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Calls for greater ambition on Suffolk's poverty strategy

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Suffolk's poverty strategy should include more clearly defined aims and objectives, councillors have said.

Suffolk County Council published its poverty strategy and an accompanying one-year action plan earlier this week, after Covid-19 delayed the documents by around five months.

But concerns were raised by opposition political figures earlier this week that it didn't have enough ambition and lacked measurable objectives.

Endeavour House in Russell Road, Ipswich. Headquarters of Suffolk County Council. Picture: Jason Noble.
Endeavour House in Russell Road, Ipswich. Headquarters of Suffolk County Council. Picture: Jason Noble.

Councillors at Wednesday's scrutiny committee heard from organisations helping people struggling to make ends meet, including Citizens Advice West Suffolk, FareShare East Anglia and Home-Start in Suffolk, who gave a stark picture of the issues people are facing.

They include financial hardship, difficulties paying for food or energy bills, accessing affordable childcare or getting the benefits they need.

The committee has made a series of recommendations to bolster the plan.

Cllr Bobby Lee. Picture: Simon Lee.
Cllr Bobby Lee. Picture: Simon Lee.

They include:

  • More clearly defined aims and objectives
  • Requesting access to Department for Work and Pensions data made available during the Covid-19 pandemic to continue longer term
  • Clarity on pathways out of poverty for people
  • Inclusion of more urgent measures on energy efficiency improvement to help reduce energy bills
  • Widen the pool of eligibility for the Warm Homes Healthy People scheme, which helps low income households heat their homes
  • Action plan to include recent issues such as the rise in inflation and impact of the war in Ukraine on fuel costs
  • More unity between the strategy and action plan, with actions responding to the findings in the strategy
  • Strategy to return for a full discussion to scrutiny committee in a year's time, with a six-month written update
  • Clearer access to the strategy and action plan online
  • Suffolk County Council contracts to ask for contractors to pay workers the real living wage

Committee chairman Michael Ladd said: "We probably want to say that we are disappointed it has taken so long to sign the action plan off, I think that is a fair comment because it has been two years and it is only just about to be signed off. So we are disappointed in that but we do support the action plan and commend all the people involved in that because it is a big piece of work."

The plan is set to go to the Health and Wellbeing Board, likely to be in July, for a final sign-off.

Among measures already happening have been extending the Suffolk Advice and Support Service and Local Welfare Assistance Scheme, thanks to £1.1million fo Suffolk Public Sector Leaders cash and emergency food supplies where food banks have been running low.

Conservative cabinet member for communities and equality, Bobby Bennett, said: "This is an extraordinarily broad piece of work that is already being carried out across Suffolk to tackle the impact of poverty. It's such an important issue for our residents.

"The plan draws on the expertise of people in Suffolk who have experienced poverty and from frontline organisations who offer help and support.

"This document pulls together the many strands of work that have been happening on the ground, helping people for many, many months, as well as looking to the future.

"We are very aware it's a live document and there will be new elements and new pieces of work that feed into it."

But Cllr Sarah Adams, leader of the Labour group said that the plan needed "proper targets and proper dates, which none of these have".

"The strategy following an action plan is a most unusual way of planning things," she said.

"Usually the strategy is a plan for what you are going to achieve and then you get an action plan from that which ties up with it. That doesn't appear to be the case for any of the documents I have been able to find."

The papers revealed that more than 135,000 people in Suffolk are living in relative poverty, including more than 31,000 children and nearly 34,000 pensioners.

That number was recorded pre-pandemic, with expectations that Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis will have increased those numbers.

To view the plan visit www.healthysuffolk.org.uk/advice-services/adults/poverty-reduction