February 24, 2024

People should be safe in their warm homes, not having to go to warm banks Picture: ri from Pixabay
By Jason Brock
Soon after the Government announced it was scrapping the top rate of income tax and was lifting the cap on bankers bonuses, the Council in Reading announced that it would again be sending energy vouchers again to families struggling with the soaring cost of energy bills this autumn.
We also announced a new raft of grants to voluntary organisations to help people with food and warm clothes over the cold winter months.
The juxtaposition is not lost on me.
Subsequent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the Chancellor’s ‘anything but mini’ budget showed that almost half of the personal tax cuts would go to the richest 5% of the population.
We’ve now had a panicked U-turn on the policy, which would have seen the biggest earners gain an estimated £40,000 a year – considerably higher than the annual salary of an NHS nurse, health worker, or most public sector workers.
The tax rate volte-face comes too late to calm the financial markets, but even putting aside the huge rises in mortgage payments on the horizon prompted by the Chancellor’s folly (which are yet another concern for people on top of other soaring prices), it is not the first time we have seen this approach from this Government.
A few months ago, they responded to the cost of living crisis with a blanket £150 rebate on Band A-D Council Tax bills.
That is not to be dismissed by anyone, but the flat rate discount was poorly targeted and far greater support could’ve been offered to those most in need if a meaningful scheme had been developed. Indeed, the phrase ‘targeted support’ doesn’t appear to be in this Government’s lexicon.
I was recently asked by a councillor whether the Council intended on opening up any so-called ‘warm spaces’ in Reading this winter, where struggling residents can spend time instead of paying extortionate prices for the cost of heating homes.
Of course, the provision of warm spaces is one of the options, co-ordinating our efforts with community groups and faith organisations, alongside other opportunities to either provide more direct support to residents or enable them to reduce their living costs.
I added, however, that it was a national disgrace that local government and our communities are having to embrace proposals that seem barely fit for the 19th century.
The thought of people across the country, in whatever numbers, having to shelter from the cold in a library or a community centre when they should be enjoying the safety and security of their own home must be recognised as a systematic national failure.
In Reading, we want to focus on the things which will help residents keep safe and secure in their own homes. We built into our budget this year an enhanced local Council Tax support scheme – a targeted scheme which benefits those who need support the most. It is currently benefitting almost 8,000 struggling households across the town with the team undertaking an exercise to encourage more eligible people to take it up.
We have held our Council Home rent increases below their permitted rise.
We also await allocations from Government for the next round of Household Support Funding grant. In the interim, officers have been working up the outline of a targeted local scheme not unlike last year’s, which saw more than 13,000 energy vouchers to households in Reading.
A Cost-of-Living Task and Finish Group, involving the Council and the voluntary sector, has been set up to co-ordinate our support to those at risk of experiencing hardship.
This is in addition to the broad range of advice and guidance on energy efficiency offered by the Council and local voluntary sector.
And, because I am not ignorant of pragmatic realities, we have also put more resources into supporting local foodbanks, the provision of warm clothing and blankets as I mention above, and community groups providing meals to residents.
The Council has also recently commissioned a number of voluntary organisations operating under the umbrella of its Tackling Poverty Partnership to provide targeted support for residents across the borough who are experiencing financial hardship, as well as commissioning a new debt advice service.
It is crucial that people are able to easily find out about what support is available. I would urge anyone struggling to visit our Money Matters website (www.reading.gov.uk/money-matters). Tenants of Reading Borough Council who are struggling financially can contact our in-house advice team on 0118 937 2197 or via [email protected]
As both a Councillor and the Council Leader, my priority has always been tackling inequalities in our town.
Reading ranks as the third most unequal ‘city’ nationally in terms of wealth distribution and is home to five neighbourhoods which sit in the 10% most deprived in England. It worries me that there is a difference in life expectancy of seven years for men and eight for women between the most affluent and most deprived areas of Reading. It was reassuring, therefore, that a recent independent Local Government Association peer challenge of the Council in Reading endorsed our tackling inequality workstream, which has been a priority in Reading now for a number of years, and indeed some time before the cost of living crisis came along.
It may not have taken the headlines but also tucked in among the Chancellor’s announcement was the scrapping of the health and social care levy.
This was supposed to be the Government’s solution to decades of underfunding of both the NHS and hugely stretched adult social care services.
While I have my doubts that was ever truly the case, we now appear to be back to square one with vague promises about a fair funding solution in the distant future.
Once again, it is the most vulnerable people in society who appear set to suffer the most.
Never mind levelling up, it seems to me this Government is building yet more barriers to a fairer society.
Cllr Jason Brock is the leader of Reading Borough Council and ward member for Southcote
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