After the 2008 financial crash, the coalition government on taking office in May 2010 announced the need for collective ‘belt-tightening’ and unleashed a raft of austerity measures across the UK with the stated aim of bringing down the deficit by slashing public spending. The Conservative mantra is that ‘We’re all in this together’: the party’s online shop even carries a stylised rendering of the slogan in the shape of the United Kingdom, should you wish to decorate your home with a rather hollow political slogan.
Again and again, analysis has shown this is not the case. Women are hit disproportionately harder than men, with 75% of cuts affecting women according to a Fawcett Society report. The gender pay gap has widened for the first time since 2008, as wage squeezes and service cuts hit the poorest in society.
In the run up to the election in May, austerity and its impact on women has increasingly become a political talking point amongst campaigners, politicians and women’s groups. Yet both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, despite commissioning a gender audit of cuts, have voiced their commitment to more public spending cuts, although their election manifestos have not been released yet. The Green Party have been far more vocal about their opposition to cuts, and also how austerity has an undeniably gendered effect.
The terrain of cuts differs across the country, with the poorest areas suffering the harshest cuts. These areas traditionally receive more funding as there is higher need, and the revenue they raise from localised “council tax” is lower. Travelling around the country, different services are bearing the brunt of cuts in different areas - for some, it’s adult social care, for others its libraries and education facilities. In many, including Oxfordshire, the county which encompasses the Prime Minister’s constituency, it’s domestic violence and homelessness services.
Domestic violence services have been one of the most concerning victims of austerity. Oxfordshire Domestic Violence Service is one of the services facing the most recent cuts. Between January and May 2014, its advice workers answered 1,600 calls from women in distress, and have 29 beds in the refuges it runs across Oxfordshire. Women and children can stay for up to 12 months while waiting to be safely housed, and in 2013 alone, 55 women and 66 children were offered emergency refuge accommodation. For the service, the mooted cuts would mean losing £132,000 and potentially the helpline.
Reports of domestic violence have fallen in Oxfordshire, from 2,435 in 2011/12 and 2,336 in 2012/13 to 2,290 in 2013/14, but the numbers are marginal, and don’t remotely reflect a need to cut the funding for domestic violence services by the staggering 38%. It’s apparent to everyone that the cuts will affect women’s lives, and women with the starkest need in the most dangerous situations. In the past two years, there has been increasing concern at the level of unreported sexual abuse and relationship violence in Oxford University, with the university introducing compulsory “consent courses” for new students. Any attempts to address this abuse, and the stigma around it, will doubtless be hampered by the potential loss of confidential, professionally staffed helplines offering support for young women.
The 38% cuts apply to both domestic violence services, and homelessness services, both protecting the most vulnerable in society. “It feels like we’re teetering on the edge of an absolutely massive disaster,” Lesley Dewhurst tells me over a cup of coffee on the third floor of the Oxford homeless hostel she runs.
The county council have been ordered to make £60m of cuts in the next four years on top of the £200m cuts enacted since 2010, as the UK government funding for councils is slashed throughout the country. The leader of the council, Ian Hudspeth, recently wrote an open letter to the government in protest at the cuts.
The Oxfordshire Homeless Pathways scheme is one such service facing severe cuts. Homelessness has increased dramatically in Oxford - Dewhurst cites figures that show around a 40% increase in Oxford in the past year, compared to 20% in the rest of the south east in the past two years. The reasons people cite for becoming homeless have changed too: Dewhurst says people are increasingly citing economic stress and money worries as the main catalyst in couples parting ways, causing homelessness.
“With all homelessness, the biggest cause is relationship breakdown and that won’t have changed. But the factors that cause the stresses on family breakdown will be more skewed to towards financial pressure, economic pressures. Two things in this area - one will be the effects of the recession, all of which hits the lowest common denominator. But the other major one is the lack of affordable housing in the area,” Dewhurst explains. The hostels Oxford Homelessness Pathways run have always been full, but are finding more people presenting as homeless.
Already at full capacity, the charity have tried to work to help as many people as possible on a dwindling budget. With 56 rooms, there’s a limit to how many people can sleep comfortably in the hostel, and more cuts will mean a lower staff budget, which in turn means being forced to help fewer people. In the past 6 years Oxford Homelessness Pathways has already experienced cuts of 20-25% and has been forced to cut their night team. More cuts will mean the quality of work they can carry out suffers.
The London housing crisis has plenty of lip service paid to it, but Oxford’s cost of living crisis easily rivals, and in some aspects eclipses, the capital’s problems. Campaigning to prevent building on the greenbelt has stifled development in the area, and in 2013/14 no affordable homes were built. Even outstripping London, Oxford now has the least affordable house prices in the UK, at 11.9 times the average salary. Activists recently hosted a three day conference on housing I was asked to speak at, and squatted an empty university building to highlight the plight of the young and precariously housed in the city.
Two miles away in a quiet industrial estate on the outskirts of west Oxford, six people usher me into a small warehouse. The walk from the hostel to the food bank showcases the divides in Oxford - past the railway station and grand university buildings the city quickly appears like any other, with terraced housing, cavernous DIY and furniture shops and down at heel small grocery shops and hairdressers. Inside the warehouse, between two white transit vans bearing the Oxford Foodbank logo and a row of walk in fridges, sits a large pile of crates filled with loose carrots, potatoes, cabbages, onions and all manner of vegetables.
The volunteers don’t hand food packages to individuals in need, as Trussell Trust food banks do, but collect excess food from nearby supermarkets, and distribute it to local charities. Anecdotally, they note that Sure Start centres have been keen to receive more food to package for people in desperate need, and charities have told them they’re experiencing far more contact from single mothers in food poverty. Sure Start centres were introduced in 1998 by the Labour government to offer support to young children and families, to improve children’s life chances by offering advice and support to poorer families.
The food bank has been running for five years, starting just before the current coalition government came into power. The cuts in Oxfordshire have meant the charities they provide food too are experiencing higher referral rates than ever, and cutting the amount they spend on food is one of the only ways they can keep their services going. “A lot of charities are very dependent on the food bank for budgetary reasons, and one or two have told me they simply couldn’t keep going if it wasn’t for the food we gave them,” one volunteer tells me. Before I arrive in the morning, he has already delivered to 11 charities, including a drop in centre for single mothers that takes a large amount of food to distribute, and a Sure Start centre, attached to a primary school.
The child poverty rate in Oxford stands at 16% before housing costs and 25% after housing costs - with a housing crisis in the city that shows no sign of stopping, the latter figure is projected to increase. The Sure Start centres in the area have had their funding reduced under the cuts and are finding it harder than ever to operate, while finding more and more people presenting with problems. Even in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency, one Sure Start centre was at risk of closure. For these centres, and many other charities in the county, the food bank is a lifeline, as it’s the only way they can cut costs - by relying on free food to continue operating. The flip side is however, that the amount of food they receive from supermarkets varies, and with such high need, not all charities can receive as much as they’d like.
The fear, amongst residents and charity employees alike is that stripping down the services and quality of support domestic violence services, homeless shelters and Sure Start centres offer in the short term has a catastrophic effect in the long term. For years, the homelessness centre has worked to build the skills and confidence of the street homeless, to decrease the chance of homelessness re-occurring. With fewer resources, the homelessness rate is likely to increase, while the number of people helped back into society decreases.
The knock on effects of cuts to domestic violence services, child poverty and homelessness last far, far longer than the 8 years of projected cuts the government announced in 2010.
This is the first in a series of articles from around the UK by Dawn Foster in the run up to the election in May.