The hidden problem of poverty in Kent
PUBLISHED: 11:08 03 September 2013 | UPDATED: 11:08 03 September 2013
Behind the leafy facade of our county lies a deeper problem
Ask many from outside the county to describe Kent and they will speak of affluence, hops, oast houses and a slice of stereotypical peace and tranquility deep within middle England.
Yet behind the leafy façade of many of our towns lurks a deep-rooted problem which continues to plague our county’s authorities.
Because the Garden of England is also home to some of the most deprived wards in the country. And with such perceived prosperity, often it’s the growing deprivation which goes unnoticed.
Kent is, after all, the home of Charles Dickens and Darwin, with castles, luscious countryside and trendy seaside towns attracting city dwellers to spend their hard-earned cash and, in some cases, buy a coastal getaway.
Broadstairs, for example, was recently voted one of the best places to live in the country.
Just down the road, however, you find Cliftonville West and Margate Central, wards listed among the most deprived – not just in Kent, but in the whole of England. Families struggling to afford food or pay their bills, children going without the basics we all take for granted.
Such poverty can be easily forgotten unless you are a part of it in some way or one of the many authorities – from Kent County Council and district councils to the NHS – who are doing what they can to, if not remedy the problem, at least help deprived families achieve a better standard of living.
This year, worrying reports were released revealing the high number of poverty-stricken children in Kent – 56,000, amounting to 18 per cent of our young population.
Just this month, Margate was described as a virtual ghetto-by-the-sea in a report by the Centre for Social Justice, with Thanet District Council Labour leader Clive Hart admitting: “There isn’t a day that goes by where you don’t see a family pushing their possessions around in a shopping trolley, moving to their new home.”
Coastal areas, with the exception of towns such as Whitstable and Broadstairs, are renowned for deprivation.
But sadly, in what seems to be an unbreakable cycle, this hardship continues to attract poverty, whether it’s children in care being dumped here by London boroughs or immigrants and ex-offenders moved to cheap housing in these areas.
Other districts and boroughs – Swale and Medway for example – also see high levels of deprivation in some wards and even in the seemingly prosperous west Kent, pockets of poverty can be found, often masked by the affluent façade of the picturesque towns and villages.
Worryingly, the spokesman for Child Poverty Action Group, Tim Nichols, warned of hardship increasing further.
“More families are in danger of slipping into poverty, with those already below the poverty line being pushed in deeper,” he said. “Families are facing a triple squeeze with prices for essential goods rising above general inflation, wages stagnating below inflation, and steep cuts to social security, tax credits and children’s benefits.”
He added: “Being in isolated pockets of poverty in otherwise affluent areas can be particularly tough, as support services are not always as well targeted, or as easily accessible as in areas of concentrated urban poverty like inner London.”
Problems associated with deprivation include unemployment, mental wellbeing, sexual health, alcohol and drugs, crime and anti-social behaviour. But poverty is not always linked to the unemployed.
Half of the 56,000 deprived children have one parent working. In many of these cases, families are too proud to ask for help from authorities and continue to struggle through.
KCC chiefs have launched a child poverty strategy which brings together existing work aimed at tackling the problem, such as teaching basic parenting skills, getting adults ready to enter the workplace and offering advice and support to help people improve their lives.
The council is also working, through the Kent Troubled Families Programme, to target hard-to-reach families in deprived communities.
A KCC spokeswoman told us: “The main focus is to tackle issues of worklessness, crime and
anti-social behaviour, and school absenteeism.
“The programme works in partnership with a range of statutory and voluntary agencies including health and public health services and local district councils to turn around the lives of families across Kent.
“The impact of deprivation including long-term debt and poverty, poor housing, poor health and health inequalities is frequently evident within these circumstances.”
The NHS, in the form of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) which replaced primary care trusts in April, has made tackling health inequality a top priority.
Dr Tony Martin is the chair of Thanet CCG.
“Despite the romantic seaside image, over the years Thanet has experienced many economic challenges, and this is reflected in the wellbeing of local people,” he wrote in the CCG’s patient prospectus. “On average, health and life expectancy is worse than the England average, and locally there are big differences.
“People in some parts of Thanet live for 12.1 years less on average than those in other parts.
“Deprivation is higher than average and more than a quarter of the 29,000 children in Thanet live in poverty, higher than the rest of Kent.”
He stressed mental wellbeing, sexual health, drugs, alcohol and obesity all required attention.
In Swale, the CCG is running a Beats and Breathes scheme in partnership with Swale Borough Council, aiming to reduce early deaths from lung and heart diseases.
A spokesman told KoS: “Swale is the third most deprived district in Kent and has an average life expectancy of 79, the lowest of the eight CCG areas. It has increasing numbers of elderly people and an above average number of under-fives. Smoking and obesity are higher than average, and the rate of diabetes is joint highest in Kent with Thanet.
“The health commissioners have supported several road shows offering residents the chance of a free five-point health MoT. Team members suggest how making simple lifestyle changes, like giving up smoking or losing weight, can let them live longer, healthier lives.”
GP and chair of Swale CCG, Dr Fiona Armstrong, based at Grovehurst Surgery in Kemsley, has worked in Swale for 26 years.
“We are all passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of patients. Reducing health inequality is our priority,” she said.
But while the NHS and local authorities strive to turn things around, they are, at the same time, facing a constant battle to save money.
Over the next four years KCC must save £240 million. The huge figure comes in addition to the £340m it has already had to save.
While it vows to maintain frontline services, some contentious cutbacks have already been seen, including the closure of 23 of 97 children’s centres, aimed at saving £1.5m.
KCC cabinet member for specialist children’s services, Jenny Whittle, said: “We can’t achieve that saving without making some difficult decisions. It would be lovely to have a children’s centre in every village in Kent, but it’s not possible.”
She stressed the majority of families using the centres earmarked for closure also use another centre and that accessibility would remain “virtually the same” for 99 per cent of families.
But critics fear hard-to-reach families will slip off the radar and that government cuts will only make the problem worse.
Child Poverty Action Group’s Mr Nichols said: “In May, KCC published a child poverty strategy and it is good to see them putting together action plans. But they are stuck between a rock and a hard place as central government has made steep cuts to funding at the same time as cutting safety net support for the poorest families.
“We always put our children first in our families, but the government in Westminster is failing to put the nation’s children first.”