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Barnet Council leader pledges to help struggling residents through cost-of-living crisis

Support package plus new £2m fund for residents set up by council amid warnings of tough winter ahead
By Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Barry Rawlings
Barry Rawlings

Barnet Council leader Barry Rawlings has vowed to do “everything we can to help local residents” facing a cost-of-living crisis.

Warning of a “bleak” picture as winter approaches, Cllr Rawlings pledged to use a £10million support package and to work together with foodbanks and other local groups to help struggling residents.

A £2m resident support fund has been set up by the council to provide targeted help to those who are struggling to pay for food, energy bills and other essentials. This is part of a wider £9m support package that includes the household support fund, discretionary housing payment and school uniform fund. A further £974,000 windfall payment from the incinerator at Edmonton Eco Park brings the total to almost £10m.

It comes on top of a freeze in core council tax during the current financial year and a plan to refund a 1% increase in the adult social care levy to put more money back in residents’ pockets.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service on Friday, Cllr Rawlings warned rising inflation and borrowing costs had painted “a pretty bleak picture”.

He added: “Foodbanks are struggling on two grounds. The demand has gone up, so there are more people queueing, but also there are fewer donations. Often they rely on individual or corporate donations from the bigger supermarkets, and I think because people are struggling themselves, they are less likely to donate food.

“With people paying more for energy, which you have to; more for food, which you have to; and increases in mortgages and rent; there is very little left over already. That has a knock-on effect on other parts of the economy […] It really is recession territory we are entering.”

After the council launched its resident support fund on 3rd October, Cllr Rawlings said it already had 111 applications by the 18th. He warned that the council itself was being hit by the crisis and is now paying an extra half-a-million pounds on street lighting alone following the first energy price rise.

Faith centres, community groups and other organisations have opened their doors to provide warm spaces where people who are struggling to heat their homes can take refuge. Cllr Rawlings said there were plans for the council to support the initiatives, and libraries would also be “de facto warm spaces”.

Haringey Council has pledged to ensure there is a warm space offered for struggling residents in every ward in the borough, while Cllr Rawlings said in Barnet there would be “sufficent” warm spaces provided.

With Covid-19 cases on the rise once again and the possibility of a flu epidemic, the council leader said he was worried about clinically vulnerable people who may live alone and who cannot gather with other people in warm spaces. For these people, he explained, the council could try to revive some of the neighbourhood support groups that operated during the pandemic. He also asked for people to look after each other and check on their neighbours.

The council leader said: “I think there is a lot we can do to help each other and take some of the lessons we learned from the pandemic about the amount of people who are willing to help, who need to know how to help. We are there to advise and spark these things happening, as well as what we are doing directly.”

The £10m support package comes from a mixture of government grants and the council’s own budget. But Cllr Rawlings said the government had not provided much guidance or financial help to cope with the cost-of-living crisis, and it looked like more austerity was on the way.

He called on ministers to provide certainty over council funding, including two or three-year settlements to enable it to plan ahead. Unspent money from Covid relief could be released to allow councils to support initiatives such as warm spaces, he added.

In the long run, Cllr Rawlings said the council wanted to know if the government would provide money for solar panels and retrofitting homes to make them more energy-efficient. He said: “If we know there are grants available specifically for that, then we can plan to increase retrofitting and aim to provide better insulation.”

Adult social care also needed more funding, Cllr Rawlings said, warning the sector would be running on a “hand-to-mouth” basis for the “foreseeable future”.

The Conservative opposition group recently criticised the Labour administration over its plans to refund the adult social care levy by deducting it from next year’s bills instead of paying it back directly. Cllr Rawlings said it was a “straightforward decision” and claimed taking it off next year’s bills was the “most efficient way” of doing it. Any other way would have cost at least £200,000, he said, which would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“We know the cost-of-living crisis is real,” the council leader said. “We are suffering from it as well, as a council. We will do everything we can to help local residents and encourage them to help each other. The basics of life – the food, the roof over your head, the warmth and so on – need to be provided, somehow.

“We are very annoyed that a lot of the problems did not have to happen – that some of the recent government decisions have made the situation worse. They have put up mortgages and interest rates to no purpose. But we have to deal with the real-life situation, where a lot of people are struggling. We are there to stand alongside people and help them where we can […] We have to get through this together.”

Details of how to apply for Barnet’s resident support fund are available here: https://www.barnet.gov.uk/benefits-grants-and-financial-advice/barnet-resident-support-fund


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