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Spotlight on: Debt Justice

Debt Justice Hustings (CREDIT Kristian Buus)

Kristian Buus

Debt Justice Hustings (CREDIT Kristian Buus)

Kristian Buus

Author: Eva Watkinson, Debt Justice

London’s household debt crisis is urgent and growing. Through the Trust for London funded community organising project from Debt Justice, Together Against Debt, communities are fighting back. Head of campaigns and engagement, Eva Watkinson explains why this work is so important and what's been achieved so far.

In 2018 the Financial Conduct Authority found that London had the highest proportion of over-indebted people of any region in the UK. Recent polling by Jubilee Debt Campaign also suggests that London has the highest percentage of people who expect to be pushed into debt over the next six months.

The debt explosion

London’s household debt crisis is urgent and growing, but through the Trust for London funded community organising project, Together Against Debt, communities are fighting back.

Even before the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic, levels of personal indebtedness were on the rise, largely due to the growth in insecure and low paid work, and the lack of an adequate social safety net. Despite this debt explosion, it’s an issue that isn’t receiving the level of political attention it deserves.

Debt Justice has taken a community organising approach to try and tackle this issue, supporting groups to build campaigns and influence policies based on their priorities. Building collective power over the long term is the only way that communities will see change.

Growth in levels of indebtedness is a widespread, systemic economic problem, not as it is often perceived, a result of bad choices or individual failures.

The shame and stigma that surrounds debt is deeply embedded and alienating, and the impact that debt can have on mental health is well documented, and one of the reasons why many find it hard to talk about the issue. Coming together with a group of people facing similar issues and winning change helps to overcome that isolation and show that the problem is systemic.

It's been so good to come together with other people in my community. At first, I thought that it might just be me who was having these problems but to have formed a group that meets regularly makes me believe that if we stick together, we can get the changes we want.

Debt Justice Group Member

Community organising for change

Jubilee Debt Campaign began organising on Lambeth’s Leigham Court Estate in June 2021 following initial research and outreach. One of the residents reported that she owed over £3000 in energy bills because of poor insulation and disrepair in her council owned home. This was a common problem across the estate.

The group grew quickly, developing campaigning priorities and strategy. In less than a year the group has established a relationship with their MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who has visited the estate and raised their demands with the local council on their behalf, built a petition with over 450 signatories and gained media coverage.

In November 2021, the group submitted a deposition to Lambeth council, which enabled members to tell their stories and demand change at a full council meeting. As a result, they won commitments from the council to carry out home improvement works to prevent residents building up high levels of energy debt. Lambeth Council have committed to over £1 million worth of repairs on the estate.

Since then, the group has continued to build pressure on Lambeth Council and won a further commitment to a structural survey of every house on the estate. Recently, one of the group members also had £7,000 in housing fee debt written off by Lambeth Council. In May of last year held a successful husting meeting where they put pressure on candidates from all parties in the run up to the Local elections (pictured above)

The work of this group has not only generated tangible benefits that will directly improve the lives of residents on this estate, but members are no longer in a position of isolation. They have built their collective power and a platform to go on and win other campaigns. All this work has been led by the group, many of whom have never engaged in any form of campaigning, activism or organising before.

The Together Against Debt project also supports the Unfair Debt Group in East London, which has met with the mayor Lutfur Rahman to talk about bailiff use and how it is affecting their members. They have also begun building a petition to call for an end to bailiff use in Tower Hamlets. Recently we’ve launched a new North London Together Against Debt group.

A key aim of our household debt work is to support people in debt to have their voices heard in national and local campaigning spaces. To enable this, we partnered with On Road Media (recently rebranded to Heard) to develop and run media training to support people with experience of debt to tell their stories in the media. This has led directly to local group members feeling confident enough to take part in national broadcast media. For example, group members took part in a media story broadcast on ITV, which reaches on average 3.2 million viewers.

We aim to have our first national face to face meeting later this year, where group members will come together to share the skills and knowledge they’ve developed through organising and look at where they can build power together to campaign to end the household debt crisis.

The campaign will build on these successes and share learnings over the coming months and years, linking up local struggles with a strong national voice to achieve debt justice.