Living on the edge

Some of the most deprived areas in England are located in the eastern region.

A bleak future can face those who are unemployed, in debt and left behind by the digital world. A programme called New Horizons has been helping people to get back on track.

Photo: Paul Brooker

Photo: Paul Brooker

‘Krystal’ had lost her way “with bills, my debt... my life in general”. Her situation was complicated. She was unemployed, a single parent, had multiple debts and an eviction notice from her housing association.

After taking part in a programme called New Horizons, Krystal now feels in control of her money, has started a job in a local café and signed a new contract with her housing association.

“[The coach] gave me the courage to speak to debtors and sort it. I am now in a supported place where I feel in control and it feels great.”

Krystal, New Horizons participant

Over the past two years, the New Horizons programme has been helping a total of 300 men and women across Cambridgeshire to feel in control of their money, to get online and to get back into work. It’s the brainchild of a Cambridge-based housing association – CHS Group – and seven other partner organisations, including the University of Cambridge.

Lynne McAulay, New Horizons Project Manager at CHS Group, explains what prompted the initiative: “People who are furthest away from the job market often have really entrenched problems. They’re in dire straits... debt, disabilities… they’ve almost always been left behind by the digital world.

“We could see how a small amount of individualised coaching across a range of areas might get them back on track. There are services out there to help, but what makes this programme different is that we cover the three elements of money, digital and work at the same time. Digital skills in particular are a massive issue as Universal Credit is rolled out, given that the application process for benefits is online.”

In Krystal's case, her coach helped her to negotiate repayments for her priority debts and to attend appointments with the local Citizens Advice. While her money situation was improving, she borrowed a laptop and improved her IT skills to find employment opportunities and improve her CV.

“It was a really bad year. Nothing good happened… I really want to get back into work. I miss working."

New Horizons participant

The programme is run with the help of Dr Gemma Burgess and her team at the Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research. The researchers helped to design the programme, developed tools to assess the scale of issues faced by each participant, and have been monitoring and evaluating the programme as it goes along.

“There are huge inequalities in this region,” says Burgess. “We’ve got a booming growth area focused around a knowledge economy, and we have rural areas focused around the agri-tech industry, but we have significant pockets of extraordinary deprivation.”

According to government figures released in 2015, 16 of the most deprived areas nationally include wards in Cambridge, Wisbech, Huntingdon and Fenland.

“Deprivation is scored in various ways, including crime, health and barriers to housing,” explains Kathryn Muir, who has been evaluating the New Horizons programme with Burgess.

“Cambridgeshire’s highest-scoring reason for deprivation is housing affordability and homelessness. New Horizons is aimed at the people who are most vulnerable to running up rent arrears, to not managing their debts, to falling out of the system completely. In other words, those who face the prospect of a downward spiral towards homelessness.”

The 300 participants in New Horizons were referred to the programme by social services and other agencies, including housing associations and job centres, based in Kingʼs Lynn, Wisbech, Cambridge and Peterborough.

When they start, many participants feel they have reached the end of the line: “I was in a bit of a state financially… I was down the foodbank, getting the food parcels”... “It was just getting me down and down and down, where I was getting to the point where I’d just had enough”.

“What we’ve learned is that people prefer to tell their story only once.”

Lynne McAulay, New Horizons Project Manager at CHS Group

“The coaches listen, and a relationship is built on ‘oh, you can actually make a difference here’ – food vouchers or a grant for a cooker, for instance – and it progresses into something more enabling, where the coach supports a person to make phone calls themselves and to take charge of their money problems,” says McAulay. “What we’ve learned is that people prefer to tell their story only once, not multiple times to different services.”

The programme offers up to 20 hours of coaching support through the partner organisations. The first task is to get participants onto a stable base, from which they can build their skills and move towards a better understanding and control of their money. They might also need specific advice with moving onto the correct benefits, or speaking to creditors to make their repayments more manageable. The coaches then focus on building digital skills, if required, by encouraging participants to work through courses and learning modules online.

The involvement of the University researchers has been constant throughout the ‘action research’ project, as Burgess explains: “We’ve been looking at how the referral process is working, whether the coaching is helping, what the participants think… we build a picture as we go, looking for patterns of success and for any problems, and we feed everything back to CHS and the delivery partners so they can adapt as they go along. CHS really wants this programme to improve lives – an action research approach gives the best possible chance of this happening.”

In November 2018, Burgess and Muir completed an evaluation of New Horizons. “What’s apparent is how successful the programme has been,” says Muir.

Of 120 people who had completed the programme,
55 reduced their priority debts
46 set up an email account
34 had an interview
24 started volunteering
22 entered paid work

“Obviously, schemes like this can’t fix everybody’s problems,” adds Burgess. “But for some people, it’s transformational in terms of finally getting out of debt, using a computer for the first time, opening their first bank account, applying for a job. It’s important to us that our research is practical and policy focused, and that it is going to have a real-world impact. That’s why we work with organisations like CHS who are out there delivering positive outcomes for people.”

One participant said: “I have my life back on track now, so thank you… it carries huge meaning.”
New Horizons particpant

For McAulay, client feedback like this is a large part of the motivation underpinning the project. “You can hear how people have valued that one-to-one relationship with the coach and how it has effected change in themselves – how they’ve moved from feeling like a passive receiver of a service to someone who is feeling responsible for themselves and capable of making change. It’s inspirational.”

Read more about Cambridge University research in the East of England in a special issue of Research Horizons magazine.

New Horizons is a partnership of eight organisations across the former Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership: Axiom Housing Association (part of Longhurst Group), Broadland Housing Group, Centre 33, CHS Group, Citizens Advice Rural Cambs, Cross Keys Homes, Norfolk Citizens Advice Bureau and the University of Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research. The programme received funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and the European Social Fund.

Image credits in order of appearance: Paul Brooker, Zane Lee, Sarah Kanouse, Glen Carstens.