‘London councils unite to reveal pockets of poverty’ by Deven Ghelani was first published in The Municipal Journal on 15 April 2019.

Local authorities are using the power of collaboration to reveal London’s poverty hotspots, identify families who need support and deliver services where they’re most useful. Policy in Practice’s Director Deven Ghelani takes us inside the biggest project of its kind.

Building a Living Standards Index for London

Eighteen London borough councils have been collaborating for two years to bring together important administrative data on the financial security of 550,000 low-income families. Analysis of their data reveals where London’s poverty hotspots are and how authorities might better support struggling households.

The project is funded by the Trust for London and the figures that result from it have been brought to life in the new publicly-available Living Standards Index for London. The Index’s interactive map allows anyone to explore where London’s poverty hotspots are and the types of households affected.

The Index shows the actual financial circumstances of low-income families month-to-month, drawing on housing benefit and council tax support data. Now councils can track how these families in their areas are coping, or not, and get support to them more effectively than ever before.

The Index shows the proportion of low-income families who can’t pay the bills in each borough, and even down to each ward. Across London, 15% of low-income families face a cash shortfall each week, up from 12% of families in 2016. Our analysis shows that families with someone with a disability are a key group who are struggling to make ends meet. We project that, if nothing changes, the number of low-income families who can’t pay the bills in London will rise by 61% to 238,000.

The ward-by-ward breakdown allows Londoners and their councils to see which wards have been hardest hit by the rollout of Universal Credit, rising living costs and frozen benefits.

The Living Standards Index for London is an interactive tool for tracking how London’s low-income families are coping financially.

Using data to prevent hardship

Data like this is gold dust. Councils and frontline support organisations can use real information about low-income families to identify vulnerability and target resources. Insights from the easily accessed data will help with planning the location of services, reaching vulnerable households and preventing poor outcomes like homelessness and pay-day debt accumulation from occurring. Elected members will be especially interested to see where budgets can be best spent to help the residents who need it most, and whether new initiatives are reaching those they should.

Some councils are already using big data like this to drive good change at the local level. Croydon, for example, has used household data to make sure more of their low-income families are receiving the benefits and support from DWP they are eligible for. They’ve also identified families with major cash shortfalls (of £100 or more per week) and ensured that Landlord Income Officers reached those families as a matter of priority, getting them access to support before the shortfall became a crisis housing situation. Now councils like Croydon can benchmark their interventions against other councils.

We’re excited that the majority of London’s councils have been up for this collaboration. It’s the biggest evidence base of its kind and gives us the most accurate picture yet of how low-income families fare across the year, and over time. Beyond councils, giving residents access to information like this is informative and powerful. It helps ordinary people understand the changes in poverty and financial resilience happening around them. For some, it will confirm the rise in distress they recognise on their high street. For others, it will help them see what local authorities are up against when trying to protect the most vulnerable from further hardship.

Going beyond London

But the work isn’t over. We’re eager to see more regions across the country adopt London’s collaborative approach to using administrative data to show the causes and consequences of poverty. The reality is that residents may live in a number of council areas over their lifetime, and cross-regional and national policies will affect our most vulnerable wherever they live. By pooling our data and making it accessible, as we have done with the LSI-London, we can start to have a more informed conversation about low-income families, where they live, and how best to support them.

While more London councils are joining the London project, we encourage other councils around the country to get in touch and see how this collaborative approach will work in their region. Undoubtedly there will be different focuses across the country, but one thing is certain: collaboration is power. And our low-income families could do with some of that right now.

Ask about our Living Standards Index

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