How can councils support their communities through the cost-of-living crisis?

Five key takeaways from the Welsh Local Government Association Annual Conference

The cost-of-living crisis is a major challenge for our communities and is hitting the poorest in society particularly hard. The need for help with basics such as food, fuel and clothing has never been higher. We know that this is rightly a high priority amongst local governments in Wales. But council budgets are under severe pressure with rising demand, triggered by an ageing population and inflationary pressures, among other factors. This is against a backdrop of over a decade of austerity with more to come: BBC research has found that Welsh councils expect a combined shortfall of £394.8m over the next two years.

To discuss this challenge and what councils can do about it, the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) convened a panel at the Welsh Local Government Association Annual Conference on the 14th September 2023 where my colleague Dan Bristow, WCPP Director of Policy and Practice and I were joined by councillors Nia Wyn Jeffries (Gwynedd) and Lis Burnett (Vale of Glamorgan), and The Trussell Trust Lead for Wales, Jo Harry.

Here are our five key takeaways that emerged through the discussion:

  1. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting Welsh communities hard, but this is not affecting all people or places equally, and for many it is not a new crisis but a worsened one. Trussell Trust research on hunger in Wales shows that food insecurity is on the rise with 41% more parcels distributed in the year to April 2023 compared with 2021/22. Food insecurity is also not a rare experience in Wales: 1 in 5 people in Wales experienced food insecurity in 2022 (compared with 1 in 7 in the UK). But some people are much more likely to go hungry than others, especially disabled people and those with mental health challenges, households with children, households in receipt of Universal Credit and those in rental accommodation.
  1. The impacts of the crisis go well beyond people’s finances and material conditions; poverty affects people’s mental health, wellbeing and social lives. Recent Bevan Foundation research found that 48% of people in Wales reported that their mental health had been negatively affected by their financial position. Our research on poverty and social exclusion in Wales identified stigma as one of the mechanisms through which poverty and poor mental health interact. As leading poverty scholar Ruth Lister has long argued, people experience poverty ‘not just as a disadvantage and insecure economic condition, but as a shameful and corrosive social relation’ (2004). Echoing this, our recent evidence review on Loneliness Inequalities found that financial difficulties are an important risk factor for loneliness. Public services know that this limits people’s willingness and ability to seek support, or participate in their local areas, and can lead to loneliness and mental health problems. There is also some evidence that stigma associated with seeking support may be a particular barrier in rural areas, where there can be a culture of ‘self-sufficiency’, contributing to what some people refer to as ‘hidden poverty’ in these communities.
  1. We know what works to reduce poverty but it is not possible for local government to introduce some of the most effective interventions. Sufficient and accessible social security support is vital to prevent people from becoming destitute but we know that social security in Wales, most of which is set by the UK Government, is currently insufficient to cover the basics. There is little that Welsh local governments can do about this and they have insufficient resources to launch their own cash transfer schemes, like the one the Welsh Government are currently piloting for care leavers. Other key social infrastructure, such as accessible, affordable and quality housing, childcare, and transport, also all play a crucial role in supporting people out of poverty or preventing them from being pushed into it, but significant new investment in these areas is challenging for councils at the moment, who are desperately looking for cost savings and are facing the prospect of retrenching to the delivery of statutory services only.
  1. Realistically, the current focus has to be on shifting, re-designing or re-engineering existing services to increase take up, or deprioritising existing provision where there is a need to provide new services. Small and inexpensive but well-considered and evidence-based tweaks to service design and delivery – particularly in terms of the built environment, digital interfaces and the language used to communicate with communities – can make a huge difference to uptake, especially when these take account of people’s lived experiences. For example, a food bank in Arfon found that footfall plummeted when the entrance was moved from a side street to a high street; people didn’t want to be seen to need this support. Studies have also found that subtle changes to the language used to describe benefits which destigmatise take up and make clear to potential claimants that ‘it’s not your fault’ can make a meaningful difference to take up rates. Over £18 billion in income-related benefits and social tariffs are unclaimed in the UK every year, so there is significant scope to increase take-up. Crucially for council budgets, any successful efforts to increase take up of non-devolved benefits (such as Universal Credit) represent a clear net financial benefit to the local economy. 
  1. Tackling poverty is to a large degree about fostering relationships and there are low-cost ways that councils can strengthen their relationships with their communities and the voluntary sector. As lived experience evidence shows, one of the most damaging aspects of poverty is the stigma, shame and social exclusion that people feel. There is increasing evidence that active efforts to involve and empower people in or at risk of poverty can reduce the stigma they feel and lead to better policymaking and practice. Poverty truth commissions seek to put people with lived experience at the heart of decision-making and to foster transformational relationships between experts-by-experience, policy makers and organisational leaders, are one promising model to achieve this. As well as partnering with the Swansea Poverty Truth Commission as part of our poverty stigma work, at WCPP we’re also currently undertaking work as part of the Resourceful Communities Partnership to explore how councils can effectively work with voluntary sector organisations and communities themselves.

To explore the issue of poverty stigma further, and to identify how WCPP and others can support public services to understand and tackle this, we are convening a workshop on the 10th November in Wrexham with policy-makers, practitioners and experts-by-experience. This will be delivered in partnership with the Co-production Network Wales and as part of the International Public Policy Observatory, UCL.

If you’re interested in engaging with this project, please email