Just 20 minutes into 2022, Polly Hamilton was the first baby of this year to be born at the Royal Bolton Hospital.
For Salford parents Joe Hamilton and Jess Bellamy, the 9lb 3oz bundle was the perfect gift that money can’t buy.
But while they will do everything within their power to make sure their daughter has a good life, the sad reality is that her life expectancy is more than 10 years less than a child living in a more affluent suburb in the south of England.
And money, along with education and health are just some of the many factors that come into play.
Today the Manchester Evening News and other Reach titles across the North and Midlands are joining forces to call for change, to make sure that no child is left behind.
time to change
Among all of the government’s Leveling Up rhetoric, the difference in life expectancy is perhaps the starkest indication that action is needed – and needed now.
The government is aiming to create a society where a baby born in Bolton, Wallsend or Birkenhead has the same chances of a good life as one born in Surrey Heath, the affluent borough represented by Boris Johnson’s Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove.
But in reality, England is as far away from this ideal as anyone could imagine.
Children in left-behind parts of the country – like Polly and those shown on the front pages of our newspapers on Tuesday – are far more likely to leave school lacking good qualifications, have a low-paying job, suffer ill health and ultimately die early .
Little of this is new but the unique circumstances of the 2019 General Election – making seats that had long been Labor strongholds winnable for the Conservatives – created a political, as well as economic and moral, motivation to take concerted action.
After a long build-up Mr Gove finally unveiled his vision last week for what leveling up might look like.
At its heart are 12 ‘missions’ promising improvements in areas such as life expectancy, wellbeing, numbers of high-paid jobs, spending on research and development and even the rollout of 5G broadband.
All are welcome signs that Mr Gove understands the scale and importance of the problem and how it might be addressed.
But with no new money beyond what was set out in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review last year, its ambitions are undermined – perhaps fatally – by a lack of cold, hard cash.
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On education – which has to be at the heart of any effort to improve life chances – the list of often rehashed policies includes establishing ‘elite’ sixth forms, a policy many education leaders in the North will have the opposite effect to the one intended.
And while 55 education cold spots – the majority in the North and Midlands – have been identified for targeted work, the program lacks any new funding and will be driven from central government, potentially undermining the existing (and effective) Opportunity Areas scheme already working in places like Blackpool, Oldham and Doncaster.
‘When you think that just because a baby born is born in the North they could live 10 years less, it’s so unfair’
It’s all a depressing read for parents, including Joe and Jess, who like most families these days, have found themselves working simply to get by, with little extra for any luxuries.
The couple live in Walkden – Jess on maternity leave from her job as an adult nurse at Salford Royal and Joe, a full-time electrical engineer.
“It’s a big difference in life expectancy,” said Jess, 30. “When you think that just because a baby born is born in the North they could live 10 years less, it’s so unfair.
“Everybody is born equal and it shouldn’t be that just because one child goes home from hospital in a car and takes one path and the other goes home in a taxi down another path, because maybe their parents can’t afford a car, it shouldn’t be that their life chances are different.”
Jess has an older daughter, seven-year-old Annabelle, from a previous relationship and says that rather than investing in the North, from her experience, there have been nothing but cuts.
“I’ve noticed a big difference with my pregnancy with Polly,” she said. “When I had Annabelle I saw a health visitor once a week for the first eight weeks, but with Polly I saw her after 10 days and now she’s not coming until the end of February.
“I’d also go to the local Sure Start center and well-being baby weigh-in clinics, but now you just don’t have them.
“People would just be able to go along, get whatever support they needed, younger children could get a piece of toast, that sort of thing. When support like that has gone, it’s obviously going to have more of an impact on families with lower income.”
When comparing Salford with Gove’s constituency, we found that in 2019/20, 26% of children in Salford were overweight at Reception age, compared with 17.4% in Surrey Heath.
While parents are all too often blamed for feeding their children the wrong foods, Jess says that for many, it can be a case of needs must – and those behind such papers as Leveling Up don’t always understand the reality for struggling families.
“The cost of living is expensive,” she said. “I was a single mum for six years, I’d started uni to do my nursing and we didn’t have any spare money. We did end up eating what was cheapest and that would often be processed food because it was cheaper, because I couldn’t afford to be making big meals for just me and her.”
The mum-of-two, who says she’ll be forced to reduce her hours at work because of childcare costs, has noticed cuts in education too. A child with additional needs recently had to leave Annabelle’s class because her funding for one-to-one support was taken away.
She said the couple would consider moving away, but are close to both sets of parents, and would struggle to work without their support.
‘They are just blind to the problems people face’
“We rely on them to be able to work,” said Jess. “I think a lot of people are in the same position. We shouldn’t have to move away to have a better life for our children. I think because a lot of politicians are down south and don’t have the same money worries, they are just blind to the problems people face.
“Our children have just as much right to a good life as anyone else.”
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership has noted that the government’s Shared Prosperity Fund, the successor to what English regions receive from Brussels, will mean some areas actually get less money than they did before.
Meanwhile government policy in other areas directly contradicts the aims of the Leveling Up White Paper. Public health funding faces a real-terms cut over the coming three years and despite talk of a ‘devolution revolution’ the town halls that best understand their communities remain starved of funds, with towns and cities across the north and Midlands almost all worse off financially despite the host of funds designed to restore their fortunes.
As former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield noted this weekend, bold action is needed as well as just warm words if the damage done over decades is to be reversed.
Communities need more than just good intentions if they are to thrive after decades of neglect by successive governments.
For the sake of the babies featured on our front pages tomorrow – and countless others like them – we can’t afford to still be talking about the lost potential being squandered in our left-behind villages, towns and cities in ten years time.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.