In this part of London, food banks have steadily become part of the social landscape. This will be surprising to some of the millions of visitors from all over the world who flock to Greenwich each year to enjoy the historic town centre.
But the reality is that many local residents in this borough are so short of food that they have to return to Jobcentre Plus or to a frontline public sector professional for a food bank voucher on more than just the odd occasion. These are not people who are managing to recover quickly from a short-term crisis. Last autumn I talked to a young couple at the food bank who were there with their baby. Yesterday, more than a year on, they were back with that child. She’s now a toddler, and her baby brother is six months old.
What role does the local authority play in tackling deprivation and poverty here? Local politician Denise Hyland is the leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and she took control of the Labour-run council this year. This week she visited the volunteers at Greenwich Food Bank, which runs a warehouse and eight donation points throughout the borough. Ahead of this visit, she talked to me about food banks, poverty, and the impact of the austerity agenda and welfare reforms on residents here. She outlined how her local authority works to support those most vulnerable to the impact of cuts to welfare.
‘We find it tragic that there’s a need for food banks, but we are deeply appreciative of all those who make the food bank possible,’ she said. As a measure of its commitment to the work done by the food banks in the borough – all of which are part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks – the borough provides some premises including the warehouse at a peppercorn rent, including the necessary work to make it fit for purpose. ‘We also have large (collection) bins in the Woolwich Centre and in other centres as well.’
The borough, which won the council of the year award last year for its work on regeneration, growth and investment, also has an emergency support scheme aimed at supporting some of the people who might, if not helped, be forced to use food banks. According to the council’s website, the scheme would meet ‘essential short term needs in an emergency or flood’ and it might ‘in very limited circumstances’ support those whose benefits have been stopped, reduced or those whose benefits have been sanctioned. When the council took over the scheme from Jobcentre Plus in April 2013, it ensured it developed ‘a very close relationship between the scheme and its Welfare Rights service’, said Cllr Hyland. She added: ‘It’s been a really useful scheme, and we’ve used it to triage people. We can for example refer them to the Families 1st service.’
The council is recognised nationally for its Families 1st programme and has one of the best figures in the country for offering targeted help to families with complex needs. Dedicated keyworkers give intensive support to families who have a range of issues, which may include an adult out of work, youth crime or anti-social behaviour. Launched in March 2013, the council says almost 450 families have engaged with the scheme. The council tries to target the people who are the most likely to be in a worse position if benefits are cut or capped.
Cllr Hyland added: ‘We try to be proactive and identify the people who might be most affected. When the welfare reforms started we contacted those who were likely to be impacted by the benefit cap. In Greenwich, 35 per cent of those affected were losing £50 or more a week. Most of the families affected by the benefit cap are in private accommodation. We also have people hit by the bedroom tax and we have families affected by the reduction in help with council tax benefits.’ She emphasized the importance of thorough assessments that take into account all the circumstances faced by an individual or family. ‘We offer a holistic assessment, as people can fall through the cracks – for example when they are helped with housing but not necessarily with employment.’ She pointed to the drive underway in other councils to rehouse people outside London. Her council’s aim is to build on the considerable regeneration and investment in education and skills going on in the borough. These programmes include improved transport links (including two Crossrail development sites in Woolwich and Abbey Wood) offering more access to the employment market, house-building and redevelopment on a major scale, and four new skills centres.
The council’s job agency is Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). It’s described by the council as a brokerage scheme between local employers and local people looking for work – and the council says it has helped more than 16,000 people find jobs or access training since its inception. Cllr Hyland said one scheme – the Highways Improvement Scheme – has involved putting £5million of reserves into highway repairs while training young people in road repairing skills. One skills centre – the Royal Borough of Greenwich Construction Skills Centre – opened in the summer when 20 trainees began learning a wide range of skills from laying paving to street repairs. Cllr Hyland said this mobile unit stays on the construction site for the length of a build.
She sees this general approach to developing skills and job creation as part of a ‘double-sided strategy’ to bring together physical regeneration with social and economic regeneration.’If you go to Woolwich Common, Abbey Wood, Middle Park or Greenwich Town Centre, there are micro pockets of deprivation. But we have to share the prosperity around everyone.’ But some families are harder to help than others, she said – and there is a particular problem when people are housed in Greenwich by other London councils. ‘Someone came into my surgery complaining of damp. The family lives in a private house and their home borough (in Central London) sent in an environmental health officer. This council then gave the family a notice to quit and offered them a place in Essex. This is too far from their cultural centre (they are from Eritrea) and too far from the father’s job in West London. This council has now washed its hands of that family. When that notice to quit is followed through, the family will probably turn up on our doorstep as homeless. Their child is due to start nursery in January. The family’s being shoved from pillar to post.’
She added: ‘With the policies that are being pursued, these people are at more of a disadvantage, and communities are being fractured because of the whole debate about immigrant’s rights and benefits. These are people with no recourse to public funds, and we’re spending about £4million on them. This new burden is not being recognised (by central Government). If they turn up and it’s a couple without children, we would declare there is no duty to help them and refer them to a homeless charity. If they have children who are dependents we have a duty of care to those children and we’ll give them temporary accommodation in a property that’s due for demolition. But those people need a school and those people need food. They let people through the border and keep them waiting to hear of their status. In the meantime they can’t work and are left in destitution. We are having to deal with the human tragedy.’