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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Unsafe, frustrated and forgotten: the stark realities facing Middlesbrough most deprived families

Signs of hardship in Middlesbrough are hard to miss – whether it’s an increase in homelessness, lengthy queues at food banks or local services stretched to breaking point.

According to statistics, almost 40 per cent of the town’s children live in “absolute poverty”. Last year, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said increasing numbers of its residents were unable to meet even the basic needs of staying warm, dry, clean and fed.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service visited the Community Ventures centre in Thorntree to ask members of a support group if they voted in the recent Tees Valley Mayoral elections and what future changes they hoped to see. Most of those attending were less interested in politics and more stressed by the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.

Only one voted in the elections – others didn’t want to or weren’t aware it was even taking place – supporting suggestions of a disconnection with the political process for some pockets of society and a division in democracy. However, their own stories, and the concerns of those running the group, indicated the issues most important to them.

One member of the group said her gas was turned off in 2018 and only restored at Christmas last year, thanks to the intervention of Community Ventures. Her situation is just one example of the most vulnerable people in society being forgotten, said CEO, Mike Milen.

“Their problems aren’t the reality of those elected to power, he said, adding: “There’s almost a comfort in ignorance.”

Community Ventures was established in 1989 to tackle challenges faced in the area around deprivation and unemployment. It delivers person-centred projects to support those living in the area with issues such as childcare, housing and jobs.

Middlesbrough is still considered to have many social detriments, including insecure employment and a lack of appropriate, affordable housing. In a study carried out by the Office for National Statistics, the town also scored one of the lowest health index scores in the whole of the UK, while life expectancy rates in the town wildly vary.

“Life expectancy is 16 years higher at the top of the bank than it is here. That’s not right, but we believe it can be more balanced,” said Mike. Pulling people out of poverty is complex and, for many, securing new jobs created at the likes of the Teesside Freeport is not possible, he said.

“People are not qualified, and qualifications are needed for these jobs,” he said. “It’s not accessible for people around here. People need pre-employability support to help build their confidence and prepare them for work or training.”

Group member James, 52, agreed it’s difficult to find work and said more needs to be done to help those setting up their own businesses. “I set up a gardening business and nobody would give me a tenancy,” he said. “Landlords prefer people on benefits.”

Gemma helps out at the group and said with the closure of community and Surestart centres, “there is nothing else for us to do”. Another member of the group is too afraid to walk alone around her local area.

Others expressed frustration with public transport. Regarding buses, one said: “Half the time they don’t turn up and then you get two to three coming at once.”

Centre manager Sophie Dobson said homelessness is now a serious problem in the area and there are people struggling to access the help they are entitled to, particularly the elderly and those with unstructured lives. Some people aren’t confident on the phones, she said, and they need face-to-face support.

This results in people getting frustrated and stressed and can lead to benefit sanctions so people are left without the means to pay the bills and buy food,” she said.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. Image Tees Valley Combined Authority.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said the jobs and free training opportunities are out there. He highlighted apprenticeships were offered at SeAH Wind’s giant £450m Teesside Freeport site, which don’t require previous experience, and the £32m spent on post-19 adult education.

“One of the main challenges is not the creation of jobs, that is the easy part,” he said. “That opportunity has to come first to incentivise people and we have done that.

“We want local people to be able to secure those jobs and some of the barriers are poverty and deprivation and helping people take steps towards employment.” He said while organisations and public sector agencies are available to support people, “it’s dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause” and there needs to be “more alignment” between agencies like the Departments for Work and Pensions and Health and Social Care as “there is a conflict there and people fall through the cracks”.

He said the support and help available through the Department for Work and Pensions “often interfaces with fragmentation” and he believes “there is a way we can bring some of that together through devolution”. The Government’s Work and Pensions Committee has already announced an inquiry to examine whether future responsibility should be devolved for employment support from DWP to local areas to better tailor support to individuals and help meet local vacancy needs.

Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke

Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke said the stories shared by those visiting Community Ventures “are sadly the type we hear all too often”. Tackling poverty and health inequality is at the centre of the council’s plan, he said, focusing on helping residents secure the skills to find “meaningful, well-paid work”.

“It’s the reason why we’re launching an Anti-Poverty Strategy which builds on the incredible work already being done by council staff, schools and communities, charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups to help those in need across Middlesbrough,” he said. “Where we can, Middlesbrough Council will always step in to help our residents and achieve my aim of building a healthier, safer and more ambitious town.

“We are also investing money in more measures to battle crime and anti-social behaviour which we know can have a detrimental impact on our communities. When our residents find themselves in trouble, we encourage them to come and speak to us so we can help them access the right type of support.”

The council noted it has launched family hubs at six different locations across the town, providing access support where they live, while millions of pounds in Government funding through the Household Support Fund have also helped those on low incomes and people who are struggling and not in receipt of benefits or other financial support. Through Middlesbrough Environment City and the Middlesbrough Food Partnership, the council also supports a network of foodbanks and eco shops across the town, allowing people to access food in an emergency seven days a week.

Last year, Paul Kissack, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said many families were going without basic necessities like food and clothes and “such severe hardship should have no place in the UK today”. He called for clear proposals from political parties “to address this challenge with the urgency it demands.”

* The Local Democracy Reporting Service was asked not to share the surnames of group members

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