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Cost of living: Councillors Forum calls for more action in Wiltshire

July 21, 2022 10:30 PM
By Lib Dems
Originally published by Trevor Carbin Liberal Democrat

A 'Councillors Forum' convened by Wiltshire Council's Liberal Democrats to replace a cancelled full council meeting has called on the council to take extra action to help residents cope with the cost of living crisis.

Gavin Grant, the Lib Dems' Shadow Finance Spokesperson, said: "Based on what we heard from a range of charities and voluntary groups, we will bring a motion to the council calling on its leadership to really take a lead."

The motion will include proposals to: signpost those who are struggling to sources of support; work more closely with volunteer groups like food banks; and use the council tax system to identify those in need.

The meeting also heard from Wiltshire Climate Alliance on climate change and the Wiltshire Area Localism and Planning Alliance on planning and housing.

Lib Dem group leader Ian Thorn said: "This was the meeting the whole council should have had when many Wiltshire residents are struggling to make ends meet and record temperatures confirm the climate emergency."

Tackling the cost of living crisis

Councillors at the forum, held at the Trowbridge Civic Centre on 19 July, heard charity leaders criticise cuts to voluntary bodies such as Citizens Advice, lunch clubs for older people and friendship clubs for people with disabilities.

Attendees said that the council had taken some positive steps, such as setting aside £100,000 for Welfare Provision grants. But they said it could do much more, including setting up a panel of foodbanks, debt advice groups, charities and social housing providers to coordinate relief efforts. They stressed the need to respect people's dignity when they were facing financial hardship.

They said Wiltshire also needed to follow the example of other councils in providing more detailed information on charities, support groups, benefits, grants and other resources.

Lucy Duffy, Area Manager for the Trussell Trust, which funds food banks, said that across Wiltshire, food banks in the trust's network distributed 11,301 food parcels, of which over 4,000 went to children. She added that local councils should use the information available to them to proactively identify people who may benefit from a cash first Local Welfare Assistance Scheme to prevent Food bank use.

Jill Neighbour, Community Action Project Manager with Trowbridge's Storehouse team, said its foodbank had already fed 1,780 people in 2022, more than twice as many as in all of 2021. She said households with two people in work were now struggling as well as people who were homeless or on benefits.

Paul Winney, Head of Household Energy Services at the Bristol-based Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), said 9% of households in Wiltshire and Swindon were in fuel poverty. He said: "In winter, fuel poverty is real. People go to bed early to stay warm. They spend days in cafes or libraries or eat only cold meals." He said Wiltshire Council could work with CSE and other organisations to target support to the most inefficient properties to help improve homes and cope with rising bills.

Fiona Oliver, Joint Chief Executive of Wiltshire Community Foundation, said that its 'Poverty Hurts' campaign had raised £150,000 since January, showing how people are willing to help those in need. She said: "This winter many over-65s will get a winter fuel allowance that they don't need. We're asking those people to donate that payment to our 'Surviving Winter' programme that helps those who are in real need."

Tackling the climate crisis

As record temperatures underlined the reality of climate change, three speakers from Wiltshire Climate Alliance explained opportunities for Wiltshire's council and residents to reduce carbon emissions.

Bill Jarvis described the County's challenge in achieving net zero and the need to ramp up the volume of renewable energy, particularly with renewable district heating, to support lower costs for local communities. He called for the council to be a catalyst for this as well as to end the county's ban on wind turbines, giving communities the opportunity to create local energy.

Keith Freegard explained the high level of emissions from businesses in the county. He said the alliance was developing a plan to encourage the county's leading businesses to reduce their carbon footprints and was pressing for the council to do the same.

Tony Currivan highlighted the fact that at its present rate Wiltshire will have exceeded its carbon budget by 2026. He looked at the major impact of buildings on the climate and explained that retrofitting existing homes was a priority, with co-benefits such as lower bills and better health that could help it gain support. However, although progress was being made, it needed a major acceleration for both the climate and homeowners. A key role for the council was to proactively support skills training by disseminating advice and signposting sources of financial support.

Councillor Robert MacNaughton of Calne Town Council explained how local people had rallied to support a 'Declaration of the rights of the Marden Valley' which said the River Marden was a living entity with rights: to be free of litter, to flow naturally and to support biodiversity.

Tackling the planning and housing challenge

Graham Hill, of the Wiltshire Area Localism and Planning Alliance, and Trowbridge's current mayor, said Wiltshire faced a planning crisis where developers could make 'predatory' applications to build on sites not allocated for housing as the county has not got the required five years' worth of housing land.

This meant that housebuilding was running ahead of government targets, but with insufficient control over where they were built.

He said: "Bold decisions need to be made to reinvent the entire planning process to guarantee the sorts of homes needed, in places that are sustainable, and which are fit for purpose in the 21st century and beyond."

Councillor Hill said that building on the 'East Wing' car park close to County Hall in Trowbridge would be a simple solution to the shortfall in housing land, using council-owned land to provide affordable homes.

Sites that had been earmarked for housing such as the 'Engine Shed' and Churchfields in Salisbury had not come forward for development and therefore other less suitable sites had been added.

Developers have focused on these and other sites not assigned for housing and as a result, Wiltshire had exceeded government targets over the past five years, in 2021 seeing 2,900 new homes built against a target of 1,400.