Tackling poverty in Cambridge – The most unequal city in the UK

In a recent Centre for Cities report, Cambridge was identified as the most unequal city in the UK, yet people tend not to think of poverty as an issue in Cambridge. The first thing that comes to mind for most people is Cambridge University, which is one of the best universities in the world and has 90 Nobel Prize winners affiliated to it. Moreover, the Cambridge economy has continued to thrive despite the economic downturn due to our globally significant cluster of hi tech and bio medical businesses, which provide over 57,000 jobs.

Still, whilst we have the sixth highest average weekly earnings of any city in the UK, the benefits of prosperity have not been shared by all residents in the city. Evidence shows that a significant proportion of people are experiencing poverty, while others may be at risk of poverty due to factors such as low wages and rapidly increasing housing costs. One in 10 households earns less than £16,518 per year and poverty is concentrated in particular wards and neighbourhoods that are primarily in the North and East of the city. The difference in life expectancy between the highest ranked neighbourhood compared to the lowest is around 10 years. Centre for Cities identified the Cambridge population as having the highest level of qualifications of any city in the UK, with two thirds of residents holding higher level qualifications. However, data suggests that social mobility is an issue in the city. Cambridge has the fifth lowest score in the Social Mobility Index of all local authorities nationally, based on outcomes for young people in terms of educational attainment, employment and housing market. Less than a third of pupils receiving Free School Meal achieved GCSE 5+ grades A*-C, compared to two thirds of children not eligible for free school meals in the city.

In light of this divide, Cambridge City Council has a clear vision to lead a united city, ‘One Cambridge – Fair for All’, in which economic dynamism and prosperity are combined with social justice and equality. We have had an Anti-Poverty Strategy since 2014. Since its inception, there have been marked improvements of outcomes in some key areas including:

  • Improvement in earnings for low income households
  • A reduction in housing benefit claimants
  • A reduction in unemployment and young people (aged 18 to 24) not in employment, education or training
  • A reduction in fuel poverty
  • We have made significant progress on different strands of work, over the past three years such as around:
  • Paying all council staff at least the Living Wage and promoting the Living Wage to employers in the city;
  • Promoting schemes that can reduce people’s utility bills, including energy and water saving measures, and a collective energy switching scheme;
  • Helping people on low incomes to get online and develop the digital skills needed to search for jobs, complete online applications and access public services;
  • Supporting credit unions, which will enable vulnerable residents to avoid loan sharks and other high interest lenders;
  • Helping people on low incomes to get online and develop the digital skills needed to search for jobs, complete online applications and access public services;
  • Expanding advice services to ensure that residents know the benefits they can claim and get expert advice on money and debt management.
  • Supporting initiatives to improve the health of low income residents, including providing cookery skills classes for low income families and  free swimming lessons for children from low income families;
  • Constructing new council-owned homes and making them available at affordable rent levels;
  • Increasing the number of apprenticeships at the council and working with partners in the Greater Cambridge Partnership to increase the number of opportunities across the city.

We are currently developing our Anti-Poverty Strategy for the next three years. We recently held an Anti-poverty Summit that was attended by voluntary and community sector organisations and other public sector organisations that shared perspectives on progress made in tackling poverty in Cambridge. Through our next Anti-poverty Strategy we want to develop existing and new partnerships, including with businesses, to share the responsibility of preventing and tackling poverty. We are also considering focussing on inequality and inclusive growth as well as poverty, which were key themes of discussion during the Summit. Inclusive growth is about creating opportunities for all segments of the population and distributes the dividends of increased prosperity, both in monetary and non-monetary terms, fairly across society.

Helen Crowther, Equality and Anti Poverty Officer, Cambridge City Council