Monday, 19 March 2018

Smoking and its consequences have a higher impact on deprived areas says ONS

That being poor is bad for your health has become almost a truism, this week the Office for National Statistics reminded us there is an uncomfortable reality behind the cliché.

Figures released by the ONS to coincide with National No Smoking Day (14th March) show that people in deprived areas are more likely to smoke than in more affluent areas of England.

In fact, the more deprived the area, the more likely people living there are to smoke. Out of England's 6.3million smokers one in six live in deprived areas, for example in Hastings 25.7% of people are smokers, the national average for England is 15.5%%. Other deprived areas including Blackpool Bradford and Manchester also have high rates of smoking.

At the opposite end of the spectrum just 4.9% of people living in Epsom and Ewell are smokers, Wokingham in Berkshire and Chiltern in Buckinghamshire also have low levels of smoking; all of which are leafy, affluent areas.

Smoking is a major contributing factor in 85% of cases of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease treated by the NHS, conditions that people living in deprived areas are twice as likely to suffer from.

This can be linked to factors including living in insecure or temporary housing, having few formal qualifications and being in a low skilled occupational group. All of which can make individuals three times more likely to be smokers than people in skilled or managerial roles.

High levels of smoking, along with other risky behaviours, can be seen as contributing to the disparity in life expectancy between affluent and deprived areas, with gender further skewing the figures.
A boy born in Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live for 83.3 years, girl for 86.7 years; in Blackpool and Middlesbrough life expectancy falls to 74.4 years for boys and 79.8 years for girls.

The inequality in life expectancy between affluent and deprived areas has widened over the past two decades.

Overall the trend for the number of people in deprived regions of England who smoke is falling, dropping from 32.7% in 2012 to 27.2% in 2016. In more affluent areas it has fallen over the same period from 10.0% to 7.9%.

The figures cited in this article were produced by the ONS using data from the Annual Population Survey and apply to England only, the other UK nations conduct their own health surveys and publish separate data on inequality.

The government and the NHS aim to reduce the number of adults in England who smoke from 15.5% to 12.0% by 2022.

Statistics say only so much about why levels of smoking are so persistently high in deprived areas. To get close to the truth you must look past the quantitative analysis to the qualitative story behind.

In the 1930's George Orwell wrote about working class people numbing themselves against the hardships of their lives with cheap pleasures, picture shows, football, beer and cigarettes mostly being their poisons of choice. Pleasures the comfortable but concerned upper middle classes neither understood nor approved of.

The world has moved on, but if you are poor much has stayed the same, work is still dull drudgery, expectations and horizons are limited; sometimes a cigarette or a bag of chips is the closest thing to comfort you are going to get. A salad and a brisk walk will, for sure be better for you in the long run, but forward planning is often another luxury out of reach of the poor.

If the government want the poor to smoke less, then they need to help people in areas that have been left behind for decades feel the future is something worth living to see.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Is the council gambling with the city's future by putting more cash into the Smithfield hotel project?

Is Smithfield the unluckiest spot in the whole city? You could be forgiven for thinking so since it seems to attract more problems than is reasonable.

The new civic offices built there with huge controversy were beset with delays and problems with already costly building work having to be gone over more than once. Maybe the former owners of Hancock's pet shop or the Quartermasters Stores put a curse on the ground before they moved out.

If so it has struck again, the council have been obliged to top up their funding for the planned Hilton Garden Inn for the site by £2.3million before a brick has been laid. This comes on top of an initial investment of £4.55 million, taking their total stake to £6.8million.

There is also £9.8 million of private finance invested in the project, in 2016 the estimated total cost was £17.31million, this has now risen to £19.65million with the council having to pick up the shortfall or the cement mixers won't start to turn.

Additional costs have been imposed by extra work being needed to prepare the site, price increases by sub-contractors and 'inflationary pressures'.

The extra money will be taken from funds previously allocated to the council's housing company Fortitor Homes. A council spokesperson told the Sentinel this would not affect Fortitor's 'immediate investment plans and commitments', maybe so, but the thing about extra costs is that there is often no end to them once a project starts to slip off the rails.

Just how serious the consequences of this project going belly up could be are highlighted by the findings of a report published last week by the National Audit Office. They show that local authorities are struggling in the face of what Lord Porter, chair of the Local Government Association described as 'years of unprecedented funding reductions'.

