COLDHURST has been in the headlines this week after a national study was published on child poverty.
I asked Abdul Jabbar, Oldham Council’s Deputy Leader, to guest-blog on the issues this has raised as he knows Coldhurst better than most.
He was keen to talk about the challenges and issues around child poverty, what we are doing – and what we need to tackle it more effectively.
Over to Abdul…
COLDHURST is in my heart and many members of my family call it ‘home’.
I first came to live here when I was 14 years old and I’m very proud to have now represented this area for almost a quarter of a century as a ward member.
During that time I’ve worked among all our communities, probably knocked on every single door at one time, and seen all the kinds of challenges faced by local families.
I felt saddened this week when Coldhurst hit the news after a report by the End Child Poverty group said it has the highest child deprivation rate in England with over 60 per cent of youngsters living ‘below the breadline’.
Saddened, yes. Surprised? No.
I don’t fool myself that Coldhurst and other areas aren’t facing serious challenges because I see it every day around me.
The problems for our least well-off families are unrelenting and getting out of the poverty cycle has never been harder than it is today.
But there is something that is absolutely great about Coldhurst – the people who live there.
Yes, there are problems with crime and anti-social behaviour like fly-tipping, but walk around those streets and you’ll also find many friendly, positive people and a sense of community that you might not see in more affluent areas.
Within Coldhurst I know groups and associations, GPs, headteachers, community workers, voluntary organisations and residents who are all working hard to make the most of what they have.
Our challenge at local and national level is to match that.
There are a lot of factors behind child poverty.
The four-year freeze on social security benefits – amongst other welfare reform measures like the Bedroom tax – has been felt most by the poorest families.
Oldham was a pilot area for the rollout of Universal Credit which has caused huge problems by leaving families without money for several weeks, forcing many people into making desperate choices between heating the home or eating food.
Many people in Coldhurst do work extremely hard for long hours but due to low skills, stagnant wages and increasing living costs, things are tough. Many are also living in low-quality rented homes that are actually more expensive than social housing.
Worst of all is the fact that children are suffering. Not just because they are vulnerable now, but because if you have a bad start in life then your chances of success in adulthood are not good.
Coldhurst is not alone, however. Oldham has other pockets like this and so do our neighbours in Greater Manchester and big cities like London. End Child Poverty say that more than half of all children in the UK’s very poorest areas are now growing up in poverty.
We are trying to address these issues locally on many levels.
The Oldham Education and Skills Commission committed us to improving our education by 2020 and we are on target to achieve this, but it won’t be enough on its own.
We’ve introduced schemes like Warm Homes Oldham to help with fuel poverty, Get Oldham Working to improve employment prospects, Get Oldham Growing to improve health, and the Town Centre Masterplan to deliver significant opportunities in the local economy over the next two decades.
In Coldhurst itself we invested £7.5 million to open the fantastic new Northmoor Academy (pictured) in September 2016. This three-form entry primary school on the former Grange school site was designed to cope with rising pressure on school places but also to provide a first-class facility where children can thrive.
As part of being a new Opportunity Area we’re also this week about to start rolling out the ‘Making it REAL’ programme in nurseries in Coldhurst. This is intervention in early years’ settings that targets improving literacy and giving children with disadvantaged backgrounds the language skills they need before they get to school. It involves home visits to support and train parents and group events – all have been proved to raise and sustain literacy standards in other areas. The reason we’re doing this is that it has also been shown that language and literacy skills are the most impactful intervention you can make for any child from a disadvantaged background, so we’re determined to get it right.
That kind of work will and must continue, but it still it won’t be enough on its own.
We have a Government that still refuses to set a target to reduce child poverty. For me, if you refuse to recognise a problem exists, then what hope can we have that you’re actually committed to finding – let alone funding – the solutions?
In families where it is hard to make ends meet, only one person is working, bills are paid late and loan sharks are circling, this is not the message they need to hear.
Last week we were told that more people are in work now than for many years. That might be true, but never have so many also been paid so relatively little and with work often on insecure terms like zero hour contracts.
Local authority’s children’s services are also being reduced to firefighting through Government cuts. Without the money we need to intervene at an early stage through important measures like parenting classes, substance misuse prevention and teenage pregnancy support, the impacts can be simply devastating.
This is also a false economy. If we can only get involved when children reach a crisis point then it will result in much more expensive steps in the long term, like taking young people into care.
In the budget we’re currently finalising for Oldham in 2018/9 we have an £8 million gap in funding for children’s social care services. That is a typical picture nationally and yet remains a problem which Government fails to address.
Making significant progress in living standards, wages and skills for everyone is our goal and it’s why we are championing the Inclusive Growth agenda so hard at Greater Manchester level.
As Deputy Council Leader and a ward member for Coldhurst I will continue my efforts for the people of the area alongside our MP, partners, communities and the voluntary sector, to help wherever we can.
But we also need the Government to finally listen and act.
The thought of having a generation of children suffering like this is heart-breaking and it also leaves me in fear of what legacy it will leave us with as a society.