York strives to pay living wage as cuts bite and poverty spreads

The city has a tradition of philanthropy dating back to the Rowntrees – and the council is determined that its workers will not bear the brunt of austerity

At the turn of the 20th century, the chocolatier and philanthropist Joseph Rowntree bought 150 acres of land north of York and created New Earswick, a low-rent garden village for his employees and others decanted from the rank slums of the city. A Quaker, he believed in investing in the wellbeing of his workers.

Today, New Earswick remains lavishly green and pleasant and is also home to a network of retirement bungalows and a care home in which Dawn Watson, 51, has worked as a general care assistant for 14 years. In January, her wage packet saw a dramatic and permanent increase of £200 a month, earned for the same job, and the same hours. The reason is that her employer, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), now pays its staff the voluntary living wage of £7.45 an hour (£8.55 in London). “It helps with the cost of everyday life,” Watson says. “But it also makes me feel valued, better in myself – if better is the right word.”

This Tuesday marks the city of York’s 100th day as Britain’s first living wage city. The challenges it faces are immense. “Who is against a decent wage?” says Ian Gillies, leader of the Tory group on the Labour-held city council. “But it’s an issue of affordability. If we have to borrow to pay it, it becomes a political whim with dubious consequences.”

York, with a population 205,000, has significant areas of deprivation among large islands of affluence and a real housing crisis, with supply meeting only 8% of need. More than 250 jobs from a council staff of 7,500 will go over the next two years. By the end of 2015, the city will have cut 25% of its total budget – a sum amounting to millions. At the same time, £338,000 has been set aside to ensure that from April, 573 council employees will have salaries increased to the living wage. How can that make sense? Or is the living wage a compass by which progressive local authorities might steer a fairer way through austerity?

In 2011, the independent York Fairness Commission, sponsored by John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, was established. Commissioners came from JRF and Aviva, an important local employer, and included Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson of York University, who co-wrote a book called The Spirit Level. Its thesis is that a range of social ills, including illiteracy, violence, mental and physical illness, unemployment and low civic engagement – all costly to the public purse – are affected not by how wealthy society, is but by how unequal it is. Big gaps between rich and poor are bad for everyone, even the well-off. “Inequality is so much more widespread than many people realise,” Pickett says. “Once they do know, the first instinct is to say: ‘That’s not right’.”

According to the charity One Society, the pay gap between top and bottom earners is, on average, 15 to one in local authorities and a huge 262 to 1 in FTSE 100 companies. So far, one in eight local authorities have reduced the pay of chief executives and one in five are committed to paying employees the living wage.

In addition to the living wage, the Fairness Commission also recommended an investment in preventive action against inequality and a living wage clause in council contracts and procurements. All were adopted by the council. “Social justice is in the city’s DNA,” says Kersten England, the chief executive of the council. “We want to put money into the pockets of the poorest earned from a fair day’s pay. Money means status and has a psychological impact. York is a growth city but we want to take everyone on the journey, not just the privileged.”

“The living wage is necessary but not sufficient in itself,” Julia Unwin, JRF’s chief executive, points out. “It has to be part of a much bigger picture.” The Citizens Advice bureau in Blossom Street, York, deals with more than 60 increasingly desperate inquiries a day. Here, Unwin’s point is made manifest. “Two years ago, we always had a solution. It might not have been brilliant, but we had one,” says Clare Guinan of the CAB. “Now, we don’t.” For the working poor, income no longer matches expenditure while job insecurity is rampant. “You are no longer employed or unemployed for a period,” Guinan says. “It depends on the day.”

George Vickers, a manager at the bureau, says York has seen a 45% increase in involuntary part-time work in the past year. It is not uncommon for a person to work full time but be given a 20-hour-a-week contract. The reduction or withdrawal of benefits by Jobcentre Plus is widespread: in one case a man was given a job, beginning a fortnight later, and was sanctioned for not seeking work in the intervening 14 days. “That’s demeaning. The squeeze is on at such a fundamental level,” says Guinan.

The squeeze is also spreading. Julia Histon is the chief executive of York Housing Association, which pays the living wage and rents to those on the lowest incomes. She says: “People massively underclaim on benefits. We help them with budget planning and ways to avoid homelessness. But what’s now happening is that young professionals are also being squeezed out of the private rental market and they aren’t eligible for the housing we offer.”

Statistics reveal the scale of the crisis. The average income in the city is £20,420; the average house price £201,000. Nearly half of households have an income of less than £24,000 year but an annual income of £42,000 is required to rent a three-bedroom home. The waiting list to rent social housing is 2,690 names long and growing. “We are building 40 units a year but if you think of the scale of the problem, that’s tiny,” Histon says.

The council plans 5,000 affordable houses in four years. “Otherwise, the kids of our families can’t afford to live in their own city,” England says. “That’s also the challenge of income inequality.”

Martyn Weller is co-owner of a York business that organises adventure activities such as kayaking and caving. York has 800 small businesses employing, on average, a staff of seven. Weller’s has a turnover of £175,000 a year. Nationally, two-thirds of small businesses pay the living wage but it isn’t feasible for all. Weller pays his staff £6.50 an hour and himself £675 a month. The Ministry of Defence last year contracted his company at £255 a session, four sessions a week. Now, it’s two sessions, at £135 each. “That’s happening everywhere.”

According to KPMG, one in five of the national workforce are paid less than the living wage. In York, 103 of JRF staff have received a 20% pay increase while those at the top end have had no increase. JRF has commissioned a number of studies to assess the impact, but one bonus is already apparent. Previously, there was a 20-30% turnover of care staff, and it costs £600 to recruit and train each individual. “Turnover is much lower,” JRF’s Shaun Rafferty says. “The living wage can be a good deal for employers too.”

Six mornings a week, at Carecent, behind the giant Central Methodist church in York, volunteers provide free breakfasts, food, help and clothes to a large band of the homeless, many suffering mental ill health, all showing the wounds of permanent exile from society. Up to 60 come each morning. Donations from the public are plentiful. “York is that kind of place,” says Nicky Gladstone, project manager. Here, cuts and the living wage have little relevance. If you take nothing from nothing, you have nothing.”

“York looks pretty but it is very typical of a lot of England,” Unwin says. “Low income, low pay. What we have is strong leadership and a shared vision of what a sense of fairness might achieve. If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere.”

 The Observer, Sunday 10 February 2013

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