The report, Financial Stability of Local Authorities 2018, not the snappiest of titles but the content is pretty spine chilling, sets out in deadpan official prose that challenges facing councils in the age of endless austerity.

Since 2010 government funding for local authorities has fallen by 49%, at the same time the demand for services like adult social care has grown. Councils have protected those services they have a statutory duty to provide, meaning others like housing and roads have been cut.

The government has announced multiple piecemeal initiatives aimed at helping councils fund services, most have been short term fixes with nothing like a long -term plan emerging. Now as budgets continue to tighten even statutory services are at risk of being cut.

Faced with the choice between a rock and a hard place councils are increasingly looking for other sources of income. For Stoke-on-Trent City Council that has meant trying to be nominated as the UK City of Culture for 2021, wooing Channel Four as they seek a base outside the capital and putting down a hefty chunk of cash on building a luxury hotel on the Smithfield site.

Some of these initiatives have their merits, the bid to be UK City of Culture although unsuccessful did bring an often-ignored city some much needed positive media coverage. There is an outside possibility that Channel Four could be persuaded to relocate to a city with a long tradition of creativity, although again it may be a case of promoting the good image of Stoke on the back of a near miss than winning the prize itself.

What worries me and anyone who has seen the slow unfolding of the mess that is Smithfield are the risks inherent in the Hilton Garden Inn project. The costs are already climbing and soon may outweigh the benefits brought by the fifty jobs it will create.

Five years ago, I joined hundreds of other local people as they marched in protest over building of the new Civic Centre, at the time this was a howl of outrage against a complacent Labour council who were out of touch with public opinion and, it seemed, reality. Their replacement by an Independent/Tory coalition was supposed to herald a new era of more responsive governance; there is little sign of that in this decision.

Local taxpayers have good reason to be sceptical about large capital projects, one of the two buildings on the Smithfield empty for a long period and the former bus station just up the road is still a crumbling ruin waiting to be turned into a shopping centre as a succession of developers turn up, promise to sort out the mess only to slip away in the night.

Speaking to the Sentinel last week a council spokesperson said, 'there is a clear need for a four- star hotel in the town centre to meet demand and allow us to compete on a national scale'. Whether that is really the case when the city has so many other needs is debatable, but it's clear that even if that is true if costs continue to rise the game may soon not be worth the candle.

Friday, 9 March 2018

New group aims to make the voices of people living with mental health issues heard.

In December, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health (NSVMH) closed after losing its funding, now some of the charity’s former trustees are looking to launch a new group.

Hear Our Voices will be a campaign group speaking up for people who use mental health services in the Stoke-on-Trent area. They will also tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness by promoting positive images of people living well in recovery.

Former NSVMH Chair Adam Colclough had been working to help set up the new group, he said: ‘when North Staffs Voice closed down many people were worried that there would be nobody to speak up for them, I and several other trustees decided that we needed to do something’.

He added: ‘Over the past couple of months we have been speaking to local mental health charities and there are a number of opportunities for us to get involved and make a difference’.

Jane Clewes, a former trustee of NSVMH who has been helping to set up the new group said: ‘People with mental health problems can be reticent to speak out as individuals about the services they are receiving, but as a group their views can be represented and shared more easily.’

Speaking about the role the group hopes to play in monitoring services and identifying areas of improvement she said: ‘In this age of target-driven health services, reminders from a user group about what is important to the patient can be helpful.’

Hear Our Voices will be holding an inaugural meeting at The American on Waterloo Road in Cobridge on Wednesday 14th March, access is by the front door of the building only,

At the meeting members will discuss the aims of the group and elect a steering group to lead the project

Anyone who uses local mental health services, carers, or who wants to support a positive image of people living with mental health conditions is welcome to come along. The meeting will take place between 6pm and 8pm.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Lack of affordable houses to rent is making a whole generation put their lives on hold.

Owning a home of your own is the nearest British equivalent to the American dream, an investment of hope in a better future. Over the past couple of decades, it has become an ever more unrealistic aspiration for more and more people; now renting a decent home at a reasonable rent is slipping out of reach too.

Every year there are 30,000 fewer affordable homes for rent built in England alone than are needed to meet demand, if this trend continues, and change looks unlikely, then there will be a shortfall of 335,000 homes by the end of this parliament.

