Liz Barter: Ambassador for Isolation and Disadvantage
I have been following the local and national coverage of the Sheffield University study that names High Wycombe as a “food insecurity hotspot”, with one in seven families struggling to afford adequate food provision during the pandemic. I was struck by the tone of surprise; this affluent, leafy, home-county heartland, commuter town…and food banks? Paradox! It was as if somehow this study was dismantling the narrative of Buckinghamshire being some model of social mobility and prosperity. I grew up in High Wycombe, and I have worked in local services for marginalised people, and the study was no surprise to me. There always have been pockets of deprivation in Buckinghamshire, and everywhere else – and we know that inequalities continue to deepen.
As the coverage went on, it reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s paradigm and the cost of being poor. Cheap boots have become overpriced mini-markets, payday loans, zero-hours contracts, and people working long, unsocial hours in essential (as it turns out) jobs, being unable to afford their rent, let alone buy their own home. As a single parent (a lucky one, with a career, a family, good health, and the rest), I knew well the economics of living week to week and, the paradoxical expense of having to buy small quantities of everything to stay on budget. It wasn’t Down and Out in Paris and London, but it was an experience of the “constant pressure” that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation encourages us to understand when framing our discussions about the impact of Covid. Last week, coverage of the Sutton Trust report into subsidised childcare and the unintended consequences of a policy meant to enable parents to work also resonated hard with me. The system is very difficult to make sense of, and to play my own tiny violin again, 30 “free” hours a week cost me £545 every month. Childcare, like so much else in Bucks, is generally of really good quality – and expensive.
Across the political spectrum, we have diverse perspectives on the role of the state and how public services should be configured to protect the most vulnerable from going under. There are different takes on what constitutes vulnerability itself, of course. I took some heart from the coverage of the food insecurity research highlighting that the “working poor” (awful term, but accurate – I was one) not only exist in Bucks, but suffer additional pressures by virtue of the fact the area is overall so rich.
We have a thriving voluntary sector in Bucks, and opportunities for individuals, businesses and organisations to connect with each other and make a lasting and sustainable difference are plenty. Nationally, structurally, we must have flown a long way off course when working people are unable to afford the basics, let alone those unable to earn for whatever reason. Locally, with the community-based assets of the area and the energy of our network, we have the power to make many things better.