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Gloucestershire Business News

Shocking extent of child poverty in Cheltenham

A staggering 91% of pupils live in poverty in Cheltenham's most deprived areas.

And a third are not receiving the support they need to break the cycle of hardship caused by poor health, underachievement, and unemployment.

Borough bosses have said it is vital money from major developments like the Golden Valley are used to help lift people out of poverty.

Cllr Dr David Willingham, chair of The Scrutiny Task Group on Tackling Multiple Deprivation, said: "Despite the outside perception of Cheltenham as an affluent Regency town, there is a stark divide between the haves and the have nots."

The area around Naunton Park is one of the most affluent in the country according to the 2019 indices of Multiple Deprivation for England.

But just a few miles down the road pockets of St Marks and St Pauls were considered to be among the top 10% most deprived areas in the country.

Men living there are expected to live almost nine years less and women 6.5 years less than those in the most affluent area. And the unemployment rate is six times higher.

A further six areas are in the 20% most deprived, six in the 30%, and six in the 40%.

Cllr Willingham said: "The residents of these communities deserve and need our focus as a council to help them thrive. "

He was speaking at a cabinet meeting this month where he presented an action plan to tackle deprivation in the area.

The cross-party task group, of which he is chair, was set up last year and between July 2022 and January 2023 spoke to experts from five areas within the borough - community outreach, health, education, housing, economic growth and employment.

The findings paint a stark picture of what life is like for some of the borough's poorest families.

At schools in the most deprived part of Cheltenham, as many as 91% of pupils were living in poverty, while 55% were on pupil premiums- a sum paid by the Government each year to improve the attainment of disadvantaged children.

The discrepancy indicates that more than a third of pupils were not receiving the support they needed.

In St Pauls ward, 35% of children were living in poverty, which made them more likely to have poor physical and mental health and then more likely to underachieve and face future difficulties in employment.

Multi-factor deprivation was particularly common amongst those learning English as an additional language and refugees, many of whom faced additional barriers to learning due to trauma.

Representatives from community groups and food banks said long-running problems seemed to be "on the brink of becoming insurmountable" and some residents have had to rely on candles, outdated gas appliances and makeshift fires for warmth.

Cllr Flo Clucas said: "Some of the work that's ongoing now is pinpointing the real, real difficulties ordinary people across this town are having.

"You might think well, it's only those people who are very poorly qualified and not in jobs but no, it's not. It's within most of our communities.

"As we approach the winter, this is going to get so much more difficult for them and for people in this town."

People living in damp and mouldy homes, exacerbated by unaffordable energy costs, were often unwilling to pursue cases against landlords when it might leave them on the street. And tenants also had very little recourse to challenge rent increases.

Experts said the council should do more to spread information about help such as fuel vouchers and benefits.

Cllr Martin Horwood said the report was "sobering" and added: "I have found residents living across the road from houses that sell for £2million and they are elderly, on modest council pensions and in real straits.

"They were really worried and didn't actually know where they could get help.

"So I think the emphasis in the report on signposting and communication is exactly right. "Sometimes you have to know help is there in order to ask for it."

Cllr Alisha Lewis said there was now a "clear road forward" and she pledged to look into how her climate budget could be used to tackle big challenges like fuel poverty.

Homelessness applications were up 20% in Cheltenham compared to 2021 and 45% of those who approached Cheltenham Borough Homes as homeless were unemployed.

There were 20,000 job vacancies across the county at the time of the report, while around 8,500 people were in receipt of unemployment benefits.

Citizens Advice said many of them faced so many different challenges they were not prepared to enter the workforce. Mental health and access to transport were highlighted as key barriers for the long-term unemployed as well as the rising cost of childcare.

The report set out 21 recommendations to help tackle the issues over the next year with many focused on better communication with residents and community groups.

The council plans to use Housing Act powers to enforce private landlords to deal with issues like mould and damp to the highest possible standard.

It will tackle fuel poverty in council homes by investing in retrofitting better systems and delivering net zero carbon homes on new developments.

And it wants to ensure dividends of major developments like Golden Valley are leveraged to deliver community benefits and social value to deprived areas around them.

Cllr Willingham added: "Work must be done with communities not to them."

"This may seem like a daunting delivery task. However, the systemic issues we need to address did not occur overnight and there are no quick fixes.

"This report should be seen as a long-term roadmap and should not be approved, put on a shelf and forgotten about.

"There is only one way to eat an elephant, one bite at a time. So my task for the cabinet and officers is not to do all of these things in one go but to pick some targeted activities, do them well, make a positive difference to those communities and keep doing that."

He urged Cheltenham councillors to lobby other bodies such as Gloucestershire County Council, the police, NHS and MP to play their part and look at partnering on initiatives with Gloucester, Tewksbury and Cotswold councils.

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