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Opinion: How welfare reform is heaping misery on an entire county

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Opinion: How welfare reform is heaping misery on an entire county

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Local Government and also in Communities, Housing

Opinion: How welfare reform is heaping misery on an entire county Opinion: How welfare reform is heaping misery on an entire county

By Peter Brown, chief executive, Herefordshire Housing

That green and pleasant land, on the far west of the West Midlands. On the border with Wales, Herefordshire is the home of the Hay literary festival, bloody big cows and lots of hills and sheep.

One of the most sparsely populated counties in the country boasting a full 34 miles of motorway as the M50 clips the south east corner as it hurtles its way down to South Wales.

I've worked in Brixton, Reading, Swansea, Slough, Birmingham and Walsall amongst others. Everywhere there are problems, everywhere there is poverty. But for absolute deprivation, Herefordshire surpasses them all.

Actually, 65% of the population live in the urban areas, predominantly the city of Hereford. Wages are generally low with most employment in ‘wholesale and retail’ and ‘agriculture’. But don’t be fooled - like eating chicken? Cargills process 1.2 million chickens every week. Have double glazed windows? Rehau has factories around the world manufacturing polymer components for buildings, cars and planes. Enjoy some crisps with your beer? You guessed it - both Heinekin and Tyrells crisps are also based in Herefordshire.

Each June, the council's research department publishes a ‘state of the county’ statistical narrative. The scale and speed of the changes it records, comes as a shock.

The population has grown by 6% over the last 10 years, entirely due to migration and 70% of migrants are from overseas. Yet in contrast to the fears of overseas benefits scroungers, residents not born in the UK are more likely to be in employment and more likely to have qualifications than county residents born in the UK.

Dramatically, around a fifth of households in Herefordshire live in poverty (income after taxes and housing costs is less than 60% of the median income nationally). As a result, low wages and relatively high house prices mean that homeownership is just not an option for many.

In the poorest areas, over one quarter of children in year 6 are obese. As they approach 18 years old, they are over three times more likely to be admitted to hospital due to binge drinking if they live in the most deprived areas of the county than if they live in the least deprived areas, significantly higher than the national average.

And as ever, poverty is geographically concentrated. Those living in the most deprived
areas are a third more likely to die of cancer. Nearly 50% more likely to die of coronary heart disease than those in the least deprived. There’s more: Herefordshire has a higher rate than its neighbours and higher than the national rate of children becoming in need, children subject to child protection plans and children becoming looked after.

This is why we invest in society. This is exactly what the welfare state was designed for. Yes morally, because it’s the right thing to do. But also for efficiency and productivity. The costs of dealing with breakdowns, crises and abuse, far outweigh early intervention and prevention.

Yet the report spells out unequivocally that the changes to tax and welfare payments over the coming years will result in more people in the county living in poverty with the poorest most affected. Overall the economic impact of welfare changes in Herefordshire is estimated to be an annual loss of £43 million.

That is not just £43 million less in the pockets of the poorest. That’s £43m less in the local economy, less in the communities that need it most. And it is people eligible for housing and council tax benefit, those claiming incapacity and disability benefits, lone parents, couples with no children and those with low literacy and low financial literacy who will suffer. This is the reality. Targeting the poor in order to increase inequality in pursuit of an economic ideology is unforgivable.

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