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Newcastle Cost of Living Emergency declared after Liberal Democrats propose measures to mitigate the worst of what is to come

July 9, 2022 1:02 PM

Cost of living crisis motion proposed by Councillor Nick Cott, Leader of the Opposition on Newcastle City Council

Tackling poverty is everyone's business at the best of times - never mind in a crisis of the cost of living. We're raising this issue again - Cllr Huddart brought a motion to Council in February - as it remains very important, said Cllr Cott.

The motion proposed :

  • To declare a Cost of Living Emergency crisis and asks Cabinet to consider setting up a local Poverty Commission, involving partner organisations, to investigate ways of tackling the crisis locally, and to make recommendations about what the Council and other agencies can do to help. This Commission should also consider related issues such as the level of Child Poverty, which is exceptionally high in the city.
  • To call on the Government to immediately reduce the standard rate of VAT from 20 per cent to 17.5 per cent for one year, saving the average household in Newcastle a further £600 this year, to reintroduce the pensions triple lock to support Newcastle s pensioners, to restore the Universal Credit supplement of £20, which was cancelled by the Government in September 2021.
  • To write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to express the Council s demands for VAT to be cut to 17.5%, for the reintroduction of the pensions triple-lock and for the £20 Universal Credit supplement to be restored.

Cllr Cott (pictured here with seconder Cllr Robin Ashby in the Council Chamber) continued : Cllrs Cott and AshbyEarlier in the year, residents saw sharp increases in Council tax, rents and service charges and reduction in Universal Credit. Now, inflation stands at 9% and rising. We have a crisis of rising food prices, fuel and heating costs. Household budgets are being squeezed and there are rising levels of poverty across the country and the city. More people are using food banks as a means to make ends meet.

Our motion sets out a number of areas of concern which need to be addressed, including the impact of the 54% increase in the energy price gap, the impact of National Insurance increased, the suspension of the pensions 'triple lock' and again the demand for emergency food parcels.

We recognise action being taken through the imposition a 'Windfall Tax' on the super-profits of oil and gas companies and to redistribute this as a one-off payment of £400 to households later this year (a policy first set out by the Liberal Democrats nationally) but this doesn't go far enough.

The notice of motion calls on the Government to do more by immediately reduce the standard rate of VAT, the re-introduce the pensions triple lock, and restoration the Universal Credit supplement of £20, which was cancelled by the Government in September 2021.

Locally, we recognise that measures are being taken to address some of the circumstances. There are organisations and services playing their part to make life easier. We are happy to take on board the important roles of the Welfare Rights Service, Citizen's Advice and the Trade Unions. But we want to see this consolidated into a more formal response to the crisis - bringing organisations and partners together to coordinate responses across the city and we would like Cabinet to consider the options.

There is a systemic issue here. We need to recognise that tackling poverty should be one of the greatest priorities, to build a more equal and fairer city, and we need to bring all our knowledge and capabilities together to tackle the symptoms and causes. Poverty is not just the result of this crisis; we have in any case higher levels of poverty in Newcastle than in many other places and advocacy of a Poverty Commission, set out in the motion, is a response to not only tackling the immediate crisis, but a forum to bring all the work of agencies in the city together in a coordinated response, with a series of joint responses and sharing of capacity and resources to make the difference to people's lives, both now and into the future. Liberal Democrats know that such approaches can be successful, given our record when in office in Newcastle, when the government awarded us Beacon status for tackling and preventing child poverty (now in itself a key problem for this authority). We need to revisit this partnership working as part of our plans. It is disappointing that Labour doesn't seem to want to take up our suggestion about the Poverty Commission.

I reiterate that tackling poverty is everyone's business. It is good that the whole Council values tackling poverty. We're here to make a difference to people's lives. Let's do so together and take up the suggestions in our motion.

Seconding the motion, Cllr Robin Ashby said : There is a hard rain heading towards us. That hard rain is going to wash away the good life - and even the lives - of many.

There are clouds looming across the world. Riding them are the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We might like to think they aren't heading our way. We'd think wrong. We need to make repairs to the roof here before the current drizzle turns to floods of poverty, hardship and worse.

My fear is that come the winter, things will be very very bad for many many people, here in Newcastle, in Britain, and in parts of the world already suffering from climate catastrophe, war, starvation and deprivation.

Time is of the essence. The Government could do its part at the stroke of a pen if it chose. If it wasn't falling apart.

BUT Newcastle City Council must not and should not drag its feet. The impact of the cost of living crisis on local people cannot wait until the proposed and worthwhile commission reports in full. The subject - and proposals for action - must be on the monthly agenda of the City Future Board just as the Covid crisis was. The effort must be unstinting.

The Council must revisit its previous decisions through the lens of the cold and hunger many will feel once summer starts to fade. For instance, Citizens Advice funding has been cut and must be restored.

Foodbanks in the City are already reporting a downturn in food and money receipts. Their work is invaluable. Initiatives like "Tin on a Wall" will generate some support but it's not going to be anything like enough. Supermarkets with food collection points must be encouraged in their efforts - even if it's a small thing like a Lord Mayor's Letter of Thanks.

Food vouchers during school holidays for those on free school meals are welcome. But such families may have children under school age too, and Mums who will go hungry to feed them. Organisations like Red House Farm JFC recognised this during lockdown and helped locally quickly. The Council's food distribution efforts were slow and disorganised. Was the system reviewed thoroughly and lessons learned so when - not if - it has to been done again, there will be no mistakes?

Interest rates rising will put pressure on families and further breakdowns seem almost inevitable. The rough sleeping team already working this issue will be further stretched. How can they be reinforced, and new workers trained, in short order to bring essential food and shelter to those forced onto the streets?

Communal feeding is a desperate remedy. But some groups like Sikh Gudwaras and the People's Kitchen are doing, on a fortunately small scale, what may be needed on a much greater one. We the Council need to be talking to them about emergency ramping up of provision and sharing their expertise with others.

For all these things, volunteers will be needed. So what registers we have of contact details of those who helped in the vaccination roll out and during lockdown, for instance, should be revisited and updated, and if necessary clearances obtained, so that there will be no delays caused by bureaucracy when they are needed.

As the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan put it far more poetically than me :

I'm a-going back out 'fore the rain starts a-falling

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty

Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten

And I'll tell it, and speak it, and think it, and breathe it

And its a hard rain a-going to fall