The Canterbury Society is concerned about the quality of life in the city. However, any debate about this issue must take account of those whose quality of life is reduced through poverty or other disadvantage. We were dismayed that the Local Plan for Canterbury made little mention of this topic. Here we present some data about the numbers involved, and about what might be done to help those who experience disadvantage.
Expectation of life
There are significant inequalities in the length of time that people can expect to live in different parts of the district. So the expectation of life at birth is just over 76 in Northgate ward compared with over 84 in St Stephens and Blean Forest wards and an average of 81 for the Canterbury district as a whole (Kent and Medway Public Health Observatory, 2013).
Data produced by the local health services show the distribution and extent of deprivation in the district. The highest levels of deprivation in the Canterbury district are found in Northgate and Wincheap wards. Measures of deprivation include household over-crowding, homelessness, and low income, even though people may be in full time paid work. Northgate also has relatively high rates of adult mental health in-patient rates (Eastern and Coastal Kent Primary Care Trust, 2012).
Canterbury has a relatively high proportion of children living in poverty, compared with the rest of Kent. So in 2012 there were estimated to be 5551 children living in poverty, or 20 per cent of all children in the district. In Kent only Thanet has a higher proportion of children in poverty. It is particularly an issue in Northgate, where 40 per cent of children live in poverty, and Wincheap wards. These figures use government measures in which poverty is defined as living below 60 per cent of median income (End Child Poverty, 2013).
Poverty damages children’s experience of childhood and harms their future life chances. Children living in poverty are more likely to go without much needed clothes and shoes and to miss out on school trips and holidays; they tend to achieve less well at school (End Child Poverty, 2013). As a community we cannot afford to waste the potential of our children.
What can be done about child poverty? Local authorities now have more discretion to add to social security benefits, so the options include:
- Protecting families with children in decisions about benefits, such as payments for essential items, council tax and support with housing costs
- Ensuring that child poverty is a priority for Health and Well-being Boards, so as to give every child the best possible start in life
- More generally it is important to check that people are receiving the benefits to which they are entitled, for example, by running a Benefits Awareness Campaign. This can also bring significant additional income to the local area (Turn2us, 2013)
Housing waiting lists
Government statistics provide information about the extent of the housing problem in Canterbury. The numbers of households on the local authority waiting list has increased dramatically since 2011. While the housing waiting list remained around 3500 from 2008 to 2011, in 2012 it soared to 4588. This is the largest waiting list in Kent, with the exception of Thanet (Data.Gov.UK, 2012).
The number of households accepted as homeless across East Kent peaked in 2003-
2004 at 925. In the following four years this figure reduced to 332. The two most common causes of homelessness were eviction by a family member or friend and also loss of rented or tied accommodation. Loss of accommodation due to relationship breakdown has also risen proportionally (Canterbury City Council, 2008).
What can be done about housing shortage and homelessness? It is crucial that new developments include as much affordable housing as possible. Too often planning permission is given for a development on the understanding that many of the houses will be affordable, only for the developers to wriggle out of their commitments.
Current benefit cuts are creating problems for those who find themselves in houses judged to have too many bedrooms for their needs. Increasing evidence is revealing the problems which this is creating. Some local authorities are not implementing the bedroom tax and Canterbury City Council is working to reduce the impact of the scheme. However, a longer term solution to housing problems and homelessness depends on building more housing which local people can afford.