Tackling Oxford’s social divide: lessons from the lockdown


Oxford Community Action co-ordinating food deliveries at the Ark-T centre in Cowley. All photo credits: Ed Nix ©


When her husband walked out during lockdown after emptying their joint bank account, Nina Balqui* was left penniless. But after applying for universal credit, the mother of three was told it would take five weeks before any money came through. “Social services asked us if there was anything we could do to help,” recalls community volunteer Sue Holden. “We were on her doorstep within an hour, with food, teddy bears, activity packs and reading books and we made sure she was looked after, every single week.”

In Oxford, as elsewhere across the UK, thousands of volunteers mounted a massive grass-roots effort during the national coronavirus lockdown, which lasted from March 23 to June 1 2020. But while collecting prescriptions and delivering food parcels and shopping, they also discovered the daily realities of those who, even in normal times, struggle to get by.

These realities are part of a bleak national picture that was revealed in Destitution in the UK, a report published in December 2020 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. More than half a million children in the UK are reported to be living in ‘destitute’ households, and that number has doubled since 2017. Years of austerity, meanwhile, have cut to the bone the safety net that people rely on.

The pandemic has aggravated the problem and exposed gaps in state provision, according to Sara Fernandez, chief executive of volunteering group Oxford Hub, which partnered with the city council and others to set up Oxford Together, in response to the lockdown. But it also created a space for different approaches to giving and receiving help that may be important in helping reverse the entrenched deprivation.

A culture clash

To illustrate failings in the way the social welfare system operates, Fernandez tells the story of a mother who contacted her in tears after a supermarket cashier rejected the food vouchers she’d received instead of free school meals during lockdown.

A queue built up behind her as the cashier tried but failed to get the system to recognise the voucher, until the mother eventually left without any food, feeling publicly humiliated. The problem was the voucher was a ‘voucher for a voucher’, with a number that needed to be entered into a website that would issue another voucher for a specific supermarket. The website was hard to navigate and could not cope with the traffic. With limited data allowance on her mobile and a cracked screen, she wasn’t able to use her phone to download and scan the voucher, and she had no access to a printer. Fernandez was able to help.

Fernandez argues that ending the cycle of deprivation requires building long-term trusted relationships where people can ask for and receive specific help they need not just to survive, but get on the front foot. It is an approach that Oxford Together instilled among the 5,500-strong army of volunteers who shopped and collected prescriptions during lockdown. But it is not typical of the way the welfare system works, she says, and she describes early discussions with the city council about how to deliver support as a bit of a “culture clash”.

Differences arose over who should receive food support and how. “They were trying to only do deliveries to people who had need ‘arising from COVID’ and obviously there are so many grey areas. The council doesn’t do grey so well.”

It’s solidarity not dependency

Other groups preferred to stay independent of the council. Oxford Mutual Aid, also founded in response to the Covid-19 crisis, describes itself as a ‘community of volunteers’. Founding member Muireann Meehan Speed says many of those who need help are failed by current approaches, because they don’t necessarily fit the criteria ‒ and even if they do, may not wish to be labelled.

“You have to fill in a form or qualify, and there are people who, for whatever reason, are excluded. Then you have a very real barrier, which is feelings of shame around it. It’s very important to us that we try to empower people as much as possible when they’re asking for support. We encourage those who can to volunteer, to attend meetings, to engage in decision making around the organisation.”

Oxford Mutual Aid is supporting as many as 300 families a week and partnering with a number of organisations, such as University colleges, to deliver hot meals. Meehan Speed points out there was already “significant food poverty” in Oxford, before Covid, something backed up by figures showing that more than one in four children in Oxford is living in poverty. She is visibly angered by the idea that, by delivering food, organisations such as Oxford Mutual Aid are creating permanent dependency, describing it, rather, as “the normalisation of solidarity”.

Even small things, such as the opportunity to eat tasty, freshly prepared food, bring real joy to families under pressure, she says, pointing to a message from one happy recipient which reads: “Oh my gosh, two large parcels arrived… my daughter is helping me unpack and she’s squealing with absolute delight. She loves custard and we haven’t been able to buy any in ages… I never thought I would need this support but I am truly grateful.”

A question of trust

Trusted relationships can be even more essential in supporting people within Black and minority ethnic communities, who account for an estimated 36% of Oxford residents. Mujahid Hamidi co-founded the Oxford Community Action collective in response to research showing many from BAME communities don’t make use of services like health or housing, unless led there by people they trust. “We facilitate that access. We are working with very nuanced societies here. We have to overcome all these differences so they feel ready to accept help in whatever way we can provide,” he says.

When lockdown started, Oxford Community Action worked with volunteers from each of Oxford’s diverse BAME communities to deliver food parcels where needed. In April they were supporting 40 households a week ‒ it’s since risen to 400. These families would be highly reluctant to ask for help from council-run services, according to Hamidi. “There’s a lot of pride in communities and people who are struggling. If their friends or neighbours saw a council van coming to their house, there is  stigma. We overcome that by making sure that the food would be delivered by people from their own communities. So, it looks like their friend just came round and dropped off some food,” he explains.

