The speech I gave at Westminster City Council’s Full Council meeting tonight:
The tale of Westminster really is a tale of two cities.
The neighbourhoods that make up our borough rank among the least and most deprived in the whole of the UK (1), and Westminster is among the worst boroughs in London for pay and income inequality (2,3).
While in my ward, Churchill, an estimated 53% of children live in poverty and around a third are on free school meals – in Knightsbridge and Belgravia just next door, those figures drop to 9% and zero (2).
And inequality is literally a matter of life and death. Westminster has the biggest variation in life expectancy in the country (3): if you’re a man born in one of our least deprived areas, you’re likely to live on average 11.3 years longer than a man born in one of our most deprived areas; for a woman that difference is 7.9 years (1).
The COVID pandemic has not so much increased this inequality in Westminster as shone a light on it. We may all be in the war against the virus, but we are certainly not all experiencing the same war.
Some residents are lucky enough to be able to work safely from home – others have no choice to but to leave the house, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk. Some Westminster residents have extremely comfortable, spacious homes, perhaps with lovely gardens; others live in homes that are overcrowded or in a state of disrepair – with no access to outdoor space, no ability to self-isolate if they’re told to or no hope of being rehoused for years… While yet others sleep on our streets. Some families have the time, space and equipment for home schooling – others struggle because they don’t have any or all of the above. Some of us can afford the private mental health care to help us cope with this crisis – while too many others sit on waiting lists for too many weeks.
In short, the virus and resulting lockdowns are hitting the most vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged in our society the hardest of all (4). The statistics back it up: People who live in deprived areas have higher COVID diagnosis and death rates than those living in less deprived areas – and they are higher in those in our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (5,6). The risk is also higher for disabled people: 59% of those who lost their lives to COVID in England and Wales between March and July last year were disabled (7).
We need to address the issues highlighted here not just during a crisis, but all year round. So tonight, I call on Westminster Council’s leaders to acknowledge the extent of inequality in our borough, and to pledge to take more specific steps to tackle it.
This could be done by implementing an ‘inequality test’ as a thread which runs through every area of Westminster Council policy. That no decision – no council plan or strategy – is made in any area, from housing to health, from planning to place-shaping, without asking in what way that decision helps to address the inequality in our borough.
I also ask that the Leadership sets up a cross-party Task Force on inequality; and creates Lead Members or Champions – just as there are currently for example for our LGBTQ and Learning Disabled communities – to give stronger voices to other marginalised groups and pressing issues that have been highlighted by the pandemic, such as a Physical Disabilities Lead or a Mental Health Champion.
The Council could also launch specific initiatives – and relaunch current ones – to help bridge the inequality gap and connect our communities, as per the Community Contribution scheme and the Empty Property Premium, both Labour ideas which we’re pleased they adopted, and which we’re very happy to offer more of.
They could also work more closely with the NHS and the charities helping our communities most at risk – and increase the Council’s core funding to such groups. And they should prioritise the building of social – not ‘intermediate’ – housing in any upcoming developments, in order to help the most vulnerable residents on our housing waiting list.
It is a cliché to refer to something as ‘Dickensian’ – but the situation today in Westminster, where so many people are lucky enough to enjoy huge wealth and privilege and yet so many others live in poverty, where children are fed by food banks and where people still sleep on our streets – is sadly something Charles Dickens would recognise, over a hundred and fifty years after he wrote his books.
We all know A Tale of Two Cities begins “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – but the opening continues that “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”. In these sometimes foolish times, I hope that our Council leaders can show the wisdom to acknowledge the crisis of inequality here in Westminster and pledge to take concrete, specific action to address it once and for all.
(2) Child Poverty Action Group report https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjx1qz2jZTuAhVU3IUKHdqcAI0QFjAAegQIBRAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fcpag.org.uk%2Ffile%2F3501%2Fdownload%3Ftoken%3DB3rm9nXY&usg=AOvVaw3IsFHOgJ7-XFd0LgTbfeXc
(3) Stats sources referenced in this piece: https://labourwestminster.wordpress.com/deprivation-in-westminster/
(4) Joseph Rowntree Foundation article https://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/covid-19-greater-health-risk-people-low-incomes-we-can-give-life-line and report https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2020-21