A Co-operative Council response to the cost of living crisis – Stevenage Borough Council
Author: Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE, chair of the Co-operative Councils' Innovation Network and leader of Stevenage Borough Council
The United Kingdom is currently facing a cost of living crisis that is directly impacting all households and businesses up and down the country.
The crisis is being driven by a number of factors, including (but not limited to) the cost of energy, food, fuel and other goods; the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia; highest levels of inflation for 40 years and rising interest rates; ongoing residual impact from the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit. For businesses, other factors are also impacting, such as increased supplier and material costs, challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, and transport costs.
Many households are already facing significant increases in household costs, with recent estimates suggesting as many as 4.4m households (1 in 6) across the country are in financial difficulties – up 1.6m since December 2021. A quarter of households now have no savings, while credit card debt is rising. This is likely to increase further as the winter period approaches.
It is also anticipated that the crisis will impact more significantly the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country, including the lowest-paid, single parents, people with disabilities and families with three or more children.
Local councils are at the forefront of this crisis, dealing with increasing numbers on local housing registers, more families in significant need and more demand for advice and support services for both residents and local businesses and charities. This is at the same time as trying to balance council finances as an increase in council tax and housing rent arrears, rising fuel and material and staffing costs impact an already precarious recovery from COVID-19.
In Stevenage, we have been clear that an urgent response to the crisis is needed. We cannot wait for our government to decide on a policy solution, only to u-turn days later, leaving local communities and local economies in disarray.
In September, we held a summit with our Stevenage Together partners; the county council, the health service, the police, education providers, business representatives and our local community and voluntary sector. The stories emerging were harrowing, but our resolution was clear. We needed to act together co-operatively to support our local communities, using whatever means, resources and leavers were available to us across our partnership.
The council had already put in place a number of initiatives in 2022, including:
- An information hub for local residents:
- Support to the most vulnerable households across the town of over £124k of Household Support Fund
- Support to local VCS organisations, social enterprises and small businesses through its community wealth-building programme
- Investment to improve the energy efficiency rating for over 150 homes of its own council housing stock
Following the summit, the council agreed to take forward a number of further measures with partners, including:
- The progression of warm spaces schemes for the coming winter period, to maximise public buildings to offer warm havens along with advice and support for residents over the winter months
- Targeting advice, guidance and support through to those most in need working with Stevenage Citizens Advice and partners of the local Social Inclusion Partnership
- Leveraging investment from businesses and contractors through targeting social value investment to respond to local needs emerging from the crisis
- Providing advice and support to our own workforces experiencing the impact of the crisis
The plan is non-exhaustive and will develop over the coming months.
It is clear that the cost of living crisis is multi-faceted. It cannot be solved at a local level or fully relieved without clear commitment and joined up working between Central Government, local councils and public services, businesses and local voluntary groups. We will be lobbying for this at all levels.
In Stevenage, we are building on our co-operative traditions to support our residents and each other to weather what could be a very long-storm moving into 2023 and beyond.