Elly de Decker, Executive Director of the Bromley by Bow Centre wonders why policymakers and funders aren’t investing in sustainable solutions at community level.
“Recent months have seen Britain bombarded by an avalanche of announcements concerning the cost of living crisis. Driven by spiralling energy and fuel costs, alongside broader inflationary pressures, the impact on households is being exacerbated by a stagnating economy where wages, for most people, are falling in real terms.
The latest announcement of an increase in the energy price cap has only added to the heightened sense of collective anxiety in our communities. Thus far, government support has offered little to calm public fears, and so our team at the Bromley by Bow Centre (like thousands of third sector organisations around the UK) is wondering how on earth we’ll be able to support distressed local people to navigate this perfect storm of financial turmoil.
For those who don’t know, our Centre is at the eastern edge of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Like much of the Borough it contains pockets of extreme deprivation. Yet poverty does not define the Borough’s people, who are diverse in background, resourceful and aspirational in outlook. This is a vibrant community where you will hear dozens of languages spoken in the local markets; where social housing predominates; where community still feels an authentic commodity; and where almost a third of households exist on a meagre income of less than £1,000 a month.
We KNOW the people in our community – we have known for some months how bad things were getting for the people in our locality.
Behind the alarming statistics are real people and we talk to them every day
This spring at the Centre we saw a 54% year-on-year increase in people seeking help with their finances. Bow Food Bank on our site has experienced a 30% surge in demand since February. The number of people supported by our Energy Advisers in the first three months of the year rose by 61% – and that was prior to the April energy price cap increase.
Behind those statistics are real people: hard working families struggling to afford the very basic necessities to live with dignity. The phrase ‘choosing between eating and heating’ has already become a grim cliché, but these choices are not apocryphal: they are a reality for many people around us.
The Bromley by Bow Centre is not a policy maker nor a campaigning organisation. But we see all too clearly that the systems the country has relied on to provide the essentials for its citizens are not fit for purpose. We need radical thinking to provide strategies to deliver more robust and resilient communities.
In dealing with the problems within our community we start with a belief that however necessary they are, one-dimensional solutions focusing on acute need rarely provide lasting, long-term change. Providing food through a food bank is vital in the immediate. But, it only pushes tackling the root causes further down the road. In our work we commit time and resources on getting to know people. We ask the questions that help us and people to understand the circumstances that brought them to us in the first place.
Each encounter with our service is considered an opportunity to uncover more about people and to seek ways in which we can help them to build their capabilities and resilience. Those using the food bank may be gently encouraged to attend a session on household budgeting. They may spend time one-to-one with an adviser who can help them with planning. We may be able to support them in reducing existing debt. There could be benefits or family support entitlements of which people are unaware and which we can help them to claim. Or we may enable them to take a course of education, to gain skills that could lead them to better paid work. And they can be supported to build community capacity like our Energy Champions.
People deserve genuine community-based solutions – and they’re not getting them
Genuine solutions require an investment of time. They have to be targeted, as far as possible, around the holistic needs of individuals or households in order to maximise the prospect of lasting and meaningful success. Our work will continue to consider a rounded view of how we can support people in our community. This is a micro version of systemic change: supporting people to re-arrange the processes that they use to organise their lives.
Genuine solutions also require financial investment. Our work, along with that of our community partners, is high value. By considering the whole person, we support people to develop the tools that help with multiple aspects of their lives. Supporting work like ours helps to reduce poverty, improve health, and in the long-term, to create wealth.
Perhaps there are lessons in this which can be learned at a societal level. The problems experienced cross the country differ from village to village, town to town, neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Can we as a country meet the challenge of providing systemic change that has the flexibility to enable the country as a whole to be more resilient in the face of economic and other crises?
If you would like to discuss this article, you can email Elly de Decker, or call her on 07957 621988.
Read our story ‘How locals are taking control of energy bills during the cost of living crisis’ in Roman Road London