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More than 135,000 people in Suffolk likely to be in poverty, new report says

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Poverty numbers in Suffolk are likely to be well in excess of 135,000 people, a new report says, as Suffolk workers bring home nearly £40 per week less than others in England.

Suffolk County Council has reported that 17.77 per cent of Suffolk’s population was in relative poverty pre-pandemic – 135,000 people.

That included 31,000 children and nearly 34,000 pensioners, with a new report saying that Covid-19 has 'further increased the number of people in Suffolk living in poverty'.

Endeavour House, home of Suffolk County Council.
Endeavour House, home of Suffolk County Council.

The cost of living crisis, which has seen increases for things like fuel, food, energy, council tax and National Insurance, will have exacerbated that further.

According to the authority, the number of youngsters claiming Free School Meals has jumped from 16,087 in February 2020 to 21,381 in December 2021, while an extra 30,000 people were on Universal Credit between February 2020 and March this year.

It means 8.8 per cent of Suffolk’s population are now on Universal Credit.

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

Figures for the end of January last year found that the median gross weekly pay for Suffolk was £573.60 for Suffolk – nearly £40 per week less than the England average and £55 below the East of England average.

Relative poverty is defined as post-tax income being less than 60 per cent of the national median income for similar households.

Suffolk County Council’s scrutiny committee is next week set to look at the issue, and consider the council’s yet-to-be published poverty strategy whose publication has been delayed by five months.

Bobby Bennett, Conservative cabinet member for equality and communities at Suffolk County Council, said: “The Tackling Poverty Action Plan brings together the work that is already being done across Suffolk to tackle the impact of poverty.

Cllr Andrew Stringer.
Cllr Andrew Stringer.

"It also outlines what else needs to be done.

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

“The impact of Covid and global issues have greatly accelerated the importance of the plan, and we continue to work hard with our partners to offer the right support.”

Among actions in the short term action plan are a £1.1million underwriting of the Suffolk Advice and Support Service and Local Welfare Assistance Scheme from Suffolk Public Sector Leaders to continue through 2022/23, and pilot grant schemes with voluntary organisations on tackling poverty and overcoming the barriers to escaping poverty.

Elsewhere, the council has commissioned Healthwatch Suffolk to work with those who have a lived experience of poverty on an Experts by Experience scheme to help come up with solutions, due to start within the next few months, while poverty awareness training for public sector workers is also earmarked.

But Andrew Stringer from the opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group said “radical action” is needed to avoid more families falling into poverty.

“Two of the main factors driving food poverty in Suffolk are the cost of living crisis, and the cutting of Universal Credit.

"The report states a ‘readjustment’ of Universal Credit, but frankly this was a cut to the vital life support needed by those who have been devastatingly affected by the pandemic and a generation of Conservative policy,” he said.

“Both these factors could be greatly influenced by decisions made by our leaders in Suffolk, it has been a Conservative policy to choose not doing enough for too long.

“Insulation should have been prioritised, green energy should have been invested in, better signposting of support should have been implemented, wages in low-paying but necessary sectors should have increased.”

Jack Abbott, former Labour councillor at the county council who put forward the motion for a food poverty strategy back in 2020, said: “These are stark figures which show the devastating scale of poverty across Suffolk, even before the pandemic began.

"We know the situation has worsened considerably since, with many families struggling to make ends meet amid rising prices and taxes.

“We have been waiting for two years for Suffolk County Council’s food poverty strategy to be published.

"I hope that, despite the major delays, we will finally see a detailed, proactive and co-ordinated plan to tackle the causes of poverty.”

Strategy delays

Suffolk County Council’s full council meeting in July 2020 unanimously agreed a motion to develop a food poverty action plan, to be published by the end of 2021.

But the plan was controversially delayed, vaguely put down to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The council stressed it had already been carrying out some of the measures in the plan, but no firm indication had been given of when it would be published.

The five year overarching poverty strategy – which is set to include a specific food poverty section – and a one-year action plan are set to be published before the meeting on Wednesday next week.