Barking and Dagenham was facing a cost of living crisis long before the rest of the country, councillor Saima Ashraf says bleakly. Now, residents are at risk of even greater levels of poverty and deprivation this winter as they struggle to survive while prices soar.
“When I got elected, I wanted to change the world,” Ashraf remarks, reflecting on her 12 years as a councillor. “I wanted to make everything better. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve been making cuts every year because the government is not funding us. We’re on our knees.”
Barking and Dagenham is a vibrant multicultural community – but it is also one of the most deprived areas in the country, with nearly half of its children living in poverty. It is home to the biggest council estate in the country, and structured tower blocks loom over squat brick houses. The level of premature death is the highest in London and almost one in four residents have less than £100 saved.
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The cost of living crisis is driving them into even deeper poverty. “The impact is huge on our communities,” Ashraf, who is deputy leader of the council, says. “We were hit hard by Covid and now the cost of living crisis, it puts us at the bottom. Our residents are hard-working, and they deserve the best like everyone else. And here we are being hit by several disasters.”
In a desperate attempt to alleviate the crisis with a limited pot of funds, Barking and Dagenham Council have launched a cost of living alliance. The council will work closely with community groups and local charities to make sure people can access the services they need to survive the winter.
“It’s about working together because we can’t expect everyone to come to the council,” Ashraf comments, close to admitting not everyone trusts the local authorities. “They will talk to their families, their friends, their GPs and also their faith groups and community groups. It’s about having a joint approach.”