Social Justice

How one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK is tackling the cost of living crisis

Barking and Dagenham Council is setting up a cost of living alliance to help its residents through the economic crisis

Barking and Dagenham

Barking and Dagenham is a vibrant East London borough. Image: Barking and Dagenham Borough Council

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. 

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.”

Barking Town Centre. Image: Barking and Dagenham Borough Council

The council is working closely with the local Citizens Advice bureau, who have been “overwhelmed” by calls about energy bills over the last few months. Four in 10 people in Barking and Dagenham are estimated to be in fuel poverty, with their incomes unable to keep up with skyrocketing bills. 

The council is promising to offer community hubs in every ward, a place where residents can go to seek advice and help. There’s already an established Homes and Money Hub, providing money management support. Staff are trained in fuel poverty and can offer vouchers to people most in need to help them with their energy bills. 

Economic deprivation is also having an impact on local people’s health and wellbeing, with the council reporting rising levels of obesity and cardiovascular diseases in the area. Access to food, especially healthy options, will be central to the alliance’s work as they coordinate food banks and clubs. 

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There is a strong community spirit in Barking and Dagenham. Image: Barking and Dagenham Borough Council.

While she has a lot of pride in the community organisations stepping up, Ashraf admits the alliance is only being launched because the council cannot afford the services its residents need.

“That’s exactly it,” she says. “We don’t have the same funding, but we still want to deliver a decent service to our residents. We’ve moved away from being a holistic council to being a collaborative council.”

Government grants for local authorities were reduced by nearly 50 per cent between 2010 and 2018, which forced Barking and Dagenham Council to make cuts totalling £153 million. 

“You want to have clean streets, and the environment is important, and mental health is important, and then there’s children and social care. Which one are you going to prioritise? It’s a catch-22 issue. We’ve got to compromise one over the other. 

“Unfortunately, this government has true loyalty with the wealthiest five per cent. It is unacceptable and heartbreaking that this is where we are as a country. We’ve had decades of austerity. We are one of the richest countries in Europe, if not in the world. It’s very sad.”

The opening of the Sue Bramley Community Hub in Barking. Left to right: Councillor Faruk Choudhury, who is now mayor, councillor Maureen Worby, councillor Ashraf and councillor Muhammad Saleem. Image: Barking and Dagenham Borough Council.

Liz Truss’s government has promised to boost economic growth by slashing taxes, but the cost of this could be huge cuts to public services. The household support fund, providing councils with money to distribute to people most in need, has been extended until March next year, but Ashraf says councils need more.

“We need more funding and also help for voluntary organisations,” she adds. “We need an honest and realistic picture when they are talking about levelling up and inequality. There is a lot of opportunity but, right now, what we need is more support and funding.”

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