The latest figures around cost of living are, of course, obscene. Inflation is due to peak at 13% in October 2022, the highest annual rate since 1982. From June 2021 to June 2022 domestic gas prices increased by 95% and energy prices will increase by a further 80% in October 2022 (an average bill of £3,549).In the UK, we now expect low-income households to have to spend a larger proportion of their income on energy and food, with annual food price inflation of around 11% in 2022, peaking at 15%. Just recently, it has been estimated that average annual grocery bills will rise by £380.
So, what can local authorities do about this, if anything?
As well as being a sometime academic, I’m also a relatively new Deputy Leader of Worthing Borough Council. One of our first acts on taking office this year was to declare a local Cost of Living Emergency in recognition of the rising costs that people are facing and we are developing and delivering a Worthing Cost of Living Action plan. So what does this look like in practice?
We know that some of the foodbanks in Worthing have experienced an unprecedented increase in demand. So, we are also developing a Worthing Food Poverty Action Plan, focusing on work to increase food supplies to local groups, decrease food waste and to build a local supply chain for food banks. As well as providing what funding we can to support emergency food distribution and infrastructure support, we are looking to establish a ‘food hub’ for use as a co-working space for food groups and associated community-based groups tackling the cost of living crisis and are developing a pay-as-you-can community supermarket to help increase choice and control for those who find themselves in food insecurity. We are going to do everything we can to alleviate the financial brutalities coming our residents way this winter. This means working with local energy suppliers to support the cost of living work, developing ethical debt approaches, target and support households in fuel poverty through energy efficiency and energy reduction measures, supporting people to access financial support through a household Support Fund, Council Tax Support Additional discretionary payments and discretionary Housing Payments.
We’ll also hold a Cost of Living town summit to work with partners and residents to develop support, including a powerbank for those in fuel poverty and hold pop-up cost of living information sessions in community venues across Worthing. All of which will be of help to residents.
However, as much as we can do in response to the CoLE, there is sadly a great deal more that we can’t do. Local authorities like ours, with budgets halved since 2010, are simply not able to meet the increased need, cost of living emergency declaration or not.
The real driver of people’s economic precarity is our entrenched and growing wage inequalities. A recent report by Oxfam showed that, over the past two years, someone has become a billionaire every 30 hours, with the fortunes of food and energy billionaires having risen by $453 billion (£360 billion) in the last two years, which is equivalent to $1 billion (£795 million) every couple of days.
In 2020, top CEOs earned 351 times more than the typical worker. So, while our council will do all it can to help those who need food support, we need to address income inequality on a national scale, and that needs decisive central government action. However, the latest iteration of neoliberal economics that is about to bedevil our national government suggests that the required national policy change is unlikely to happen any time soon.
We have written to the national government to urge them to act immediately to tackle the cost of living crisis by ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders contribute more, introduce a UK-wide Cost of Living Emergency strategy to urgently improve the value of support provided to low income households through the social security system, impose an immediate windfall tax on energy giants and to address the desperate need being felt in so many communities around the country. There is, of course, a school of thought that writing to Santa Claus may be equally effective.
So, where will the desperately-needed change at the national level going to come from? This brings us to the waves of industrial action happening across the country this summer. And before anyone accuses me of political partisanship, as an active trade unionist in my UCU branch and Labour Member, I’m happy to recognise the bewildering array of ways in which the Labour leadership have managed to be wrong on the recent waves of industrial action.
A key part of any local authority Cost of Living Emergency has to be to stand shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people, tackle insecure work and low pay. In essence, to support the raft of industrial action emerging across the country. The public already understand the value of this even if parliamentarians don’t. Independent polling released by the RMT found strong support for rail workers to receive a fairer deal and for the government to intervene to address the rail workers concerns. 70% of the public believe that rail workers should have a negotiated pay rise that takes into account the cost of living, whilst just 11% disagree.
The public understand the current levels of lamentable corporate greed in this country and understand what inequality feels like. More and more people understand that when inflation is 11%, workers receive imposed pay deals of 2% (CWU Royal Mail workers) while£758m of profits go to private shareholders, something is going deeply wrong. People are rising up all over the country with union after union saying enough is enough. We can use terms like wage inequality but this could be equally understood as a sustained wave of systemic economic violence that is harming record numbers of people as a matter of course.
Local authorities who are so minded will do what they can but the reality is that the only thing standing between us and unprecedented hunger, winter deaths and catastrophic mental health crises are the Unions who are now fighting back. People across the country are desperately looking around for some kind of hope and they are seeing it in the workers who are taking a stand against their working lives being sacrificed for corporate greed.
It’s been said before, but it’s worth reiterating we have a low-wage crises, not a Cost of Living Crisis. Unless concerted pressure is put on all parliamentary parties, central government and employers, people are going to die, starve and freeze in barely conceivable numbers this winter and the Trade Unions and striking workers are now the main thing standing against us and oblivion. When the prolonged period of national mourning finally comes to an end, we’ll still be left with a global corporate plutocracy that depends for its survival on the unremitting exploitation of masses of people rendered, as far as is possible incapable of accurately criticising their condition. In this context, concerted Trade Union action is the best bet of saving lives this winter.