As with Oxford Mutual Aid, their approach is one of solidarity rather than dependency. “A lot of our volunteers are people who needed food. They came down to collect something, and they felt the atmosphere and thought, ‘Hey! I want to come every week now.’ And we can rely on them to come every week. Because they have that passion, that emotion, that bond that we have created and that is not something that is easily done.”

Social care is bursting at the seams

Lockdown also exposed gaps in existing services. Oxford’s headteachers and teachers were quick to understand the implications that closing schools would have for many of their pupils, and took on responsibility for their welfare. The headteacher of a primary school on the outskirts of Oxford argues this is a role teachers have been quietly filling for years, without recognition or resources. “With all the austerity measures, a lot of the safeguarding comes down to us,” she said.

As with most schools, this school has a designated ‘safeguarding lead’ and their day and a “good chunk” of the headteacher’s day was regularly  spent supporting vulnerable families, even before Covid-19. Where there are serious concerns, they face hurdles when it comes to escalating the case to involve social workers. “They are so overstretched. We get frustrated on our part, but we know it’s because they are bursting at the seams,” she said.

During the first lockdown, they drew up a list of 25 families to check by phone, although those children were not on the official ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ list. “A lot of children should have these extra layers of support but they’re not there,” the headteacher said. “All of that should have been in place beforehand. There’s just no flexibility, no lee-way in the system at all to cope with a big crisis.”

Sue Holden of the Barton Community Association

Sue Holden cites similar challenges, explaining social services often refer residents to Barton Community Association, but when volunteers refer people needing more support to social workers, it can be weeks or months before anything happens.

“Services need to be quicker to react. That means they have to have funding in place, resources, staffing, and until that happens the system is never going to improve,” she says. She would also like to see more recognition and support for the contribution made by community groups like hers, and questions whether being obliged to spend days filling out grant applications and evaluations is the best use of their time.

Community efforts need more support

Hamidi echoes the point. He appreciates the support the council gives them ‒ including the use of a van and driver to distribute food packages and a one-off grant of £5,000 ‒ but he feels more must be done to facilitate voluntary community efforts plugging huge gaps in delivering support to people who need it.

“We are just a bunch of volunteers,” he says. He calculates the cost of running their support service on a paid basis would be between £2,000 to £3,000 a week. “It is the people in each respective community who know how to manage and manoeuvre and develop and upskill. We need organisations like the council to help facilitate that, fund it or lend resources or contacts or volunteers or something like that that can help close these gaps.”

Fernandez believes the council is beginning to better understand and appreciate the value of community action, as a result of the lockdown experience. “I feel we have made lots of progress… and they’ve been really open to feedback. The pandemic has highlighted how complex these things are, but I think it’s made local authorities much more aware of how their services need to be much more bespoke.”

* Not her real name

Dying 15 years younger: the difference between rich and poor in Oxford


Alex Sturrock/TBIJ

When a seven-year-old girl was dropped off at a school holiday scheme with no packed lunch, her mother was called. There was no money for food, she explained, but she promised to do what she could.

Carol Richards, a community worker, recalls that when the mother brought in a lunch, which she’d borrowed money to buy, she said she was facing eviction. “And she had a nine-month-old and an 18-month-old in tow as well.”

This kind of struggle is something Richards sees a lot of at the Dovecote Centre, an afterschool club and play scheme for children aged 4 to 12.
“It’s been horrendous,” she says. “We had one child we had to to de-louse. She had months and months of [having] lice in her hair … If you’ve got no money to even buy food, how have you got that to treat for head lice?”

For some, this is the reality of life in modern-day Oxford.

Wide-scale poverty doesn’t fit with most people’s view of Oxford, a city with one of the highest average salaries in the UK and a world-renowned university that has £6.1bn in total funds and endowments as of 2018. But living just a few miles from the wealthy colleges are those who find it hard to get by every day, and have radically different health prospects.

Poor people die younger than rich people across England and Wales. The difference in life expectancy between men living in the most and least deprived areas of England was nine and a half years from 2015-17; for women it was seven and a half years.

Carol Richards Alex Sturrock/TBIJ

In Oxford, the difference is even more stark. Men in Northfield Brook, one of the poorest wards in Oxford, die on average at 75 — that’s 15 years younger than their counterparts living in North ward, one of Oxford’s most affluent areas. The gap recorded between 2011-2015 was almost four times wider than it was between 2003-2007 and there are no signs it is set to improve.

‘The doctors ask the wrong question’

Joe Richards lives on the boundary between Northfield Brook and Blackbird Leys, a large estate in the southeast of Oxford. Like many on the estate, he spent most of his working life — 40 years — at the nearby Cowley car plant, much of it as a crane operator. The proportion of Northfield Brook workers in white collar jobs is just 28%, compared to 78% in the wealthier North ward.