The government made much of investing £2 billion in building social housing in 2017. Sounds impressive? This will deliver 5000 extra homes, a sixth of the number needed.
(Source: Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

A shortage of affordable housing to buy or rent has a serious and lasting impact. On their website homelessness charity Shelter say there are 1.8 million families are on the waiting list for affordable homes, many of whom live in private rented accommodation on short term contracts.

This drives existing problems related to poverty, including poor school attainment and physical and mental illness caused by anxiety. It has also created a shadow market of unscrupulous landlords cramming families into unsuitable housing with all the associated fire and safety risks.

There is a cruel irony in a society that worries endlessly about health and safety allowing such a situation to exist under its collective nose.

The shortage of affordable housing also has more insidious effects. A 2016 YouGov poll for Shelter showed that 59% of the under 45’s contacted had delayed a major life event like getting married or having children because of not having a secure place to live.

Speaking to the Independent about the findings Shelter chief executive Campbell Robb said, ‘our ever -growing housing crisis means millions of young people are bring left behind, unable to reach many of the crucial life milestones that were taken for granted by the generations who came before them'.

If a sizeable number of young people are being forced to delay major life events because they can’t afford a place to live this can only have a damaging impact on our society and economy.

If the problem is well known, and it is, the housing shortage has been creeping up on us for decades; then so are the suggested solutions.

Trades union UNISON has called for 250,000 new home to be built, 80,000 these would be for social rent, they also call for local authorities to start building council houses again. This last solution was echoed in a 2013 report written for Shelter, which calls for it to be made easier for councils to borrow the money to do so.

In response to the recent government Green Paper on social housing the Joseph. Rowntree Foundation have called on the government to reverse the ‘reforms’ to housing benefit so that low cost rents can be used to counteract wages not keeping pace with housing costs.

The government led Theresa May had pledged on numerous occasions to ‘build a Britain that works for everyone’. A shortage of affordable housing that it may not have created, but has done little to address, exposes the emptiness of this slogan.

Sugared words and noble aspirations alone can never solve the housing problem. Yet sooner rather than later it will have to be addressed. As Campbell Robb said to the Independent in 2016 ‘we cannot take this crisis a someone else’s problem, it’s the responsibility of all of us to help fix it'.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Academics called in to support students with mental health issues as support service struggle to cope.

It is supposed to be an exciting time when new opportunities open up yet for many students their university days are a time of stress and difficulty.

In a 2016 survey by YouGov many of the students polled said they had experienced a mental health problem whilst at university, 63% said this had interfered with their daily lives and 71% cited the pressures of work as a cause. Amongst the problems commonly reported were depression and anxiety with 77% of the students questioned saying they had a fear of failure.

There was a distinct gender split in the reporting of stress and other mental health issues with 34% of females being willing to disclose compared to only 19% of males. This despite 84% of the students who took part in the survey accepting mental health problems are as serious those connected to physical health and 74% saying they would be sympathetic towards people living with mental health issues.

(Source: YouGov)

In the general population between 4% and 10% of people experience a mental health problem during their lifetime, with depression and anxiety being the most common. People taking time off with mental health conditions is responsible for a fifth of the working days lost in the UK.

(Source: The Mental Health Foundation)

This week a report written by Gareth Hughes and Dr Nichola Byrom for the charity Student Minds reveals that academic staff are increasingly having to step into the breach as support services struggle to cope.

The report finds that supporting students’ mental wellbeing is becoming an ‘inevitable part of the academic role’, however it is one that frequently goes unrecognised because the ‘higher education sector does not have the appropriate structures or cultures to assist students’.

Amongst the recommendations made in the report are for the establishment of clear procedures for academics to follow when supporting the mental wellbeing of their students, better training for academics and more investment in student support services.

(Source: Mental Health Today/Student Minds)

Speaking to Mental Health Today Rose Tressler, CEO of Student Minds said that it was ‘inevitable’ that students would to whoever they feel most comfortable with for support, and that the report ‘throws light on how academics are a vital part of the support available to students’.

The charity is working with property company Unite Students to engage the 50,000 students it provides accommodation for to stage a University Mental Health Day on 1st March. At which bit will promote the need for a better understanding of the challenges students face in relation to mental wellbeing and the importance of engaging in the community.

In a press statement Rose Tressler said ‘we know that community is key to mental wellbeing’, adding that being part of a community can ‘reduce isolation and open up pathways to accessing support’.

