North-East communities are helping pioneer new ways of tackling poverty. As part of The Northern Echo’s special report with Church Action on Poverty, Gavin Aitchison reports on two projects run by those who know the problems best​

IN recent weeks Stockton Poverty Truth Commission (PTC) and Hartlepool Action Lab have launched in recent weeks, to try to make meaningful changes that will benefit people in their areas.

Both projects reject top-down approaches and instead give lead roles to people with first-hand experience of poverty.

The Stockton project will meet each month in 2018, and follows successful similar projects in Salford and Leeds.

Tracey Herrington, project manager at Thrive Teesside, which is coordinating the PTC, said: “What generally happens is that well-meaning people will bring together stats and loads of information and say they are going to do this or that to reduce poverty. Sometimes this is with really good intentions, but sometimes it is not in people’s best interests, and they are out of touch with people in poverty and do not involve people with experience. The Poverty Truth Commission does it the other way round.

“I was pleasantly surprised how many people from the council were there at the launch. Already, they have said they will look at not taking people to court over council tax arrears. We’ve been saying for a year that doing that is not good, and they are looking at that. They also want to talk to us ahead of the roll out of Universal Credit.

“I think things were bad before, but it seems a lot, lot worse now, after all the austerity and cuts. People are going without and suffering, and what work there is is low-paid. You get negative comments online and it can be soul-destroying, but we hope the Poverty Truth Commission can help tackle the stigma. Not enough people recognise poverty is an issue in their area. They know their lives are difficult and hard and they make judgments, but it’s about poverty as an issue.

Dylan Eastwood, one of the commissioners, said: “Our end goal is to build bridges between people in our community and the civic and business leaders. In January, we will decide what our three main issues are and then it’s about following them up and making sure we achieve things and making sure change happens.”

At Hartlepool Action Lab, local people with poverty experience and researchers from Joseph Rowntree Foundation spent a year researching local concerns, then last month revealed three aims for the next year: to help 1,000 households to save a total of £500,000 on their energy costs, to reduce 150 local households’ shopping bills by £200 a year, and to see every single resident in a chosen neighbourhood maximises their income by ensuring they are claiming all the welfare payments they are entitled to. They aim to save the town’s residents £1 million overall.

Andrea Peart, one of those with direct experience, said: “I’m glad I did the action lab; I have learned some new stuff. There were people getting sanctioned, who I spoke to. There was nothing for them, but now we are able to give out leaflets and information. Research helped me tell people where to go if they were sanctioned.”

She said there was widespread concern among people who had been switched to Universal Credit, or were due to in the next few weeks, and also wide concern locally about the lack of full-time jobs. Hartlepool has the country’s highest proportion of workless households, and the highest unemployment rate, at 9.7 per cent. There are only six jobs for every ten people of working age.

Ms Peart, whose own switch to Universal Credit was delayed by a local backlog, said: “With Universal Credit, they say you can borrow an advance, but at the end of the month you still owe that money, so you are still down. I feel like saying to them ‘you come into my shoes and I will do your job. Christmas is coming – what are people going to do for money?”

Fellow group member Jean Thomson said: “For me, the bedroom tax broke the community spirit, because people were forced to move out. Overnight, people I had known for years were not there any more, because they had had to move out. It’s social engineering. That was the start of the big breakdown.”

Kris Middleton, also from the Action Lab group, said: “People think of poverty as people who have no drive or do not want to help themselves but we know that’s completely wrong. When we looked deeper and started talking to people on an individual basis, people experiencing what they would class as poverty were struggling because the opportunities were not there – not because they were lazy, but because they were stuck in a situation. 90 per cent of people classed as in poverty just need a chance.”

Anyone interested in getting involved with Stockton Poverty Truth Commission in 2018 can email or phone 01642 678811.

Church Action on Poverty is a social justice charity (UK charity 1079986) dedicated to tackling the root causes of poverty in the UK and to amplifying the voice of people with first-hand experience of the issues.

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