"If my peers can't feel the benefit of this economic growth...then it's just two empty words, all we do is look up and see our sky getting smaller..." Jayne
At the start of the final meeting of the Salford Poverty Truth Commission meeting, a 'real life' symbolic Mickey Mouse got on stage, under the slogan 'No More Mickey Mouse, Let's Be The Difference...'
The Mouse told an allegorical tale of regeneration, full of sharks grabbing spaces and renting them to goldfish with no compassion or humility... 'Let the poor say more!' he pleaded defiantly.
The Salford Poverty Truth Commission launched at Eccles Town Hall in July 2016, with people from the community telling total horror stories of their life experiences on the breadline (for full background see previous Salford Star article – click here).
Over the last 15 months the Commission has held meets between those in or facing poverty, and those in public life who make decisions affecting the community's lives...officers from organisations ranging from Salford City Council to City West Housing, to the Salford Clinical Commissioning Group.
The idea was that by actually talking to each other there would be a better understanding and, hopefully, some changes in direction. At the start of the process, those involved from the community had drawn up a big map of Salford with potent problems, like bailiffs, pawn shops, unaffordable housing...
Salford Council officer, Debbie, recalled today her first meeting with the community poverty commissioners...
"The thing that stopped me in my tracks was a picture of Salford Civic Centre – the City Council was identified as cause of poverty. I was devastated! I hadn't expected to see that at all!"
In November last year, the Salford Star reported how the Council had set bailiffs on Angela, one of the Poverty Truth commissioners. She was distraught at how a small Council Tax debt had mushroomed with over £1,000 added charges, putting her in more debt.* It started a process...
"I brought the Commission into the Council to meet people who are decision makers, to understand the affect of what we were doing" Debbie said "We explained the process but heard about the impact on people when our letters pop through the door and our enforcement agencies get brought in.
"We heard some real heartbreaking stories of hiding and being afraid of what was going to happen: that was not the city I recognised and certainly not the Council I know" she added "...We've changed a lot already, taken some steps back to a person centred approach – we're indentifying who are the ones who are genuinely struggling to pay; those who can't pay as opposed to those who could pay, and a different approach for each.
"We've already made a commitment that we won't be using enforcement agents or bailiffs any more for those who are in receipt of Council Tax reduction, and we will only be looking to enforcement agents as a very last resort" she explained.
The Council has also exempted care leavers from Council Tax, made the debt letters more user-friendly and changed the colour of the envelopes from severe brown to white.
Meanwhile Angela, who works with the homeless via Salford and Manchester Street Support, also persuaded the Council to provide free copies of birth certificates for homeless people and got the authorities to help produce a survivor guide for those on the streets.
These are three positive outcomes channelled through one commissioner. However, beyond Angela putting her neck on the line in the media and embarrassing the Council as it was wringing its hands over poverty, it's hard to see any tangible achievements.
The Salford Star asked the closing panel if there was anything else that's come out of the Salford Poverty Truth Commission?
The community commissioners said that there will be coffee mornings, where people who are struggling with debt can go and see someone face-to-face to discuss issues. There's one on 18th October. There's also a Mad Pride community event scheduled for next summer.
Commission sponsor, Salford City Mayor, Paul Dennett, said that one of things that had been achieved is that "we are talking about poverty now...a genuine commitment, this notion of co-production, putting real people at the heart of how we do city governance...
"The Poverty Truth Commissions is about holding us as elective representatives to account, about challenging us and about getting involved in city governance and shaping the city we can all be proud of...we shouldn't get infatuated about this idea of measuring everything...everything can't be measured..."
The final meeting of the Salford Poverty Truth Commission took place at The Sanctuary at Dallas Court, next to the notorious Home Office reporting/deportation centre and a stone's throw from MediaCityUK, with its swathes of unaffordable housing and non-jobs for Salford people.
Such contrasts were picked up by Jayne, a poverty commissioner from Ordsall...
"At the top you've got the big ideas that make the press about economic growth but the Northern Powerhouse is male, it's white, it's be-suited, and they've got a voice and power and choice" she said "You hear words like 'Government, law, planning, control, strategy, business, profit'; we wonder if that's before people sometimes with developers building luxury apartments that we might be cleaning...
"....And we hear about regeneration and investment – but who is that investment in?" she asked "And is it really regeneration or is it gentrification? It's great having high speed rail links if you can't afford the train ticket..."
She quoted one of the other commissioners, Patrick, who said that poverty isn't just physical; it's spiritual, psychological... "and cultural" she added "It's about access...so when we have fantastic developments like Media City we don't necessary know that that place is for us. The pavements aren't public, they're owned by the developer, so if you are unsavoury in their eyes you can be driven off by private security guards.
"One of the things that we really feel strongly about is Section 106, which is about the moral and social responsibility of developers in every city" she said "It's not good enough to use competition laws to hide the figures used to avoid this...If my peers can't feel the benefit of this economic growth...then it's just two empty words, all we do is look up and see our sky getting smaller.
"They need to remember that at the bottom of this tree are people who can get left behind in what is seen as progress" she concluded "It's only progress if it carries us all with it..."
And that is the challenge. Has the Salford Poverty Truth Commission achieved anything? And will it achieve any kind of legacy, or is it mere Mickey Mouse? The jury that is the wider community will be the judge...
See previous related Salford Star articles
*Salford City Council Puts Poverty Commissioner In More Poverty – click here
Salford Council Calls Off Council Tax Bailiffs After Salford Star Story – click here