A gathering social storm

Photo credit: © Graeme Robertson

November 20, 2012 // By: Joe Penny

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It’s a cold and wet October morning, and about fifty people are forming an orderly queue along the street. Sharing umbrellas and pulling up their hoods to shelter from the elements, they’re not waiting for the launch of Apple’s new phone; nor are they hoping to get their hands on tickets for that must-see show. They are queuing for legal advice at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Turnpike Lane. Many of them have been here for hours, the first arriving at 6.30am.

Demand for legal advice and support at this centre in Haringey has risen steeply over the past few years. Caught in the confluence of a roller coaster recession, swingeing cuts to public services and now welfare reform, a growing number of people are in need of professional support and legal advice.

The last few months have seen demand starting to outstrip the centre’s capacity, which was itself reduced by some 20 per cent due to funding cuts. The centre saw to the needs of 347 people in September alone, while having to turn away more than 250. They are struggling to meet 60 per cent of the demand at their doors, which is of course not to mention the hundreds who stay at home suffering in silence.

Staff at Haringey’s Citizens Advice Bureau were among the people and organisations we interviewed as part of ongoing research into the human, social and economic impact of government spending cuts. We’ve been using peer-led research and workshops in some of the most deprived communities in Haringey and Birmingham to go beyond the figures and hear the stories of real people.

As bad as the situation currently is, CAB staff told us they are braced for worse to come. Welfare reform has only just started to move into gear, with the majority of changes scheduled for April 2013. The full effect of cuts to public services and voluntary activity are still to be felt. The benefit cap and other changes to housing benefits in particular are likely to cause significant issues in Haringey – an area that has long suffered from homelessness, overcrowding and unaffordable house prices.

More than 1,300 local families are predicted to be adversely affected by the £500 per week benefits cap. A modest three bedroom house in Tottenham, valued within the 30th per centile of local rents, will set you back around £300 per week, leaving families with three children £200 per week to live off – £200 to to cover food, clothing, heating, electricity, water and transport for five people. Given that the Government’s own estimations for how much money a family of this size will need is around £330 per week, the choices for these families will be stark: either pay your rent and go hungry, or eat and lose your home. For those with more than three children the situation is even worse - Tottenham families on benefits with five children or more will be left with as little as 50 pence to pay rent after paying for basic living costs.

In an area where rent arrears are already rising and where 24 people in every 1,000 received repossession orders in 2011 (the second highest level in London), the likelihood of rising homelessness is very real. Indeed, over 800 young single people relying on housing benefits are set to lose up to £80 per week in support as the age threshold for shared room rate is raised to 35 years. Local supply of shared dwellings is woefully short of demand (suggestions put it at around 20 per cent of demand), so hundreds of young people are at risk of a future sofa surfing or sleeping rough. Overcrowding will also worsen - staff at CAB spoke of landlords increasing the occupancy levels of flats in order to spread the risks of unpaid rents. 

These are just some of the issues that staff at Haringey’s Citizens Advice are worried about. Worsening mental health, long-term unemployment, and rising levels of debt, fuel poverty and hunger are all occurring with alarming regularity. The human costs of the cuts are insupportable, especially in an area such as Haringey. As one of the Trustees at the centre put it:

People on subsistence level benefits are having to make the very little they have go a lot further. But how? You have to worry about the effects of all this desperation, not just on individuals and families, but on the community as a whole in Haringey – we’re picking up the pieces from August 2011. There is agitation, desperation and of course potential for conflict.

Growing levels of homelessness, and worsening mental and physical health, to name just a few issues on the rise in Haringey, will all come at a financial cost too – not least to the NHS, already groaning under increased demand and pressures to become more “streamlined” and lean. Ending these levels of austerity is more than a human and social imperative; it is an economic necessity too.

It is at places such as Citizens Advice where the warning alarms are first sounded. They are, as the chair of Haringey CAB put it, “the social weather vane” of an area. With public services being cut back more each year, welfare reform in motion and living costs spiralling upwards, all signs point to a social storm of unprecedented proportions.

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