Council's plan to tackle poverty in Suffolk slammed by opposition groups

Suffolk County Council's poverty plan was delayed for five months.

Suffolk County Council's poverty plan was delayed for five months. Pictured: Volunteers sorting donations at a foodbank in 2017. - Credit: Antony Kelly

A council plan to tackle poverty in Suffolk has finally been published after a five-month delay – but opposition political figures say it doesn’t do enough to tackle the issues.

Suffolk County Council originally pledged to publish its poverty action plan by the end of 2021, but later said Covid-19 had caused delays.

On Wednesday this week, the authority’s scrutiny committee will assess progress against the action plan, with papers for the meeting being published last Wednesday. These included short-term measures in a one-year action plan but not the full strategy.

The report said that the strategy and the five-year action plan would be published by Friday last week, but the strategy was only published late on Monday – less than 48 hours before councillors are set to assess progress against the strategy.

The five-year action plan is yet to emerge.

It comes as families across the country struggle with the cost-of-living crisis.

Opposition groups say the strategy lacks ambition and measurable tasks.

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Andrew Stringer, leader of the opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group, said: “This Conservative-led council promised a five-year action plan, but instead has a strategy in place that does not outline a clear and coherent path out of poverty.

Cllr Andrew Stringer

Cllr Andrew Stringer - Credit: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“During a cost-of-living crisis, communities need to be confident that their council is doing what they can to help them out of poverty, currently there is no confidence in this Conservative administration to do so.

“We welcome the necessary steps taken in provisions for foodbanks, financial resilience, and maintaining key community schemes already in circulation. However, their plan does not go far enough and fails to address key issues into why so many in Suffolk suffer in poverty.”

Cllr Stringer said urgency in improving energy efficiency in low-income homes, a fully-costed public transport plan and preparation now for more energy cost rises in the winter are missing.

The seeds of the plan were sewn in July 2020 when then Labour councillor Jack Abbott put forward a motion for the council to “develop and implement a food justice action plan to eliminate hunger in the county” – a motion that was backed by all parties.

But the new poverty strategy did not contain long-term actions and said: “Consultation feedback also highlighted the importance of making sure there is longer-term plan to tackle food and fuel poverty.”

Mr Abbott said it was “difficult not to feel angry” at the lack of progress.

Data published last week indicated more than 135,000 people were in relative poverty in Suffolk pre-pandemic – and that figure is likely to have gone up as a result of Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis.

This figure included more than 31,000 children and nearly 34,000 pensioners.

The strategy has collated a series of findings following work with the voluntary sector and public bodies last year, as well as a survey of more than 200 organisations and schools. It said it had conducted an “evidence review into what works to tackle poverty”.

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.

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 Bobby Bennett

Cllr Bobby Bennett - Credit: Suffolk County Council

“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 frontline 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.”

Visit www.healthysuffolk.org.uk/advice-services/adults/poverty-reduction to read the strategy and find out more.