West Berkshire Council’s Cost of Living Support Hub

West Berkshire has an enviably large number of voluntary bodies and community groups covering almost every aspect of life. It also has a well established organisation, Volunteer Centre West Berkshire, which helps place people who want to volunteer with the most suitable group and whose knowledge of that sector is thus unparalleled. The district is also fortunate in having a grant-giving body like Greenham Trust (others exist but this is the main one). At a time of crisis, all these efforts need to be co-ordinated: that’s where West Berkshire Council (WBC) comes in.

Both Covid and the Ukrainian refugees proved the need for a central point of contact from where people could be directed to the organisation, in the district or elsewhere, who could best help them. This online and telephone-based service acquired the name of the “Hub” during Covid and was re-purposed when Putin’s war started producing refugees. It has since been re-purposed again. The latest iteration is the Cost of Living Support Hub and you can visit the website here.

This seems to be working very well and doing exactly what it says on the label. I don’t know how many other districts have such a hub but West Berkshire’s seems to be in Premier League on this. All the councillors, officers, volunteers and staff who’ve helped create it deserve congratulation. I put in a call to it on the morning on 7 December and was connected after a short wait. The person I spoke to was charming, friendly and helpful.

The fact that this is functioning as well as it does is particularly important given the nature of the issues it’s dealing with.

Covid and the Ukraine crisis were fairly simple. Each was a specific problem for which advice and signposting – to furlough schemes or local groups in the first case or to hosting application forms and support funding in the second – was clearly available from various places. In both cases there were regulations (seemingly ever-changing during the pandemic) that had to be followed or specific criteria that needed to be met. In particular, Covid affected everyone equally, regardless of wealth or circumstance. We were, to re-purpose a slogan from 2010, all in it together.

The cost-of-living crisis is, by comparison, like the Wild West with no certainty about anything. There are numerous ways in which this is affecting people. There is no national definition of what suffering from the crisis is, as there was for Tier Two, self-isolation periods or eligibility for hosting refugees. There’s no law you’re breaking by being poor (though plenty of consequences if you can’t as a result pay your bills). It’s up to everyone to decide at what point they need help.

The problem is that, for many, asking for help is a novel experience. I was at an event in Newbury earlier this year organised by WBC Councillor Steve Masters and was struck by the comment from one volunteer group that some of the people who came to the food bank two years ago with donations were now coming for food.

Moreover, asking for help assumes two things: that you know who to ask; and you can admit that you need help at all. The Hub can certainly take care of the first. The second is more tricky, particularly for those who believe that to do so is to admit that they have in some way failed.

That is not the case. To accept this to admit that virtually all companies and public bodies have also failed, as their budgets have been torpedoed by a cycle of spiralling costs and in some cases a reduction of supply that few if any would have predicted a couple of years ago. Think of rather as being caught in a car crash at which you were not at the wheel. Not being able to afford astronomical energy bills is not your fault. The good news is that there is a network of local and national support which exists for you to tap into whenever you need it. WBC’s Hub provides the key to this.

The reasons that people contact the Hub can be very complex and some calls can last a long time. About two-thirds of contact are by phone (email and online forms are the other methods). Although taking calls is the most expensive method for WBC, the Council has wisely reasoned that it has to be available in the ways that people want – this is no time to try to change communication habits. As a WBC spokesperson recently pointed out to me, the conversations are important to some people as they help them navigate through a system that might be completely unfamiliar to them. “We feel, ” he added, “that the ability to talk things through is an important part of the service to residents.”

Don’t, however, expect that the Hub will be able to solve your problems in one chat. That would, after all, be beyond the power of any one organisation. Its purpose is rather to direct you to the places, ranging from food banks to mental-health support groups, that can provide practical assistance. The staff are also prepared for your call to be a lot more than just a simple Q&A. As one of the officers involved in it told me on 7 December, “some calls can be quite straightforward but others are complex as they involve multiple issues and challenges faced by the resident. These can take some time or multiple calls and exchanges. As well as signposting, we are also making direct referrals for people.”

He also stressed that the information available to the Hub and its staff is constantly increasing as new problems become apparent and new organisations emerge to help address them. He cited the provision of clothing and the mapping of warm spaces as being two of these.

The service is reaching out across the district as well. I was at the market in Hungerford on 7 December and chatted to someone from WBC who was handing out leaflets and explaining the service to residents. She told me of one person she’d recently helped who been persuaded to get in touch by a friend who realised he needed help but couldn’t face asking. Since then, he had obtained specialised assistance and support and was, as result of meeting people at a warm hub, also acquiring a new skill. He has also become an advocate in helping others pick up the phone themselves.

WBC Leader Lynne Doherty sums up the situation well. “Cost-of-living increases mean that more people are being affected than previously. Our Cost of Living Hub was set up to help to advise and signpost people, especially those who don’t know who to turn to, to those organisations and funds that can help them through this most difficult time. I am proud of the work the Council and our voluntary partners are doing to help people at this time of need.”

She also points out that residents who are in a position to assist others can do so by donating to the fund WBC set up with Greenham Trust as “this is a great way to give direct help.” You can also contact Volunteer Centre West Berkshire if you want to devote a bit of your time and knowledge to help the many many wonderful voluntary organisations in the district.

If you do decide to do this, the evidence suggests that your money will be well spent. WBC acquitted itself very well during Covid and the Ukraine crisis and is doing so now with the latest challenge. If you need to contact the Hub, get in touch. it’s there to help and no one’s going to judge you. If you’re in a position to donate, or to volunteer, then click on either of the above links. As the old phrase goes, from each according to their means and to each according to their needs. This sentiment has rarely been so relevant.

Brian Quinn




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