Sunday, 23 February 2014

Why Cambridge needs a 'Sharing Prosperity Fund.'

I haven't blogged here for a few years... So let me dust off my keyboard, and blow away the cobwebs on this Blogspot account, and post this missive, most of which I plan to say in the debate on our budget amendment this Thursday.

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Labour councillors have, for a very long time, said the City Council must do more to tackle the inequality experienced within Cambridge, to promote equality and social inclusion wherever possible. We continue to believe this, and we also believe that in straightened times, our efforts must not be curtailed, to the contrary. Our efforts must be redoubled. The £500,000 budgeted in setting up this fund is only the start. We believe the creation of a Sharing Prosperity Fund is a serious commitment on our part, in recognising the duty of this council to promote the interests of all its citizens, and ensure that all have a decent standard of living.

Whilst the continued success of our city’s biomedical and tech sectors in delivering solutions to everyday needs here and abroad is unquestionably welcome – nearly everyone has in their pocket a mobile phone with chips designed by ARM, for example – it is a fallacy and a dangerous assumption to state that Cambridge is a place where this success has trickled down to all who live in our city. There are many people who work hard and contribute to the city’s economic success, but are often on low wages and have little promotional prospects. I think of college bedders, cleaning and catering staff at Microsoft Research, shop assistants in the service sector, and university assistant staff. Not to forget our own public servants such as street cleaners, city rangers, parks and open spaces staff. For without all of them our city could not function.

Professor Alan Barrell from the Cambridge Judge Business School was quoted recently in the Independent as saying:

“Cambridge is ­booming because we have a real community of ­enterprise and social inclusion. Everyone shares with each other...”

I would be very happy for Professor Barrell to come with me to visit Ditton Fields in my ward, show him around and for him to meet residents there to ask if they agree with his statement. For the truth is that, even though some areas of Cambridge are really prospering, many other parts of Cambridge do not feel included in this so-called ‘booming’ community of enterprise. Many indeed are those very people I referred to, the cleaners and shop assistants, junior university assistant staff: the cogs in the machine that keeps the Cambridge motor going.

Whilst Lib Dems trumpeted the recent Centre for Cities report which stated Cambridge had the lowest levels of JSA dependency in the country, and had a high employment rate, suggesting Cambridge was - quote, unquote - ‘ the most equal city in Britain’, they failed to mention the report also specified that the gap between average house prices and average wages increased, with Cambridge seeing the largest increase in house prices in the country, beating London, and also experienced one of the largest falls in real term wages in 2012/13.

The cost of living crisis experienced in our city - one measure being the huge percentage increase in numbers using the Trussell Trust’s Food Bank over the last two-to-three years - has not made any better the structural and intergenerational poverty that already existed in Cambridge.

Cuts to government budgets across the board – especially in local government, including this council – does nothing to help matters, quite obviously.

Even though yes, indeed, the economic situation is improving, albeit extremely slowly, this isn’t enough to address the deep division in respect of opportunities and outcomes experienced in our city.

For example, from the latest data available, Abbey Ward, King’s Hedges, and East Chesterton were in the top quartile for measuring the 2010 Index of Multiple Deprivation, (i.e. most deprived) compared to Newnham Ward, and parts of Castle, and Queen Edith’s, which were in the bottom quartile (i.e. least deprived). This was the case before the great recession.

Parts of Abbey Ward were in the top quartile for education skills and training deprivation, compared to the vast majority of the city which was placed in the bottom quartile.

There is a clear and marked east-west divide in health deprivation and disability.

Life expectancy is seven years less in the most deprived areas of Cambridge compared to the least deprived.

Rates of youth offending, overall crime, domestic violence, and isolation of the elderly is also marked depending on which part of the city you live in.

The City Council’s Poverty Mapping Survey in 2009 (the last year where this survey was produced) said that Abbey Ward had a benefit population of 1,900. One in five households received Housing Benefit and/or Council Tax Benefit. In contrast there were only 118 benefit claimants in Newnham, and 275 in Market and 250 in Castle. In 2009 there were 635 households receiving Child Benefit in Abbey, compared to just 33 in Market and 34 in Newnham and Castle Wards. The gap between these wards in respect of benefits claimed existed before the crash.

Cambridge as a city that is big on social inclusion? A city that is successful in sharing prosperity, and creating opportunity? I’m not so sure Professor Barrell.

We are not scaremongering when we say that Cambridge is a city divided; a ‘tale of two cities’ as referred to earlier. I detect complacency from the ruling group that everything is rosy; there is no need for a sharing prosperity fund as Cambridge is ‘the most equal city in Britain’. By stating that, they are also saying by implication that there is no need to address the structural reasons why poverty and inequality continue to exist in our city. Hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil.

Well, I’m sorry. The evidence is clear and stark. Cambridge is NOT equal. And it has not improved under fourteen years of Lib Dem rule in Cambridge, and certainly not made any better by four years of Lib Dem and Tory rule at Westminster.

The City Council can’t solve the inequality experienced in our city by itself, and a sharing prosperity fund as specified in our amendment won’t be a silver bullet, but it will be a first step. The £500,000 proposed in setting up this fund is a serious investment in mitigating the cost of living crisis and in loosening the chains of intergenerational poverty, and it complements other proposals in the Labour budget amendment, for it is our goal that we want to see One Cambridge: One City where power, prosperity and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. 
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