“Poverty” isn’t strong enough to describe the misery so many face. We’re back to destitution

Liverpool, 2009. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool on the return of Victorian poverty.

Destitution. Just think about that word. Over the past decade, we have moved on from talking about social exclusion, or inequality, or even just poverty. Now, such is the impoverishment of whole communities, buckling after a decade of deep public spending cuts, that we are using the language of the Victorian era.

More than 1.5m people experienced ‘destitution’ in the UK at some point during 2017. Not my words, but the description given by a team of academics in a major new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Destitution in the UK 2018,which provides a benchmark for what the term means in the modern era.

They conclude that destitution refers to experiencing at least two of six indicators in a ghastly basket of measures of extreme poverty. Has someone slept rough for more than a day? Or had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days? Have they been unable to heat their home for five or more days? Or light it? Do they have appropriate clothing and footwear? Basic toiletries? And is their income so low they might lack these basic essentials in the immediate future? 

The problem of destitution is clustered in many post-industrial urban centres. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool comes second after Manchester, with some of the poorer parts of London, the North East and West Midlands also included.

The legacy issues that remain from the 1980s – including ingrained, inter-generational poverty and high unemployment – are hard to resolve, when eight years of swingeing central government spending cuts have reduced the council’s budget by two-thirds, some £444m.

Nevertheless, Liverpool has made it a priority to support people and families who face dire personal circumstances. Our Citizens Support Scheme and other hardship funds provided crisis payments for more than 10,000 last year – and helped more than 3,000 people and families pay for home essentials. 


We have also invested an extra £1mto prevent hardship and homelessness through discretionary housing payments. Last year we made 11,000 such payments, supporting residents who are suffering due to a shortfall in state benefits caused by government welfare reforms.

Our approach has been to deal with crisis situations, in order to stave off calamities. In many cases, we are one of the few councils in the country to provide this range of support, investing £23.2m last year in preventing our poorest citizens sliding into destitution.

This isn’t just because we are committed to social justice – or because I myself grew up in grinding poverty and know exactly how life-limiting it is. No: we have an additional motive for supporting the very poorest citizens in our city.

 If we allow people to sink to the very depths of despair it costs more in the long run to pull them back up again into mainstream society, transferring the pressure onto other frontline services, particularly the NHS. Destitution is cruel and brutal – but it is also an inefficient way to run a society. Our approach sees social justice and economic efficiency working hand in hand.

 But the most galling aspect of the Rowntree report is how bad government policy is conspiring to make the situation worse:

 ‘People were pulled into destitution by a combination of factors: benefit delays, gaps and sanctions; harsh debt recovery practices (mainly by public authorities and utilities companies); financial and other pressures associated with poor health and disability; high costs of housing, fuel and other essentials; and, for some groups – including young people – even lower levels of benefits than for others, and for some migrants, no eligibility at all.’

A large part of the rough sleeping problem we face in Liverpool involves failed asylum seekers who are designated as having no recourse to public funds. They are left to fall through the cracks – which is why I have instructed my officers to ignore this heartless government diktat.  

Remember David Cameron’s boasts about the “big society,” and claims that “We’re all in this together?” The destitute are those failed by his empty rhetoric and the grinding effects of austerity.

Although we don’t have the resources we need to fix all the problems of destitution – mostly driven by factors outside of my control – when we can prevent someone shivering in a doorway, we will, regardless of the rules.

Similarly, we were the first city in the country to bring forward compulsory landlord registration in order to tackle tenant exploitation and drive up standards in the private rented sector. 

All too often, serious-minded reports like this come along and cause consternation for those of us on the political left, but barely skim the surface when it comes to shifting government policy. 

Let this damning report – exposing the reality of destitution in our country, caused by a decade of austerity – be the moment when even the stony-hearted in Whitehall say, “Enough is enough.” 

Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.