As energy bills soar, a number of Suffolk libraries are welcoming local people in from the cold. Doubling up as ‘warm spaces’ is the latest example of community buildings stepping up where Suffolk County Council seems at a loss to know what to do or how to support vulnerable residents. But as the reality of the cost of living crisis grips households, the struggle isn’t just about keeping warm.
Suffolk households in relative poverty
Troubling statistics reveal Suffolk workers’ gross weekly pay is £40 less than the England average. That’s despite Suffolk having a higher percentage of adults in work (78% versus 74% for the country).
Shockingly, it means that nearly one in five Suffolk residents is living in relative poverty. This includes 31,314 children, 33,831 pensioners, 70,169 working age adults, and means households have less than 60% of the current median income of the UK. The figures are in the presentation downloadable from the papers for the Suffolk County Council Scrutiny Committee meeting of 11 May 2022.
Do food banks offer a safety net?
Attempting to shield the most vulnerable from hardship are national food bank initiatives such as The Trussell Trust. Between April 2021 and March 2022, the charity delivered almost 224,000 emergency food parcels throughout the East of England. This makes the region the fourth most in need, based on the volume of parcels provided, behind London, the South-East and the North-West.
The Trussell Trust’s national figures do not include numbers for other community-led food banks and charities. However, data from Suffolk County Council (SCC) also indicate that many are in need.
According to SCC, the amount of food needed by Suffolk’s food banks more than doubled during the height of the pandemic in summer of 2020. Since then, the pressure on food banks remains and the council anticipate that even more financial misery is to come.
Suffolk County Council, tackling poverty?
In an attempt to alleviate financial distress in Suffolk, SCC has put together a tackling poverty strategy and action plan. Published this summer (after a five-month delay), the project sets out four priorities. Its aims are to manage emergency support, increase incomes, improve wellbeing and life chances, and ultimately, to prevent poverty.
The strategy has been criticised as not going far enough. Findings from its ten-month consultation (conducted with Healthwatch Suffolk and 22 other community organisations).included statements such as: “People need to earn a decent living wage that enables them to afford the essentials.” Other insights it took SCC and partners nearly a year to uncover include: “People with experience of poverty talked about how it causes instability in their lives.”
In fact, as well as stating the obvious, much of the 41-page strategy is a reiteration of research already examined and discussed in the council’s earlier report, entitled Poverty Reduction in Suffolk 2022 – State of Play.
(In)action plans and inertia
The action plan complementing the strategy is also thin on measurable outcomes. Immediate priorities set out in it include: “Ensuring people have access to healthy food” and “Raising awareness of poverty issues and the available support”. Activities and actions that SCC hope will accomplish these priorities, are “Ensure foodbanks in Suffolk have access to sufficient food” and “SCC have commissioned FareShare to provide a constant supply of food to foodbanks”. For many charities doing the hard work of keeping people fed, much of this is likely to be business as usual.
The lack of clarity over the five-year plan and absence of measurable outcomes was queried by the council’s own Scrutiny Committee in May. Promising to tidy up the plan and make it more explicit was Richard Cracknell, Assistant Director Public Health and Communities. However, as of October, it is not clear whether this has actually been done, despite promises it would be looked at. The action points for the next five years are, at the time of writing, still showing as nothing more than ‘further recommendations’ without any clear timelines.
But even as SCC acknowledges the importance of addressing poverty, there is an air of overall inertia and apathy over what needs to be done. For struggling households, it means bracing themselves for a bitter winter, as tackling poverty in Suffolk looks set to be some way off.
If you’re worried about staying warm or the cost of food, or are concerned about someone else, you can find help and advice at:
- Citizens Advice, Using a food bank
- List of Suffolk food banks (some operate on a referral basis so it’s important to call or check each organisation’s website)
- Warm spaces open to the public
 Poverty reduction in Suffolk 2022, p.17