People in Oxfordshire who have started to plan ahead for a difficult winter due to the cost of living crisis are to be offered help by the county council – including emergency welfare, council tax support and warm places for people struggling with heating bills.
On 20 September, the council’s cabinet agreed to a list of proposals to assist local people – particularly the vulnerable – as they face the combination of inflation and the rising cost of energy over the coming months. More than £2 million of funding will be provided in 2022/23 to support the proposals with further funding in future years.
The permanent provision of an emergency welfare scheme is to be administered through the county council’s customer services team. The report to the cabinet said: “Evidence shows that the provision of relatively modest crisis support can prevent issues escalating”.
The scheme allows for improved administration of current schemes, such as the provision of food support to children in early years settings and targeting of grants in areas such as families who are not benefiting from national energy support schemes.
This will initially be resourced through the government’s Household Support Fund – if draft proposals are confirmed by the government – with the council subsequently financing the scheme at £500,000 per year through to 2025/26.
Given steeply rising energy bills, it is anticipated that many residents will feel unable to heat their homes adequately this winter. The county council will offer warm places across the winter – with a focus on its libraries network. Libraries will be offered as welcoming and warm places for people to spend time, helping with isolation, loneliness, mental well-being and warmth.
There is also a plan to offer a grants scheme for community venues to contribute to their energy costs with the proviso that they would open for a set time each week. This will support existing activities (stay-and-play schemes, lunch clubs etc.) and encourage new initiatives. There will be a £100,000 fund available for organisations to bid to.
Support for grassroots initiatives
The county council will support voluntary and community sector grassroots initiatives. The Oxfordshire Community Foundation (OCF) is developing a new round of grants to support voluntary and community sector organisations in tackling the cost of living crisis.
It will aim to improve the lives of people on the lowest incomes by funding charities and community groups that work to build resilience and alleviate hardship. It will launch in October with an initial £100,000 of OCF funding, and the county council proposes to match this with £100,000 of its own funds.
The grants will fund a range of organisations supporting community food services, money and debt advice, and networks for older people and vulnerable adults and those working with families in need.
Council tax reduction schemes
The county council will support Oxfordshire’s district councils and Oxford City Council in their various council tax reduction schemes that aim to reduce the amount people with low incomes have to pay.
The county council will also support council tax hardship funds being considered by district councils. Such funds give councils additional discretionary powers to reduce the council tax payable by individuals facing exceptional circumstances. The county council is willing to support district councils in implementing such schemes.
Additional support had already been put in place centred on the nationally funded Household Support Fund to be targeted at the most in-need households. There is also a £210,000 grant to Citizens Advice in place to maintain debt and benefits advice capacity to June 2023.
A total of £245,000 is in place to expand the Better Homes Better Health programme allowing the scheme to reach fuel-poor households with advice on reducing energy costs. A total of £322,000 of COVID funding has been assigned to the Care Workers Charity to provide crisis grants for workers most in need and access to the ‘Blue Light Card’ staff benefit and discount scheme for all those working in the sector.
Councillor Liz Leffman, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “The winter ahead looks incredibly difficult for people of all ages, backgrounds and incomes and for businesses and organisations too. Prices for many essentials are rising steeply, and the cost of energy is a particular concern.
“We know that the central government is announcing its own plans, but there is far more that they could and should do. We believe we must act decisively to do all that we can locally to give assistance.
“Of course, in local government, we have much more limited powers than the national government, but we will use all of the influence at our disposal to make a difference in people’s lives.
“There is little time to waste. The rise in the energy price cap occurs at the start of October and very soon thereafter the coldest months of the year will be upon us.”
Councillor Mark Lygo, Oxfordshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Public Health and Equalities, said: “We all need to work hard to focus support on those who are struggling as the winter approaches. It will now be important to work in partnership with fellow councils and other organisations who will be gearing themselves up to help. Resource and effort are important but so is coordination. By working together, we can make a difference in these tough times.”