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Poverty crisis threatens to dampen the festive season

As the UK prepares for Christmas, those in some London’s most deprived boroughs brace themselves for tough times ahead.

By Dean Armond

Person opening empty wallet.
Image ©Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash

The festive season begins on a sombre note for Newham. The Council is grappling with a budget deficit, residents are facing cuts in services and one of Britain’s leading poverty charities reports that the Borough is the most destitute in the country.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent report Destitution in the UK 2023 makes bleak reading for political leaders and groups fighting social and economic inequality in the Borough.

People are considered destitute if they have not been able to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. This can be because they either lack necessities like clothing, heating, shelter or food, or because their income is so extremely low that they are unable to purchase these items for themselves.

Since the last Destitution Survey was conducted in 2019 destitution has increased significantly in all local authorities in the UK, but more in Newham than anywhere else.

When local authorities are ranked by level of destitution, Newham has risen 11 places in the last four years and is now top of the table, with the greatest level of deprivation in the country. In contrast, during the same period, Glasgow has fallen sixteen places.

While the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis are undoubtedly factors, the local socio-economic conditions mean that Newham has suffered disproportionately.

The JRF Destitution Survey 2023 found:

  • Almost three-quarters of people living in destitution were born in the UK, but migrant communities are particularly at risk.
  • Almost two-thirds of people experiencing destitution were disabled or had long-term health conditions. These health conditions are now much more likely to significantly limit people’s lives than in 2019.
  • Black, black British, Caribbean or African-led communities are significantly over-represented.

As the most diverse local authority in the UK, it might be expected that destitution has risen in Newham, which reflects the existing levels of inequality in the UK.

Although Newham is among Britain’s fastest growing young and diverse boroughs with a population of more than 351,000, the fact is that more than seven in ten residents are from Black, Asian, and ethnically diverse communities. These are the groups most at risk from social and economic deprivation.

Despite this, a recent trend has seen rapid change with up and coming districts in Stratford in the north and the Royal Docks in the south attracting increasing investment.

But Newham’s deep-rooted inequalities highlighted by the Rowntree report remain a major challenge to the Council. A quarter of Newham neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in the UK and after housing costs are taken into account nearly half of the residents live in poverty.

The scale of the problems facing residents were outlined by Cllr Zulfiqar Ali in his report to the Council cabinet on 9 October on plans to deal with the Council ’s £14 million budget deficit.

The pressure on local government and local people as a result of 13 years of austerity, pressures on public services, an ageing population, growing poverty and inequality have been ignored by the government, he said.

“High interest rates, and high costs for basics like food and energy are impacting the lives of our residents in ways that are truly challenging,” he said.

“They are finding it hard to meet their essential day to day needs, face the threat of homelessness and in some instances the choice to forgo food for themselves because they can only afford to feed their children.”

Council Plans Cuts to Solve Cash Crisis – See Page 2.
See Joseph Rowntree Foundation Deprivation in the UK 2023 at www.jrf.org.uk/report/destitution-uk-2023.