The 2021 census results have revealed that London’s Tower Hamlets has experienced the biggest population growth in the UK; it is also the local authority with the highest level of child poverty, 25 percentage points above the national rate. In the East London borough, 56% of children live in poverty, more than double the rate seen in Kensington and Chelsea.
It is the poorest borough in London with the highest levels of deprivation and overcrowding. A situation that is undoubtedly made worse by the £200m cuts the council budget has faced in the past decade.
Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, which represents a constituency of Tower Hamlets, explained to City Monitor that the “biggest contributor to poverty in London is high housing costs”. “Unless you tackle high housing costs, and that means making sure people have more support around these costs, then we won’t be able to address or reduce the poverty rates for families around London.”
There is an urgent demand for social and affordable housing in Tower Hamlets, but “what’s actually being built is driving up the costs”, Councillor Mufeedah Bustin, chair of the previous Labour Council’s Poverty Review, explains. “In the Isle of Dogs, we’re seeing a lot of high-rise luxury flats, foreign investment and empty homes.” Although Tower Hamlets has already built more affordable homes in the past five years than any other borough, there are still 21,480 households on the waiting list.
In the past decade, Tower Hamlets has seen the biggest population growth in the country, with its resident numbers up by 22.1% since 2011, compared with the 6.3% population growth seen in the whole of England and Wales. To put the current overcrowding into perspective, in England there are on average three people per one football pitch-sized area of land, in Tower Hamlets this goes up to 112 people per the same area. At the other end of the scale, the more affluent London borough of Kensington and Chelsea has seen a 9.6% fall in population size since 2011.
And while the latter is known for housing the super-rich, residents in the more deprived area of Tower Hamlets are bearing the brunt of extortionate living costs and developments that do not always benefit the community. As a result, the life expectancy of someone living in Tower Hamlets is four years less than someone living in Kensington and Chelsea.
In addition to the rising cost of housing, a series of cuts and policy changes have made it tougher for families in Tower Hamlets to escape poverty. The benefit cap limits the amount of social security received by families in London to £23,000 a year, which, according to The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), directly impacts 2,600 children in Tower Hamlets who live in households that receive on average £320 less in benefits each month than their assessed need.
The removal of the Universal Credit uplift, which many families in Tower Hamlets depend on, saw them £20 a week worse off, and the two-child benefit limit has an obvious but disproportionate impact on larger families – many of whom live in Tower Hamlets.
While child poverty among one or two-children families in the UK has stayed roughly level since 2009, child poverty among those in larger families has soared. Some 47% of children in families with three or more children are in poverty, compared with 35% a decade ago.
What’s being done in Tower Hamlets?
CPAG says that the “Tower Hamlets council stands out within London for making child poverty a top priority and investing in schemes that support low-income families”.
The group works directly with children growing up in poverty to understand how that impacts their experience of school. One 15-year-old child told them: “If all your friends or people you know go to the after-school clubs and school trips, that kind of isolates you from them. You’re singled out, you’re not with them, you’re just a spare person.”
Ali added that “schools have suffered, kids have suffered, there’s a catch-up agenda that local young people need support on and the government’s underfunded that”.
Bustin shared the same concern, admitting that when she spoke to young people as part of the Tower Hamlets Poverty Review, they were “particularly concerned about health and well-being, and were experiencing a lot of anxiety and worry for their parents’ situations”.
‘Tower Hamlets Poverty Review’, published in 2021, was chaired by Bustin, who describes it as a “robust piece of work” that aims to strategise how best to improve life for residents. The review involved speaking to 300 different people from the community, holding focus groups, meeting with different cohorts and using community peer researchers (people who already have good networks within the community) to identify and tackle the main problem areas.
Bustin admitted that one of the council’s main struggles is marketing and outreach; a lot of residents do not know what help and advice are available to them.
Her previous Labour Council had a designated Tackling Poverty team and helped introduce Council Tax Reduction Schemes (22,000 residents on low incomes pay no council tax); ensured that every primary school child in the borough receives free school meals; introduced the Resident Support Scheme providing £750,000 between 2020 and 2021 in crisis grants; and the council planned to invest £7m to ensure residents get the information and advice they need regarding benefits, debt and their legal rights.
The review encourages the council to pursue three main areas to tackle general poverty, and child poverty as a result. The first is early financial intervention, taking a whole systems approach to increasing incomes, reducing costs and averting financial crisis and homelessness. The second looks at employment and skills, planning to develop and extend existing partnerships with skills improvement programmes and ensure access to decent work. The final area focuses on ‘a bright future for the next generation’, sustaining a focus on achieving the best for local children so that they have the skills and confidence to flourish as adults.
What more needs to be done for Tower Hamlets?
While councillors across Tower Hamlets are working hard to support their residents, there is an obvious and growing problem that the statistics and census results relay. Ali describes the situation as “catastrophic” and says the government “have actually made people worse off in the past 12 years, and you can see that happening in boroughs like Tower Hamlets”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Community disputed this sentiment, saying: “We are giving councils the resources they need to deliver their services, with an additional £3.7bn being made available for 2022/23.
“This settlement includes a one-off grant worth £82m, which councils can spend as they see fit, recognising that they are best placed to deal with local issues.
“Tower Hamlets Council has had an increase in Core Spending Power of up to 8.5% compared to last year, worth £26.5m – increasing their total budget to £339.8m in 2022/23.”
But Ali argues the cuts to council funding over more than a decade have had a devastating impact. “They would rather give people tax breaks, but in order to do that they have to take more money from public services, which my constituents depend on.”
“The result is an area densely populated with families who are struggling to buy food, who can’t afford clothes for their children and who are in serious distress. When you look at the perfect storm of a decade of austerity, a pandemic and a cost of living crisis, you’ve got a community that’s really suffering.”