Despair and Dignity – Warm Spaces and the need for Government to catch up with Civil Society

David Barclay, Campaign Director, Warm Welcome Campaign

“Winter is coming and my bills are only going to go up, but social security payments will stay the same. I just don’t know how they expect people to survive.” Nikki’s stark words accompany a deeply troubling statistic from the Trussell Trust – that half of working families on Universal Credit ran out of food in the past two months.

This rising level of fear for millions of families is the backdrop to the start of the second year of the Warm Welcome Campaign, the national initiative to support local Warm Spaces which last winter assembled a network of over 7000 Spaces receiving almost 2.5 million visits between them.

In the face of colossal challenge and need, communities running Warm Spaces created so much more than an emergency shelter.

For many people, the rise of Warm Spaces is just another marker along the road of Britain’s decline, a symbol of inequality and dysfunction as millions of people find themselves unable to keep their families warm in one of the richest countries in the world. And yet there is another side to the story of Warm Spaces, as the Warm Welcome Campaign’s research into last winter amply demonstrates. For in the face of colossal challenge and need, communities running Warm Spaces created so much more than an emergency shelter.

Instead they created places of dignity and connection, places made by and for the community where people arrived not as ‘service users’ but as guests and members, with opportunities to contribute. As a result, the impact went well beyond just material support to those in need, but also dramatically improved people’s sense of wellbeing and connection.

The risk with Warm Spaces is that they become yet another example of communities picking up the pieces from a broken economic and political settlement. This is the ‘Big Society’ trap, which Foodbanks are now desperately trying to find a way out of in the face of growing and often overwhelming need for emergency help.

A ‘social safety net’ created by communities at a local level must work hand in glove with a modern, fit-for-purpose welfare safety net

What we need instead is a recognition that a ‘social safety net’ created by communities at a local level must work hand in glove with a modern, fit-for-purpose welfare safety net, as well as with an economy that treats working people with the dignity they deserve.

That means reforming the welfare system and offering a long-term financial settlement for Local Government, whilst at the same time delivering on the Community Power agenda advanced by efforts like the We’re Right Here coalition. Only in this way can we start to create local ecosystems of support which can focus not just on emergency provision and reducing destitution, but on investing in community wellbeing and social integration.

What they want is a Government which matches the ambition and aspiration already present in their community

As the weather changes and we all face another winter of discontent, the British people are not looking for the Government to magically fix all their problems. What they want is a Government which matches the ambition and aspiration already present in their community, and which recognises their resolute insistence on dignity in the face of despair.

Forging a new compact between the State and civil society to turn the tide on poverty is an urgent task for the winner of next year’s General Election. A Government that is ready to match the ambition and determination of local communities is exactly what a weary country, facing another difficult winter ahead, needs.