Attending university is without doubt a major transition in the lives of many young, and not so young, people. One that brings both opportunities and significant levels of stress, if the latter issue is not addressed adequately the consequences can be serious.

It is also without question that a combination of tight budgets and the often unconscious stigma associated with mental illness mean support services don’t always get the funding they need to be effective.

The report highlights, as Rose Tressler told Mental Health Today, the need for institutions to respond to this issue on a ‘strategic level through a whole university approach to student mental health and wellbeing’.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The children of public sector workers are being driven into poverty.

An analysis carried out by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has shown that 150,000 children with one or more parent working in the public sector are living in poverty.

The analysis is based on real wages having fallen since 2010 by 13.3% for health and education workers, and by 14.3% for people working in public administration. It includes changes to tax and welfare introduced by the coalition government and the roll out of Universal Credit.

A household is considered to be in poverty if its income is less than 60% of the national median.

The analysis shows that families where both parents work in the public sector are the biggest losers, with their income dropping by an average £83 a week, households where one parent is a public-sector worker lose out by an average £53 a week.
(Source: TUC)

Experiencing poverty during childhood can have long lasting effects with educational attainment at GCSE for children receiving free school meals being 28% lower than that of their more advantaged contemporaries. It also impacts on their physical and mental health.

Holding back public sector pay has, the analysis says, reduced household’s spending power in England alone by £8.5 billion, the cost to wider society of child poverty is estimated at £29 billion a year.
(Source: TUC/Child Poverty Action Group)

In a press statement TUC, general secretary Frances O'Grady said pay restrictions and cuts to in-work benefits were ‘causing needless hardship' for public sector workers.

Adding that public- sector workers ‘shouldn’t have to worry about feeding or clothing their kids, but many are struggling to afford even the basics'.

Welfare Weekly quotes shadow minister for employment Margaret Greenwood responding to the TUC analysis, saying the rise in child poverty was a ‘direct consequence’ of the failure of the government to deal with ‘the rising cost of living, stagnating wages' and its ‘slashing of social security support for families’.

Frances O'Grady concluded her statement by saying that ‘ministers must give public sector workers the pay rise they have earned', adding that if this doesn’t happen ‘more families will fall into poverty'.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Family life is buckling under the demands of overwork.

The UK has always had a long hour’s culture with workers putting in more hours than many of their European counterparts. Now a report published by two leading charities has shown the harm it us doing to family life.

According to the 2018 Modern Families Index compiled by work life charity Working Families and Bright Horizons the demands of the modern workplace are creating a ‘parenting penalty,’ to which many parents are responding by downshifting their careers.

Out of the cohort of parents surveyed 40% of those in full time work reported having to do extra hours, 34% of those on part time contracts were working hours equivalent to being full time. Even those parents working ‘flexibly’ many (31%) said they had little control over their hours and shift patterns.

This has an often-damaging effect on family life, with 39% if the parents questioned saying working prevented them from putting their children to bed; 47% reported not spending enough time together as a family because of work commitments.

Working long hours is impacting on the health of parents with 38% saying the hours they work prevent them from eating healthily and 42% reporting doing less exercise as a result. It also impacts on relationships with 28% citing overwork as a reason for arguing with their partner.

As a result, 18% of the parents questioned said they had deliberately stalled their careers, 11% said they had turned down a new job because of the hours involved and one in ten said they had refused a promotion for the same reason.

In a statement to the press Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families said that in the current work culture ‘parenthood looks like a bad career move', because the prevailing norm is to ‘show up early, leave late and be on email out of hours'.

In the sane statement James Tugendhat, managing director of Bright Horizons said, ‘the index highlights the UK's long hours culture is putting severe strain on family life'.

Responding to the Modern Families Index pressure group The Four Day Week Campaign tweeted that it showed again ‘the impact of long hours and a lack of control over working time' have on ‘employees’ mental health and resilience’.

The changing nature of work and the seemingly unstoppable march of micromanagement are piling pressure on working families, along with our traditional long hours culture this makes for a dangerous combination.

It is hardly surprising that a significant number of parents are deciding to downshift to prioritize the wellbeing of their children and relationship. The stress experienced by those not able to do so might, in part, explain why the UK persistently lags behind its competitors in terms of productivity.

Once radical alternatives like the introduction of a four-day week are starting to look like viable alternatives to a failing status quo.