Speaking at the Gateshead Council's Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Professor of Urban Design for Health Tim Townshend argued that there are location-related causes for serious health concerns in the area.
The academic spoke of "depressing" neighbourhoods and "toxic high streets" damaging the mental and physical health of those who live there, which he attributes to the North East’s socioeconomic factors.
Newcastle is now a known problem area in regards to poverty after Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University academics urged Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty, to investigate the city. The report from the council and University detailed that “welfare reforms have hit hardest where reliance on benefits has been greatest and the most affected places are older industrial areas, many of which are located in the North East of England.” This makes Newcastle among the most deprived cities in the UK. The socioeconomic dynamics of the area ultimate contribute towards the prevalence of physical health problems and non-communicable disease.
Consumption of alcohol is one contributor to the North-South health divide. “Drinking [alcohol] is just part of the social culture in the North East,” states Elaine Wilson, public health communications advisor at Newcastle City Council. Statistics published on Gov.uk show that 40.4% of drinkers in the North East “binged” on their heaviest drinking day; this is 20% more than drinkers in the South of England. Therefore, it is inevitable that the deep-rooted drinking culture in the North East will be having an increasingly negative impact on people’s lives.
The North-South divide is not only evident through differences in alcohol consumption, but also through variation in on the development of and opportunities for children. Child poverty is higher in Newcastle than many other places, the authors of the report to Alston argued, evidencing how 29.1% of dependent children under the age of 20 live in low-income families, compared to the 19.9% average across England.Prof Townshend warned the North-South divide was additionally impacting opportunities that young people have for sport, creating an obesogenic environment in the North East of England.
Not only is the physical health of people in Newcastle a problem, but there is a further link with impoverished areas and poor mental health too. North Durham’s Labour MP Kevan Jones is worried that the North East is facing a mental health crisis. “The mental health figures do not surprise me at all, there is a link between social deprivation and mental health issues,” he said.
Professor Townshend described how these health inequalities are exacerbated further by local socioeconomic differences, saying how "in Newcastle you can walk from one bit of the city to another where the life expectancy is more than 11 years difference within 20 minutes."
Despite this, Professor Townshend had praises for some areas in the North East, describing how "anything with greenery like Saltwell Park is absolutely fantastic for health and really good for social cohesion."
Ultimately it is vital that Philip Alston of the UN can make improvements after his investigations into poverty in the region. He reiterates that: “The Government has made significant changes to social protection in the past decade, and I will be looking closely at the impact that has had on people living in poverty and their realisation of basic rights.” Alston’s full report will include investigations into Universal Credit, child poverty, and the social and financial impact of Brexit on the North East, and be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2019. This report could be a positive step towards closing the socioeconomic gap between the North and South as well as reducing the risk of further health problems arising in the Newcastle area.