Journey down dead-end street

The Wirral is a place of contradictions. In five miles, you can go
from one of the poorest council wards in the country, where nearly
nine out of 10 children live in poverty, to one of the richest,
where there are more millionaires than anywhere outside

While this part of Merseyside has a national reputation for
affluence, the reality in other parts could not be more different.
On the north eastern side of the Wirral peninsula, in Bidston and
Birkenhead, severe poverty is a daily reality for many children and
their families.

Twenty years ago shipbuilding firm Cammell Laird employed tens of
thousands of local people. Now the industry is all but gone, as are
two other big employers, Lever Brothers and Mobil Oil. Unemployment
is high, up to one-third of the population is on income support and
many children grow up in households where no one has ever worked.
It is still possible to buy a house for less than £15,000,
local authority homes stand empty through low demand and teenage
pregnancy rates are among the highest in Europe. There are
significant problems with drugs, alcohol and crime.

According to the Save the Children report, Bidston has the highest
rate of child poverty of the 8,414 wards in England, with 88.7 per
cent living below the poverty line. Nearby Birkenhead ranks 69th on
child poverty – still near the top of the chart. The two areas are
predominantly white and working class, with less than 1 per cent of
the population from ethnic minorities. The few asylum seekers who
have been dispersed here tend to be highly visible.

As Bidston and Birkenhead feature near the top of almost every
index of deprivation, they have been targeted by almost every
government scheme to tackle poverty, unemployment and social
exclusion. From Sure Start to Connexions, from drug arrest referral
schemes to sexually transmitted disease pilot programmes, you name
it, the Wirral has got it. The area has been given European Union
Objective 1 status and has attracted significant investment from
the UK government and the EU.

Although you can see the bright lights of Liverpool across the
Mersey, the whole of the Wirral peninsula has a starkly separate
identity from its more cosmopolitan neighbour – a fact reflected in
the way Liverpudlians refer to the Wirral as “over the water”.
Transport connections are generally good and locals describe some
of the leisure facilities as excellent – from sports centres to
coastal walks and pleasant parks (the design of Central Park in New
York was a copy of Birkenhead Park).

But for families living below the poverty line, entertainment,
leisure and transport are expensive. Large families live in cramped
Victorian terraces, depriving growing children of privacy and
places to let off steam. Boredom leads to violence and vandalism
(as seen in the repeated attacks on Birkenhead ambulance station),
alcohol abuse and more teenage pregnancies.

Wirral Council was formed in 1974 and took responsibility for
social care in 1986. The social services department was placed on
special measures in 1999 as a result of concerns about the quality
of management and services, and a high-profile child abuse case
further dented the authority’s image. Despite this, a joint review
published last February suggested that the social services
department had made significant progress and formally took the
authority off special measures.

More significantly, the voluntary agencies and government
programmes which work alongside the council are genuinely positive
and enthusiastic about its involvement.

Rosemary Curtis, manager for Sure Start, Birkenhead North, since
the initiative began 18 months ago, says the programme has “a very
good relationship” with local social services and other statutory
agencies. The programme has also had some significant successes
and, of 550 families who fall into its catchment area, Sure Start
is in contact with 430. It runs support schemes, health promotion
activities, crŠches and education services for local parents
of under-threes, as well as more targeted help for families in
contact with social services.

Although unemployment is a major factor in local poverty, parents’
options have until now been limited by the lack of day care
provision for children, something that agencies are trying to
tackle. Part of the problem is the lack of suitable public
buildings, but there are now plans for a 35-place day nursery
attached to a local college. Local community rooms are being
refurbished so that they can be used as crŠches, and
specialist health staff, such as speech therapists, will have the
use of consulting rooms.

Voluntary agencies are providing support to families in Bidston and
Birkenhead. There is a scheme which works with more than 40 young
carers, run by social care charity PSS, a local Home Start
initiative in which other local people provide support to families
and numerous other schemes run by and for the local community.
Barnardo’s runs several schemes around Liverpool and the Wirral,
including a support programme for girls abused through
prostitution, and is setting up a fostering service for children
aged 10-18.

The effort and energy is beginning to pay off for many families,
certainly in the short term. But further ahead, there are questions
about whether Bidston and Birkenhead can ever be truly
“regenerated” without the return of the industries that once
brought prosperity.

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