates savings for other parts of local and national government, by preventing crises spiralling. It cites one study in Milton Keynes found spending £0.5 million on local welfare assistance awards saved £4.8 million of other public services spending. Adding in the saving to central government brought the total to £9.7 million. We are failing to grip the preventative power of this sort of help.

While the HSF has injected some much needed resource into this system, it remains a stop gap. It has recently had yet another stay of execution, with its continuation confirmed until September 2024. But this lack of longer-term certainty makes it impossible for local authorities and their partners to develop a strategy to address hardship. Bolder reform is needed. 

The HSF should be made a permanent part of the system and evolve to become the heart of a local ‘back on your feet fund’. Unlike the HSF, local authorities should be provided with greater certainty and greater flexibility to use the funds as they see fit to respond to hardship in their area through a combination of cash-first help for individuals and families, and funding for organisations to offer support. 

This should include providing funding over a 3 year period, to enable local authorities and their partners to make a strategic assessment of local need, and build the partnerships they need to deliver, including with community and neighbourhood organisations who can reach out into communities. Crisis and emergency help can then be strategically connected to advice and practical support, such as debt management, help with jobs and skills and community mental health support, so a moment of crisis becomes a gateway for getting back on your feet.

Flexibility could be increased by allowing local authorities to combine other funding streams into a single ‘back on your feet’ fund, creating a single pot with which to support people through crisis and hardship. For example this could include bringing Discretionary Housing payments locally administered rent deposit schemes and local council tax support into scope. 

A flexible ‘back on your feet’ fund resourced for 3 years can act as the thread to stitch together the social safety net.

Pioneering a different way of working

Galvanising local actors behind a mission to strengthen the social safety net locally can help to drive a shift toward the ideas highlighted in these ideas pieces, relational working, community power, community wealth and asset-based community development, ideas that have so far struggled to break into the mainstream. Applying these ideas to the urgent and tangible problem of hardship helps to give them practical expression, as many of the examples highlighted in this series of ideas pieces show.

Inevitably this is an approach that will be forged locally, but faster progress could be made with resources and support from central government. In the past, major community renewal programmes such as the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal and New Deal for Communities have concentrated minds and provided resources. But these approaches were of their time, driven by top-down targets and devised in Whitehall.

Today a different approach is needed, one which is more like an invitation to some pioneering places with high levels of deprivation to participate in a shared challenge, to strengthen the social safety net and build a foundation for thriving in their area. This work could be coordinated and supported by a learning unit at the heart of government, guided by a set of common principles and an ethos co-created by public sector and community leaders from pioneer areas, working with civil servants staffing the learning unit. In exchange for participation in the challenge, additional resources (in-kind and some seed funding) along with a feedback loop to national policy could be on offer.

Strengthened social infrastructure

Strengthening the social safety net is a complement to the national social security system on the one hand, and specialist public services on the other. It is about building and strengthening social infrastructure to protect people from hardship by drawing on all the resources available in a community, community, voluntary and public sector, and knitting them together to offer help and support when people fall on hard times. This is a task that needs the national, local and community levels to all do their part.

A large allotment site in London next to flats

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