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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 July, 2005, 20:54 GMT 21:54 UK
York: the tale of two cities?
By Ollie Stone-Lee
Political reporter, BBC News website

York's historic shopping areas
Does York's affluence make poverty problems invisible?
York looks an affluent city, marked by a rich heritage, a busy tourist trade and clutches of smart boutique shops at its centre. This year it even hosted Royal Ascot.

And yet a fifth of his grand northern English city was described as being in poverty, unable to afford three or more necessities, in a 1998 study.

"There is fairly ostentatious wealth and fairly obvious poverty in the city. That has not gone away and could be even more stark," says Colin Stroud, "stakeholder champion" of York's anti-poverty strategy.

Mr Stroud had campaigned for such a strategy for the last 15 years and, in a sign the issue is being taken seriously, the project is being led by City of York Council's chief executive.

Poverty studies and York have been intertwined since Seebohm Rowntree sent investigators to every working-class house in the city in 1899 - and repeated the exercise in 1935 and just after World War II.

Poverty chronicled

His final survey, published in 1951, set out to test the impact of the new welfare laws.

It concluded that the amount of working class people living in poverty had been cut from 31% to 3% since 1945, although said the level would have fallen to 22% anyway.

The notebooks of Rowntree's investigators give a clear image of what living in poverty in the 1930s meant in hard terms:

  • "The house is an old one, and is overrun with mice and black beetles. There is no pantry."

  • "The house is very damp, and the family has had much ill health on this account. The woman is having treatment for tuberculosis. She has had her teeth extracted, but cannot afford artificial ones."

  • "The man and woman are continually having rows and throwing things at each other. The woman puts the children to bed, and then goes to public house with different men. The husband gambles a good deal. The house is very neglected."

It is a different kind of poverty which now faces York - and other cities.

A row of council houses on the Tang Hall estate
At first glance, little has changed since Rowntree's day
Council leader Steve Galloway, whose Westfield ward contains the highest number of deprived districts in the city, says "absolute" poverty has been replaced by sections of the community falling behind average living standards.

"We have not got extreme poverty where people cannot eat and children walk around without shoes but some people are living a fairly minimalist existence now."

The sort of cases dealt with by the York Citizens' Advice Bureau illustrates the changing face of "poverty" in the city, with debt, housing, welfare benefits and employment the most common concerns of the centre's clients.

And they stand in contrast to the kind of brash poverty observed by Rowntree.

Debts

There is the 30-year-old woman, for example, whose husband earned around 30,000 a year until he was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis and could no longer work.

The couple could not afford to pay their 60,000 mortgage and 35,000-worth of loans and credit card debts.

The advice bureau helped them claim on their mortgage protection insurance and for other debts creditors received 15p in the pound, with the rest written off.

Chris Hailey-Norris, of York Citizens' Advice Bureau
Chris Hailey-Norris says people dip in and out of poverty
In another case, a 45-year-old woman had to give up her 25,000 a year job and apply for means tested benefits when her partner left her.

Her partner had provided the childcare and also looked after all the household finances. He left a note saying he could no longer cope, with a repossession notice prompted by 1,700 in rent arrears and a pile of outstanding bills totalling 13,000.

York Citizen's Advice Bureau director Chris Hailey-Norris says many people his staff see "dip in and out of poverty depending on their life's circumstances".

And there is a 50-50 split between the people seeking advice who are in work or unemployed, he says.

Stark divide?

The housing problems reflect rising home prices, with two-bedroom terraced homes in the once-poor Bishopshill area of the city now selling for more than 150,000.

Councillor Galloway says social exclusion problems now appear in social housing whereas when he joined the council 35 years ago they were focused on the city centre.

Those most at risk are single parent families, disabled people and those with few qualifications.

Norah Crowhurst
Norah Crowhurst worries about flats being too expensive for many people
Unemployment may be running at only 1.8% but Colin Stroud says that is little comfort to those without work.

"OK, we have got nearly full employment but for those people who are not in employment the problems are as stark for them, if not more when they see everyone else around them wearing IPods and so on," he says.

At first glance, parts of the Tang Hall estate look the same as when Rowntree's reporters visited 70 years ago. Even the boy on his bike does not look out of place next to the 1926 council-built terraces.

But the satellite dishes and the 4x4s are ample signs of a different - and richer - era.

Simple improvements

Nellie Nacy has lived in her council house in the area for 68 years and her home has recently been updated. She highlights the very basic changes she has experienced since the days of the Rowntree era.

"It's a lot more comfortable - the hot water, the heating and all the modern stuff," she says.

Many of the houses in her street are now privately owned - a product of the Right to Buy legislation, producing cash windfalls for some families.

Some of Tang Hall's youths say they are bored
Some of Tang Hall's youths say they are bored
But Norah Crowhurst, 73, is among those who opposes selling off council houses. She complains flats being built in the city centre are "not for York people, not unless they are very rich York people".

The complaints of some young people in Tang Hall would have been easily recognised by Rowntree, with comments such as: "It's boring, there's nothing to do."

Rachel Dales,16, says: "We need more things so people can get jobs. I can't get a job in retail. They are all for over-18s and you have got to have all this previous experience."

Yet many of the area's residents look puzzled at the idea of there being a big gap between the affluent city centre and some of the areas on its outskirts.

And even those most worried about such divisions praise the effect of government-backed schemes such as SureStart and programmes for young people.

The regeneration of the Bell Farm estate, near Tang Hall, has also been hailed as a success story by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Rowntree chose York for his study because it was a fairly typical city. The measure of poverty might have changed but the quest for welfare schemes to help the most vulnerable society continues in this northern city.




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