Leeds sees "massive increase" in poverty reveals council leader

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Devolution to a “One Yorkshire” deal is the only way that the city can start making serious and focused in-roads into the growing gulf of social inequality in Leeds.

The call comes from council leader, Judith Blake, who, moving into her fifth term in charge of the city conceded that in the last nine years since austerity cuts were introduced there has been a “massive increase in poverty and inequality'.'

Leeds City Council leader, Judith Blake.

Leeds City Council leader, Judith Blake.

The Yorkshire Evening Post today speaks to council leader Judith Blake about how a city like Leeds can stop the gulf of inequality from widening as part of a special campaign - A Tale of Two Cities.
Read more: Gulf of Life in Leeds
The inequality issue is not just unique to Harehills but to other pockets of Leeds including Hyde Park, Bramley and Armley.

If Britain were to leave the EU, Coun Blake warns it will get worse as promised funding from that pot would be lost and redistributed - possibly going to UK boroughs that are not in as desperate need for it.

She told the YEP: “It is like going into the ring with one hand tied behind your back. It has been absolutely relentless and in Leeds we have the wherewithal to make significant progress to meet the needs of the disadvantaged but we are very, very restricted.

“We need real devolution to come from government so we can make the decisions locally, without going cap in hand to government.

The YEP campaign on social inequality has been 'A Tale of Two Cities'.

The YEP campaign on social inequality has been 'A Tale of Two Cities'.

“There is nothing worse than being told your deprivation is not as serious as deprivation elsewhere. That is not how it is, everyone should have opportunities to deal with issues.”

City of progression?

It is a frank admission when the city, at its core, is celebrating being one of growth and progression.

It is the most diverse economy of all the UK's main employment centres, has seen the fastest rate of private-sector jobs growth of any UK city and is said to be the largest legal and financial centre outside of London and has attracted Channel 4 and HMRC’s relocations for a northern base.

That in itself brings a new set of challenges, says Coun Blake.

She said: “We recognise that there is a lot of interest in the city and it is a very attractive place for a whole range of reasons.

“Leeds is probably one of the most diverse cities in the country in terms of its population, ethnicity and geography and that we have small villages, small market towns and inner cities so the challenges that we have are enormous but the opportunities are very real so how do we drive that forward?”

One way to tackle this is by creating job opportunities for the people that really need them.

Solutions

With the John Lewis development at Victoria Gate she said it was made sure that jobs were offered to the most vulnerable and support was given to them with applications and interviews.

In her own ward of Middleton, there was a drive to make sure jobs created by a new Asda development were filled by local residents and years later she says that the store is 90 per cent staffed by locals.

“Our motto is ‘a strong economy within a compassionate city’ and we are working with businesses to help them understand that there are many people in our city that don’t benefit from the opportunities that we are helping to create,” she adds.

“We recognise some of the real, real barriers to work that people have and give that support.”

But even though it is a step forward those jobs are not enough - from Autumn there will be a ‘real living wage’ where businesses operating in Leeds pay their workforce “a decent wage every week”.

However, the other big issue she says that needs to be addressed is housing.

Selective licencing will be brought in for private landlords so the council has more control of the standards of housing being offered by private landlords in inner city areas.

Early years

However, the real key to helping halt social inequality, Coun Blake says, is early years intervention and adds that when Labour regained control of Leeds City Council in 2010, the state of children’s services was “dire”.

She added: “There is no doubt at all the impact of austerity has been absolutely enormous. Levels of poverty are going up and we have real shocking statistics that we have identified 71 per cent of children, that is 33, 000, have at least one parent in work so the levels of in-work poverty have led us to focus on income.

“Every child across the city of Leeds should have the ability to access the opportunities available. It should not be a factor of where they live or the circumstances they are born into - that is the approach that we are taking.

“We have taken a council decision to keep our SureStart centres open. The government has taken, in my view, a poor, poor decision to close the funding for these.”

There is a knock on effect in later life, she believes, if problems and inequalities are not addressed at the outset.

“Look at Armley prison and the profile of the people in there. There are learning difficulties, alcohol and drug dependency, many that have been in care. All of these issues, if we have the right funding, for the earliest possible stage I believe that young people would not get into the criminal justice system. Look at the amount of money this country spends on failure.

“We have really detailed information about where we need to get resources but we are really concerned if we leave the EU money that was given to deprivation - that disappears or goes back to the Westminster pot being distributed unfairly and we will be more disadvantaged than we are now.”

What your MPs think?

MPs across the city - have also had to step in and intervene for constituents that are struggling.

Rachel Reeves, Member of Parliament for Leeds West said: “Social inequality is part of the devastating legacy of nine years of a Conservative government. Cuts to people’s benefits and public services in Leeds West and across the city has driven people deeper into poverty.

“We know that life expectancy rates are often lower in areas of poverty which is where we need urgent action. I wrote to the Prime Minister earlier this year about the growing number of people forced to rely on food banks because of huge problems with their Universal Credit payments.

“The Government must tackle social inequality to improve people’s chances of living longer, better lives.”

Alex Sobel, MP for Leeds North West added: “Early years intervention in the most important thing in terms of reducing inequality so the fact that SureStart centres have been cut back is a big issue. The other issue is around welfare benefits and housing.

“I have got a family on a council estate in Tinshill, used to run a business and was doing well, lived in Alwoodley. The business went bust and they lost everything and moved into a council house and we supported them through that.

“But they have a child with special needs and before this they could afford to pay for additional support to get him to school, he still has some support but the difficulty they face is money and now can’t afford it.

“It is also hard to get on a waiting list for a dentist in Hyde Park rather than Otley or Bramhope because it is easier for them (doctors and dentists) to operate (in more affluent areas).

Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, said: “Social inequality in Leeds is really stark. Whether you look at health, income or opportunity, far too many of our fellow citizens are not sharing in the prosperity of our city.

“I see families living in overcrowded conditions or being unable to feed their children properly.

Why, in the sixth richest country in the world, do so many people have to go to food banks?

“It’s partly to do with benefit cuts and changes, but also insecure, poorly-paid employment which is why there has been such a rise in poverty amongst people who are working.

“Doing something about this must be a priority for our city and our country. A higher minimum wage, building more homes, investing in skills, training and health and making sure that the successful businesses in our city reach out to all the communities of Leeds to provide opportunities for work will help.

“And we can make progress. Leeds has become the first city in the UK to report a drop in childhood obesity after introducing a programme to help parents change their children’s diets. This shows we can do something and we must.”