Council's new poverty plan slammed as unambitious failure
By Jason Noble (Local Democracy Reporter)
10th May 2022 | Local News
A strategy to tackle poverty in Suffolk delayed by five months has finally been published – but opposition political figures say it doesn't do enough to tackle the issues.
Suffolk County Council pledged to publish its poverty action plan by the end of 2021, but later admitted Covid-19 had caused delays.
On Wednesday this week, the authority's scrutiny committee will assess progress against the action plan, with papers for the meeting being published last Wednesday. It included short-term measures in a one-year action plan but not the full strategy.
The report said that the strategy and the five-year action plan would be published by Friday last week, but the strategy was only published late on Monday – less than 48 hours before councillors are set to assess progress against the strategy.
The five-year action plan is yet to emerge.
It comes as families across the country struggle with the cost of living crisis following rises in costs such as council tax, National Insurance, food, fuel and energy bills.
Opposition groups have said the strategy lacks ambition and measurable tasks.
Andrew Stringer, leader of the opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group, said: "This Conservative-led council promised a five-year action plan, but instead has a strategy in place that does not outline a clear and coherent path out of poverty.
"During a cost of living crisis, communities need to be confident that their council is doing what they can to help them out of poverty, currently there is no confidence in this Conservative administration to do so.
"We welcome the necessary steps taken in provisions for foodbanks, financial resilience, and maintaining key community schemes already in circulation. However, their plan does not go far enough and fails to address key issues into why so many in Suffolk suffer in poverty."
Cllr Stringer said urgency in improving energy efficiency in low-income homes, a fully-costed public transport plan and preparation now for more energy cost rises in the winter are missing.
The seeds of the plan were sewn in July 2020 when then Labour councillor Jack Abbott put forward a motion for the council to "develop and implement a food justice action plan to eliminate hunger in the county" – a motion that was backed by all parties.
But the new poverty strategy did not contain long term actions and said: "Consultation feedback also highlighted the importance of making sure there is longer-term plan to tackle food and fuel poverty."
Mr Abbott said it was "difficult not to feel angry" at the lack of progress.
"The Conservative-administration at Suffolk County Council should be ashamed. This strategy has taken the best part of two years to produce and has been beset by major delays, but what has finally been published doesn't even look finished," he said.
"People will look at this and ask: 'is this it?'. There is a complete absence of detail. There are no targets set. There is no firm sense of what the council wants to achieve, and by when.
"Thousands of people are facing a desperate choice between heating and eating, yet there has been no urgency to complete this strategy and start tackling the causes of poverty head-on."
Data published last week indicated that more than 135,000 people were in relative poverty in Suffolk pre-pandemic – and that figure is likely to have gone up as a result of the Covid-19 impacts and the cost of living crisis.
It included more than 31,000 children and nearly 34,000 pensioners.
The strategy has collated a series of findings following work with the voluntary sector and public bodies last year, as well as a survey of more than 200 organisations and schools. It said it had conducted an "evidence review into what works to tackle poverty".
Among actions in the short term action plan are a £1.1million underwriting of the Suffolk Advice and Support Service and Local Welfare Assistance Scheme from Suffolk Public Sector Leaders to continue through 2022/23, and pilot grant schemes with voluntary organisations on tackling poverty and overcoming the barriers to escaping poverty.
Elsewhere, the council has commissioned Healthwatch Suffolk to work with those who have a lived experience of poverty on an Experts by Experience scheme to help come up with solutions, due to start within the next few months, while poverty awareness training for public sector workers is also earmarked.
Bobby Bennett, Conservative cabinet member for equality and communities at Suffolk County Council, said: "The Tackling Poverty Action Plan brings together the work that is already being done across Suffolk to tackle the impact of poverty.
"It also outlines what else needs to be done.
"The plan draws on the expertise of people in Suffolk who have experienced poverty and from front line organisations who offer help and support.
"The impact of Covid and global issues have greatly accelerated the importance of the plan, and we continue to work hard with our partners to offer the right support."
Visit www.healthysuffolk.org.uk/advice-services/adults/poverty-reduction to read the strategy and find out more.