In a project run by Locality and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, journalist Mary O’Hara is visiting Locality members to examine the effects the cuts are having on local communities.
The combined impact of austerity measures has not yet fully hit people in a deprived Liverpool neighbourhood. The future is ‘frightening’, they tell Mary O’Hara.
The worst effects of austerity have yet to be fully felt but so too has the response of people living in the hardest-hit communities.
This was the clear message from Croxteth in Liverpool when local residents and frontline community workers were asked about the impact of Government austerity policies on their area and their lives.
In a community that has had to cope with entrenched deprivation for many years – but has nevertheless seen progress over the past decade, including investment in job training schemes – the prospect of years of austerity is hitting home.
From April 2013, as people try to deal with the direct and cumulative consequences of the ‘bedroom tax’, the introduction of Universal Credit and ongoing cuts to public services, thousands of people will be pushed to the brink, according to local women.
Speaking at the Communiversity building in Croxteth, the women say that if there is a sense of things being difficult now, the prospect of what lies ahead is ‘frightening’ for many vulnerable people.
They say the Universal Credit, a change intended to streamline benefits by bundling multiple payments into one and delivering them in a single payment directly to the recipient, will have a particularly harmful effect.
“We are talking about really vulnerable people who can’t budget themselves and they are going to go suddenly to having a month’s money,” one of the women points out.
“If people have debts to pay or their children need something urgently, many people are likely to divert cash from rent to what they see as more urgent needs.”
Escalating debt problems and evictions are just two examples of the likely ramifications.
Another woman talks of how the signs of physical decline are already beginning to surface as people leave ‘under-occupied’ properties in the area where she lives, Norris Green, and the homes are boarded up. The upshot she says is that if more people are forced to leave their homes the area is at risk of sudden and precipitous decline as more vacant properties appear.
“The social landlords would lease the houses to individual people on the basis that it was better to have the houses occupied than to have them empty, which brings the area down,” she says, explaining that the area has a shortage of one- and two-bedroom properties to re-house people.
“I walked just from my house to the bus stop and counted 11 houses tinned up because the social landlords can’t lease them, because of the under-occupancy. It’s madness. How can you say you’re saving money when you’re destroying a community?”
As cuts continue as planned and if things spiral downwards as expected the women say, communities will see no choice but to fight back. It may not be apparent now, they suggest, but there are signs in and around Croxteth at least that people are feeling angry at the degree and speed of cuts and changes to benefits.
They are especially concerned about what they see as the labelling of people as shirkers.
“I think people are going to start fighting back,” one community worker from Norris Green says. “They are going to start to be organised.”
“That’s when you’ll see it on the streets. That’s when you’ll see families living on the streets because people can’t sustain that level of poverty. That’s when it’ll be visibly noticeable that people have hit rock bottom and they won’t even have a home. And they won’t have the hostels [to go to]. You’ve only got to look at Greece, Spain, places like that. Why don’t our Government look at that? Why don’t they learn from that?”
Sheila Sweeney, a veteran community development worker at Communiversity says local community organisations are pulling together to help people as best they can.
“What we are trying to do is to get the communities to understand what these things are [that are happening], to get them to understand that they can actually have a say and they can actually begin to challenge these things.”
The residents are speaking just a few weeks after the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend James Jones, warned that Liverpool and some other northern cities with severe pockets of urban poverty were bearing a disproportionate brunt of Government cuts.
At a conference attended by council and religious leaders in January 2013, concerns were raised in particular about a lack of fairness when it comes to where cuts have been falling. Liverpool, the various leaders at the conference pointed out, was facing a cut of £252 per head compared with as little as £2 per head in some more affluent parts of the country.
According to Phil Knibb, Executive Director of Alt Valley Community Trust and job creation organisation the Neighbourhood Services Company, the issues raised at the conference are being reflected in what he and others are seeing on the ground.
What’s more, he says, there is a risk of years of good work and public investment in some of the most deprived areas of Liverpool being undone.
“It’s only the tip of the iceberg as we see it now,” Knibb says of the impact so far.
“We’ve been taking a lot of the edge off what’s happening and things have been improving in the area. We’ve brought investment in from Europe… Things had been getting better I’d say until the last year when we’ve seen the deprivation issues start to creep up. In some of the areas we work in it is really bad. From our point of view the cutbacks are only starting to take effect now.”