Council Warned About Deterioration in Customer Support

Charity says people in need of help due to cost-of-living rises being let down

Hammersmith & Fulham Council's cost-of-living support is provided from 145 King Street

December 18, 2023

Hammersmith & Fulham Council has been warned its customer support services have been ‘getting worse’ amid the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, with one person allegedly spending a year trying to claim their pension credits. Sarah Lumgair, from People Arise Now, told a council committee the charity is increasingly having to spend time on the phone to the local authority, in a bid to help residents access support.

Ms Lumgair was speaking at a Policy and Oversight Board meeting held last week, in which members heard from several voluntary sector organisations in a bid to better understand the effectiveness of the council’s response to the cost-of-living crisis. While acknowledging people are ‘struggling’, those who attended, such as Phil Storey, Chief Executive at Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, were largely positive about the council’s contributions, with its forming of an alliance of groups from charities to residents coming in for particular praise.

Among the initiatives launched by the council to support residents are the issuing of fuel vouchers, helping households with council tax arrears and opening Warm Welcome spaces. A cost-of-living advice team was also established, with data showing it has so-far received 15,000 calls from 4,500 households, with 1,500 residents assessed requiring help on issues ranging from school uniforms to disabled grants.

A report published ahead of the meeting detailed pressures such as rising rents and prices of essential items as key drivers of the current crisis. One of the most damaging local impacts is that of worsening homelessness, which the report noted is 17 per cent higher than 12 months ago.

“Building on support last year, we have continued to provide additional funding to prevent homelessness through sustaining tenancies amongst tenants in the private rented sector, housing association tenancies and temporary accommodation (TA), as well as helping residents to navigate out of a cycle of debt and financial hardship through addressing their circumstances,” officers wrote. “In the first two quarters of 2023/24, 130 households were assisted to prevent homelessness, through financial help with rent, energy and utility costs, setting up homes and with clothing and uniforms for children.”

During the meeting, Stephan Wiedmer, Hammersmith Branch Manager at debt advice charity Crosslight, told councillors the team continues to struggle with ‘very high enquiries’. “Normally in the summer holiday there is a drop, but this year that never happened,” he said. “And also, because of the housing crisis and rent arrears, or the rent increase, we had more clients who were able to manage in the private sector, and they really struggle now. Particularly families, it’s very upsetting. They’re in school, and now the landlord has increased the rent quite significantly, so they work, [get] Universal Credit, but it simply doesn’t balance anymore.”

Ms Lumgair, Operations Manager at People Arise Now, which focuses on supporting people from communities where there is typically a background of crime, raised concerns about the council’s customer support service, and how it is responding to the ongoing crisis.

She said, “We’ve found more and more of our time is used literally just being on the phone to the council, trying to help people get through and find out about their benefits, getting answers about their benefits. We had a case where it’s taken us a year to get somebody’s pension credits, several months to get somebody’s bus pass when they’ve become a certain age, so we’d say in terms of the work that we’ve seen…people are struggling. But in terms of accessing the council customer service-wise, that has been a real struggle and it just seems to have gotten worse and worse.”

Ms Lumgair did continue to say the alliance formed by the council, and the teamwork it has inspired, has been ‘quite amazing’, and praised the progress on a new digital signposting platform for residents.

Responding to Ms Lumgair’s comments on the customer service issues at the local authority, Cllr Rebecca Harvey, Cabinet Member for Social Inclusion and Community Safety, said, “We are doing work behind the scenes. We’ve met with officers to talk about how things can be improved and it has been an ongoing process to get there. But we definitely are listening, and that’s the whole point of having our alliance group and our cost-of-living conference and workshops, so we’re taking on lots of different feedback and looking at how we can improve things for everybody.”

Among the concerns the report noted looking forward is the expected removal of the Household Support Fund, a Government grant which was introduced in Covid and has become a key part of the council’s anti-poverty strategy. According to the report, Hammersmith and Fulham received £2.83 million from this fund for 2023/24, though is anticipating it will be cut for all local authorities in 2024/25.

Matt Sales, the officer lead on the cost-of-living programme at the council, told committee members, “Our expectation at the moment is that it will end in March 2024. The Government still hasn’t confirmed that, they’ve written to say they will keep it under review. It’s not helping ourselves or anyone in local government plan for the future, and for us it’s been a key source of funding to support residents through the cost of living.”

Adrian Zorzut - Local Democracy Reporter