Broken Britain: why Liverpool Walton is the Levelling Up frontline
Staff at Liverpool 6 Community Association
Liverpool Walton spans the city’s two football clubs and is home to a myriad of problems which makes the constituency the most deprived in the country. Tali Fraser reports
"The levels of deprivation and community need in Liverpool Walton are staggering”: that is the assessment of Rev James Green, a former local priest in Walton’s St Andrews Church, who now heads up the charity Together Liverpool.
It is also a fact, Liverpool Walton is the most deprived constituency in England. Large numbers of shops across the area are shuttered; residents point out rubbish and mess in alleyways behind their homes; and pubs post signs warning punters not to bring drugs on to the premises.
According to Green, it is evidence of one of what he describes as the “myths” of the levelling up agenda: “This implication that we are all in it together, when it is the most vulnerable communities who are disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis, with their lives already being lived on tight margins.”
To say margins are tight is an understatement. In November alone there were 14,000 waiting for a home on Liverpool’s Property Pool waitlist. This was not 14,000 people but 14,000 households, often including families.
Local MP Dan Carden’s staff tell how a woman in Walton on the waiting list contacted the office asking how long it was likely to take before she was rehomed. When she heard the high number she threatened to kill herself, saying any hope she had of being placed soon had disappeared.
Poor supply of housing means many families are placed in hotels. One, a mother and her two children, was recently sent to a hotel just outside of Manchester with no cooking or washing facilities and more than 30 miles from their school.
Blame in Walton is not placed on the council, which has faced continual cuts, but firmly on the government in Westminster. Carden’s office has become accustomed to taking calls from constituents so desperate they threaten to kill themselves – and sometimes their children, too.
Caseworker Valerie Beech says: “We are not meant to be a crisis centre. I dread for the next year ahead, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
“The phone never stops, people knocking on our door never stops – and when they start to talk, they just start crying.”
As Beech says this, a constituent in his late 50s, recovering from cancer, arrives at the office with a housing problem. He weeps as he tells the staff that the entire ceiling of his privately rented apartment is covered with mould and has started leaking. He asks Beech: “What am I meant to do? I’m desperate, I don’t want to lose my home but I can’t live there anymore.”
The man has been forced to use bin bags to cover the bed when he sleeps so it doesn’t soak up the damp, and is worried he will be thrown out of his home if he complains to the landlord.
I dread for the next year ahead, there is no light at the end of the tunnel
This happened recently in Walton, to a woman in her 60s who complained to a landlord that her back door was broken; she received an eviction notice in return, a case Carden raised in Parliament.
Jane Corbett, an Everton councillor and deputy mayor for fairness and tackling poverty, says this illustrates that free legal aid in housing, benefits and employment, cases should be “a basic standard”.
She adds that Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s renters’ reforms bill is much needed in Walton, alongside “a proper national housing strategy if you want any levelling up” as it is essential the area gets more “affordable, accessible, adequately furnished and maintained housing”.
Carden agrees: “People are unable to find secure, decent, living accommodation. Every single day, I receive emails from families who are at risk of losing or already without a decent place to live. We’re constantly talking to constituents who are looking for a decent home to raise their kids.”
Not far from Carden’s Office, towards Everton, is the Liverpool 6 Community Association, run by Gerard Woodhouse, a local councillor. When we meet, there are 21 children having dinner as part of the youth club. They go four times a week to get a two-course hot meal and take home some essentials for their parents.
Woodhouse takes me on a tour of the centre, equipped with a laundry, full to the brim storage rooms, a games room, a food pantry, a uniform shop and a nursery shop, all providing free goods.
He says he wishes those operating in Westminster understood the challenges he and his staff are facing. “I’d love a Cabinet member to come up here or the Prime Minister and look and show that they want to help people out there. They need to come out and see what the situation is like because what is really heart-breaking is our politicians in London don’t give a shit about us… the Labour Party has got to shape up as well.”
Deliberately mis-pronouncing Rishi Sunak’s name as “Richy,” Woodhouse asks how politicians can understand levelling up and supporting people when “they have never had a poor day in their life”.
Families who go to Woodhouse for help are usually “at breaking point”, he says, facing debt, employment problems and addiction issues.
“Here it is all about giving people some dignity,” he says. The uniform shop has a fake till to make kids feel like they are getting the proper shopping experience, while cooking lessons help parents and children learn how to make easy, cheap and healthy meals.
“All kids are welcome,” he says, “I’m not ever going to take it out on the child because their parents spend their money on drugs”.
But Woodhouse is concerned that the crisis has already got to a level he was unprepared for: “We are a third sector organisation that should be running afternoon bingo, ballroom dancing, but we are not. We’ve become the frontline; the council are referring people to us because they haven’t got the money to do anything, but we are only filling in the cracks.”
Both he and the centre are facing unbearable pressures. Woodhouse admits he struggles and last week he started crying after realising he had accidentally left his heating on all day while he was at work.
The centre’s lottery funding ended in December and he fears it only has enough money to last for another three or four months. “A lot of people who used to donate to us are now coming to us for help,” he adds.
Helen Oliver, who works for the financial charity Raise as well as in Carden’s office, says it is facing similar issues around funding, with demand increasing, leaving an average of one to two hundred people on their waitlist – something she describes as “really disheartening”.
A lot of people who used to donate to us are now coming to us for help
Last year the charity managed to get around £2m worth of debts written off or changed into affordable repayment plans, while reclaiming £3m of benefit payments.
Oliver adds: “The majority of people are really vulnerable and have so little. There are a lot with alcohol, drug or mental health issues and find it hard to navigate their finances.”
Everyone I spoke to in Walton doubted the presence of levelling up in their area, with Carden saying there is “no sign whatsoever” of any difference.
He adds: “I don’t believe there will be any improvements in the situation facing my constituents over the next two years of this Parliament.”
Amid the high levels of deprivation, Rev Green and Together Liverpool run the Network of Kindness, bringing community groups and charities together to support each other.
He wants to make sure people also remember the goodness of the people of Walton: “You don’t find many communities that are more generous, kind, loving and connected to each other.”
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