Forget about the North-South divide, children in coastal communities are being left behind

Inner-city deprivation was ‘discovered’ in the 1970s when the Heath government commissioned the influential inner area studies. What followed were decades of social policy, funding and infrastructure all aimed at stamping out this urban problem. The Britain of today has evolved since then and there has been a profound shift in the pattern of deprivation away from cities and towards coastal areas. 

So why are we still talking about the North-South divide? Why have the many problems facing coastal communities been overlooked in media, academic, policy and political accounts of deprivation in modern Britain? Why do these coastal communities continue to be ignored in a national policy that is ostensibly committed to ‘levelling up’ opportunities and outcomes, but that understands this challenge as a north-south problem as opposed to a peripheral one?

This is not a 2021 problem, nor is it a COVID problem. For nearly two decades, I, alongside Dr Alex Gibson have been raising concerns about the allocation of funding for the NHS and more recently English public services. Our research has found that although peripheral coastal and rural areas have older populations and are grappling with higher crude burdens of illness and disability, they received less funding per capita for the NHS and were more likely to be showing signs of organisational stress, through high deficits for example.

Reassuringly, some NHS funding formulae have increasingly responded to the needs of deprived coastal areas. However, in other public services areas there remains a glaring divide in per capita allocations between metropolitan and coastal areas. Take education, where school funding allocations remain the highest in London, despite being the best performing region. In 2013-14 Tower Hamlets received £2,650 more per pupil than Plymouth, a gap which remains alarmingly high at £2,239 in 2020-21. In some London boroughs, average GCSE performance of Free School Meal (FSM) pupils is higher than that of non-FSM pupils in coastal and inland towns on the periphery. So, is the funding distribution ‘fair’?

Children in the capital are also exposed to a vast array of social, economic and cultural opportunities that are likely to shape knowledge, aspiration and expectations with respect to career opportunities and the role educational success plays in seizing those opportunities. In coastal areas, by contrast, low education and work expectations can contribute to low levels of aspiration; ‘nothing-to-lose’ attitudes may in turn shape risk for harmful behaviours in adolescence. There is a distinctly peripheral pattern to rates of self-harm, hospitalisation for alcohol and substance use, and rates of children in care.

The sense that some children in the UK have thrived in recent decades, while others have been left behind, is captured to an extent by the Index of Multiple Deprivation, in which the Children and Young People sub-domain has been subject to more redistribution – away from metropolitan areas and towards the periphery - than any other indicator. Acting upon this shift is crucial. Childhood adversity and poor educational attainment are strong predictors of negative life outcomes such as drug use, truancy, crime, poor mental health, unemployment and homelessness. All of these outcomes are devastating for the individuals involved. They also pose huge costs to society.

Addressing these issues requires a multi-pronged response. First, we need to recognise that the lack of a coastal definition and subsequent difficulties of linking data to different kinds of coastal area has made analysis very difficult. There are some things we can do in the short term. For example, at the University of Plymouth, we have developed algorithms to map, at Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOA) level, disease prevalence and the distribution of key health risk factors. We are also discussing with the Office for National Statistics steps towards developing a new coastal classification.

More radically, we need to question our mental maps that associate social disadvantage with inner city living and that have legitimised a pattern of public funding which has undoubtedly benefitted London. Social expenditure, which is equivalent to around 20% of gross domestic product, produces significant multiplier effects, including public sector staff employment and associated demand for other services. 

So is it possible that resource allocation is in itself a mechanism for stimulating economic growth and for reversing the trend towards the UK’s capital becoming an increasingly primate city?

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