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No freedom for 4 in 10 Londoners

The Trust has supported the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) at Loughborough University since 2014 to produce research bringing members of the public together to discuss and agree what is needed for a minimum standard of living in the capital. Matt Padley, one of the lead researchers at CRSP, reflects on some of the changes they’ve seen due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, ahead of new research coming out later this year.

When deciding what the minimum income standard of living in London and the UK should be, all of our groups root their discussions and deliberations on the following definition:

A minimum standard of living in the UK today includes, but is more than just, food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.

Over time, we’ve seen small, incremental changes in what people think you need to reach this in London. Adding Netflix in 2020 as a cost-effective source of entertainment (echoing a change in the UK outside the capital), as well as shifting school uniforms needs for children, all reflects changes in society and social norms, in technology, and in policy and practice.

In the last year and a half however, these changes have been much more sudden and dramatic in response to COVID-19.

The long-term, long-lasting impact of this global shock – economically, socially, politically and culturally – may not be known for years. But, what can we learn from our research on living standards in the capital? And what are some key questions for us to consider in the short-to-medium term when planning for recovery?

Decent minimum living standards have always been about more than subsistence or survival. However, there are many in the UK for whom these essentials are far from a given and COVID-19 has brought this into sharp relief, with the help of high-profile campaigns such as Marcus Rashford’s push for free school meals.

The poor quality and inappropriateness of housing for lots of families was highlighted by successive lockdowns endured ‘inside’ with lack of access to outside space or overcrowding. Questions about what sort of housing we as a society agree everyone should be able to access will continue to be central to defining and describing minimum living standards in London.

A decent living standard means not always having to choose the cheapest, not having to decide between essentials, not being excluded from the opportunities that are often seen as ‘normal’. A low income more often than not limits or removes these choices.

COVID-19 has removed choice from many more of us, depriving us of opportunities, and in doing so has drawn attention to just how important these are to a sense of control over life and circumstances. As we emerge from COVID, what needs to change in London – and the UK – to ensure that choice and opportunity are not just the preserve of those with higher incomes?

Just as choice and opportunity have been severely restricted because of COVID-19, so too has the ability to participate in the world around you. The thing that every group we worked with in our recent London research had missed most was being able to meet with others. Socialising with friends and family, yes, but also those incidental, accidental, unplanned encounters with others in the city.

These often less tangible, less concrete aspects of minimum living standards appear more important than ever – connections, community, shared experiences. Capturing this feeling of togetherness will be important when the city starts to look a little more ‘normal’.

There is doubtless truth in the aphorism ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’.

The short supply of much of what we take for granted over the past year has served to highlight the value of everyday things like meeting up with friends for drinks, eating out, or hosting birthday parties for our children.

Pre-COVID however, these things were already out of reach for the 4 in 10 Londoners below the minimum standard of living.

The cut to Universal Credit and the end of furlough will further exacerbate and widen the division between those eagerly anticipating a post-COVID world and those for whom little will change.

It is critically important that we find ways to ensure that all Londoners are able to meet this decent minimum standard of living – to be able to provide for essential needs, to have choices and opportunity and to have what they need to participate fully in society. In ‘building back better’, these Londoners cannot be forgotten about.

22 July 2021