Council's task force to help beat recession

COUNCILLORS met last week to discuss how to respond to the recession and weather the storm . Members of Stevenage Borough Council (SBC) heard how unemployment in the town has seen an 82 per cent increase, while the number of job vacancies has decreased b

COUNCILLORS met last week to discuss how to respond to the recession and "weather the storm".

Members of Stevenage Borough Council (SBC) heard how unemployment in the town has seen an 82 per cent increase, while the number of job vacancies has decreased by 35 per cent.

The average household in Stevenage is �38,000 in debt, and 5,600 residents do not have a bank account.

Child poverty in Stevenage is seven per cent higher than the national average, and fuel poverty is four per cent higher than it is nationally.

Leader of the council, Sharon Taylor, said: "It's always the most vulnerable who get hurt when times are hard."

And Cllr Simon Speller warned: "There will be no big companies coming into Stevenage providing 2,000 jobs. We have got to find new ways of working in partnership."

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SBC has set up an economy task force to concentrate on how it can help residents during the economic crisis.

Celia Twomey, strategic director at the council, said SBC can help people to maximise their income, manage their finances, look at debt problems, and search for jobs if they have been made redundant.

She also said the council was looking to expand the Credit Union in the town, and explore affordable warmth.

Marian Hurle, director at Stevenage Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB), said the service helped 565 people in March this year, compared to 373 people in March last year.

She said the branch has seen a 300 per cent rise in the number of clients having their debt problems referred to specialists - with 150 people referred in the first quarter of this year, compared to 53 during the same period last year.

Marian also said the number of people claiming Job Seekers' Allowance has risen 45 per cent since January this year, and that there were 35 per cent more benefit enquiries during this quarter compared to the same period last year.

The Stevenage CAB has taken a number of steps to help more people during the credit crunch. Marian said: "In a normal year we would recruit 14 advisors and that's how we have worked for many years. So far this year we have taken on 17 new advisors. We are going to take another group of six or eight at the end of April and another lot in July and so on. We need to help people now."

SBC has also provided Stevenage CAB, based at Swingate House on Danestrete, with three additional interview rooms.

The branch has increased its opening hours, with drop-in sessions between 1pm and 3.30pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, in addition to the normal opening hours of 9am until noon on these days. "We have virtually doubled our opening hours and it's made a huge difference," said Marian.

She added: "Yes, things are bad at the moment but I think the people of Stevenage are very resilient. They are difficult times but we will get through. They are not in despair and are finding ways round things."

Cllr Taylor said: "The community support in this town will provide the shelter to weather the storm."

THE CAB advice line is 0845 1203789 (Stevenage), 0845 6889897 (North Herts), or 0844 4771600 (Mid Beds).

There are CAB centres at:

- Swingate House on Danestrete in Stevenage

- The Old Grammar School on Broadway in Letchworth GC

- Thomas Bellamy House on Bedford Road in Hitchin

- Century House in Market Square in Biggleswade

There are also outreach contacts in Baldock Community Centre, Hitchin County Court, and Stevenage Borough Council's Customer Service Centre.

You can also seek advice at www.adviceguide.org.uk

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