Now in his 70s, Richards has several health problems and cannot walk unaided. Staying on top of his regime of pills, painkillers and ointment for open sores is a full-time job.

Whenever he sees a doctor, Richards says, the first thing they ask is if he used to smoke. “And I say you are asking the wrong question — why didn’t you ask me about the environment I worked in for 40 years? Those overhead cranes, and all the welding down below. All of that used to go up to the ceiling.”

It’s hard for him to get to the kitchen and cook using his walking frame, leaving him living on a diet of Weetabix, tinned soup, boiled eggs and ready meals.

Joe Richards Alex Sturrock/TBIJ

He is heavily reliant on carers. The modest savings he built up while working mean he has to pay his own care bills. He was assessed as needing 14 hours care a week but at almost £20 an hour, he’s found it unaffordable. “I’ve had to reduce the amount of care to five hours a week because I couldn’t afford more. My savings are going down,” he says.

“It’s very difficult at the weekends when I do my own cooking … I’m scared I’m going to get unbalanced and put my arm on the electric stove.”

Tony Richardson tells a similar story. He worked at the factory for 34 years and believes the working conditions there affected employees’ life expectancy. “They kept changing the shifts, that was the key thing.” He described those who managed whole careers on the factory floor as “the survivors”, adding: “It took everything out of you, physically.”

‘There’s fewer shops with fresh fruit’

Richards’ diet of tinned food and ready meals is not atypical for people in Northfield Brook.

Before her retirement Halina Simm spent decades working as a community children’s nurse and health visitor in Oxford, covering some of the city’s poorest areas. She also volunteers at the local emergency food bank.

The food bank ran out of tinned rice pudding a few months ago, which she suspects is because it was being used as breakfast as well as supper. “You have got to have electricity, you have got to have the wherewithal to be able to cook it, you have to have the energy to think about a decent menu that is going to keep your children from being hungry,” Simm says.

“There are fewer shops with fresh fruit and vegetables,” she adds. “And sometimes families struggle to think about meals that are nutritionally satisfactory, so they will go for fast food and easy food to eat.”

Dr Dougal Hargreaves, the clinical advisor for the State of Child Health 2017 study by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says obesity has a huge impact on life expectancy, raising the risks of disability, poor mobility, heart attacks, stroke, cancer and mental health problems.

There’s a stark difference in the levels of ill health between the two wards. Doctors working at the Leys Health Centre, which serves Northfield Brook, see twice as many cases of some chronic conditions — including diabetes, heart failure and adult obesity — as those working at the Observatory Medical Practice, which serves North ward.

Northfield Brook residents are also more likely to need emergency care. The prevalence of serious respiratory problems is three times higher in Northfield Brook, but the rate of emergency hospital admission for these conditions is five times higher. The statistics for stroke and heart disease tell a similar story.

It’s not just physical. At Leys Health Centre doctors report rates of depression that are 74% higher than those recorded by the Observatory Medical Practice.

Living in poverty raises the risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, stress and anxiety, which can cut life expectancy by as much as twenty years, according to research.

Taofik Shodunke Alex Sturrock/TBIJ

Taofik Shodunke, a pharmacist, has worked in Northfield Brook and Blackbird Leys for 16 years. Medication for depression is the third-most common prescription he fills, after diabetes and heart disease. He describes it as a huge problem on the estates.

“The trajectory of your life”

The divide between rich and poor can start early, Dougal Hargreaves says: “Once you are born, the house you go back to has an ongoing effect on your life chances. If you are living in a house where someone smokes, if it is damp or overcrowded, with parents who have mental health problems, then that affects all sorts of things.

“It can affect your health, whether you get the right vaccinations, whether you get developmental checks and how much you go to hospital. But also it has a huge effect on cognitive development, which affects whether you are ready for school, how well you do in exams. The trajectory that you go on to in life.”

Alex Sturrock/TBIJ

Steve Harrod, a Conservative county councillor, recognises the issue, but says the council is constrained in what it can provide: “We are acutely aware of the growing problems with child poverty and poverty in general,” he says. “We’re in the process of redesigning the way our services are delivered but it’s going to take time. There’s no quick fix.”

Looking back on the two decades that the Dovecote Centre has been running is bittersweet for Carol Richards. Despite being shortlisted for an award, fundraising is difficult and some of Dovecote’s programmes have been cut.

“We had one mum last year who told us her child had never eaten fruit until they came to the Dovecote,” she says. “We have a lot of good parents on this estate but they are just so poor they can’t give their children access to things that we can.”

Ultimately she blames government cuts, and she has little hope for any improvement soon. “It’s definitely going to get worse … If you ask all the other organisations that are on the ground here working with people, they’ll tell you the exact same.”