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Wealth and want in England's fair land

An English city celebrated for its prosperity is riven with extreme inequality, poverty and inadequate housing.

Stuart Weir
15 May 2015
Green Street

Green Street, Cambridge. Flickr/Brian Negin. Some rights reserved.

Imagine a prosperous city in a developed country with the fifth largest economy in the world where:

House prices and rents are beyond the means of the great majority of the population and are among the fastest-rising in the country. No remedy to this crisis of genuinely affordable housing is in sight.

Nearly 5,000 people cannot afford to feed themselves and are driven to the city’s Foodbank for their food.  Almost half of them are in need because of benefit delays, reforms and sanctions.  A third of them are children. 

More than 6,000 households – one in eight – are too poor to heat their homes and must choose between living in cold homes or going without food. The city has a higher level of fuel poverty than the regional and national averages, in some areas excessively so.  Fuel poverty makes people ill and kills.

Many elderly and vulnerable people who are eligible for vital social care don't get it. Even those who get care don’t get all they need. The budget has been cut to the bone and more cuts are inevitable. Last year the official in charge of social care warned councillors that they now had to consider what might previously have been “unthinkable."

Welcome to Cambridge!

These are some of the findings of an initial Fairness Review of Cambridge, Cambridge: Wealth and Want, just published by a local campaigning network, Cambridge Commons. The Review’s overall conclusion is that the city’s celebrated prosperity is riven by extreme inequalities in wealth and income that leave a substantial number of local people in poverty, destitution, chronic insecurity, hunger, preventable illness – and at risk of premature death. I am one of three authors of the Review which runs to 18,000 words. The other authors are Deborah Padfield, a CAB supervisor and a contributor to OurKingdom, and David Plank, a former local authority chief executive.

Over 70 years ago the wartime Beveridge Report identified five "Giant Evils" in society that were to be slain. The Labour government after 1945 carried out major social reforms to end them.  But Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness, and Disease have proved to be enduring evils. We expected to find poverty in Cambridge, but we are shocked by the scale of desperate poverty in such a prosperous city. The aim of the Cambridge Commons network, is to create a progressive social movement in Cambridge, bringing together local members of national organisations such as The Equality Trust, Compass, Unlock Democracy and the Fabian Society, together with members of local organisations and local trade union branches.

At the root of the brutal deprivation we found is low-wage and insecure employment in a city that has Rich List residents and a highly-paid salariat of professionals and managers which makes up some 70 per cent of the working population.

There are other drivers of poverty – the inadequate and punitive benefit system which has reduced subsistence entitlements, based on need, to “make work pay”; cuts in public services like public housing and social care; costly child care; and a distorted housing market where fast-rising house prices and rents put owning or renting a home out of reach for the majority of the population.

 A huge gulf

The gulf between the rich and highly paid and the rest of the workforce is immense. We point out that the wealth of most of the richest residents in the Sunday Times Rich List rose last year; for example, hedge fund proprietor, Ewan Kirk, already worth £210 million, gained an extra £70 million. The median income for all households in Cambridge in 2014 was £31,800 a year. By contrast, the average income for the bottom 25 per cent of the income scale was £15,700 a year; and Cambridge City Council found that 45 per cent of applicants in search of social housing had incomes of £10,000 or less.

The inequality can be measured across the city’s wards. Thirteen small neighbourhoods in affluent areas in the south of the city, like Newnham, are among the 20 per cent least deprived areas in the country. In contrast, two areas in one northern ward are among the 20 per cent most deprived; and there are pockets of real deprivation for people in and out of work in the north and east of Cambridge.

It is too little understood that there is no clear dividing line between “workers” and “people on benefit”, or as the right like to phrase it, between “workers” and “shirkers”. Stagnant and falling low and middle incomes plus high rents and living costs mean that thousands of people in work rely on benefits.  So “hard-working people who do the right thing” may still be on benefits, and they take a punishing hit from welfare reforms. The more so when the government makes further £12 billion cuts in the welfare budget. Our research details the harsh consequences of the complexities, inefficiencies and punitive sanctions of the benefits system which compound the insecurities and deprivations of poverty. One measure of the benefit system’s failings is the rapidly growing number of residents who turn to the Cambridge Foodbank. 

“Affordable rents”?

Cambridge has an unusually high proportion of rented accommodation – almost half of all housing. Much of the privately rented stock does not meet official Decency standards. 

The combination of poverty and poor quality privately rented homes drives “fuel poverty” in Cambridge. As we report in the preamble to this article, more than 6,000 households are too poor to heat their homes. Cambridge has a higher level of fuel poverty than the national and regional average, often significantly higher in some poorer neighbourhoods.

Our view is that social housing is the bedrock for meeting housing need, at least temporarily, in default of real reform of the housing market. The “right to buy”, recently re-booted by the government with larger discounts on market prices, has had a damaging impact on the City Council’s social housing stock, reducing it from over 15,000 homes for  let to households in need to about 7,000. The policy is now reducing the stock by 60 properties a year. Government proposals to sell off rented housing association homes would diminish the pool of social housing still further.  The City Council is seeking to keep rents for its social housing at the level of the local housing allowance for housing benefit – well below the level of the Orwellian “affordable rents” set by the government at 80 per cent of the market rent, which are unaffordable for most social tenants.

Cambridge City Council has adopted an anti-poverty campaign, but both the City and Cambridgeshire County Council are powerless to mitigate the effects of cumulative cuts in funding from central government and ongoing market forces.  The ability to change things for the better should exist locally as well as nationally.  The importance of local authorities addressing poverty and inequality in the city comes out strongly in our report.  But their powers and resources are being stripped away.  Cambridgeshire Council cannot maintain a decent level of social care and is even being forced to contemplate bringing its assistance scheme for the most destitute people among us to an end.

We have not attempted to propose reforms at the level of national government. Instead we make a series of local recommendations. The City Council and students are campaigning for the introduction of the Living Wage in the city. We suggest however that the Living Wage rate, fixed at the rate of £7.85 an hour outside London, should be raised to the London rate of £9.15 an hour. The costs of living in Cambridge, and housing costs in particular, are at the same level as in London. The Living Wage for the city should therefore reflect that reality.

Cambridge Commons will send a PDF file of the Fairness Review on request through the contact form on the network’s website, www.thecambridgecommons.org

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