THE BLOG
08/09/2015 06:54 BST | Updated 07/09/2016 06:12 BST

Our Postcode Should Not Determine Our Children's Health

We must all hope that fresh eyes being cast on the challenge will re-invigorate the fight against health inequalities. It is clear that decision makers at all levels need to keep the faith and throw everything at this battle.

It was at least a 100 years ago that the economic might of heavy industry in the north was at its peak, and anyone familiar with the history of England will know that a lot has changed since then. The growth and then contraction of heavy industry has had a long term impact on the economic landscape, and inevitably the health of the inhabitants of areas in decline has also been affected, with those living in the north 20% more likely to die before reaching 75 than those in the south.

As the latest wave of new knowledge and creative industries set up shop and the last remaining city centres are redeveloped, it is shocking to think that the legacy of health inequalities is still taking its toll on the people who live above a certain latitude.

But it is.

And not only does this inequality persist, but it is affecting even those that are being born today.

A report by the National Children's Bureau has revealed that thousands fewer children in the North West would suffer poor health outcomes in the first five years of their life if the region had the same outcomes as the South East. There would be, for example, 11,000 fewer children suffering from tooth decay, and 5,500 more children reaching the right level of personal and social development to be deemed 'school ready' as they arrive in Reception class.

This is tragic - not just because the toddlers making their first steps in Manchester and Middlesbrough could not possibly be aware of, let alone have any agency in, their economic environment- but because these poor health outcomes will have implications for the rest of their lives.

The link with deprivation and the health of young children is clear. Those in the 30 most deprived local authority areas are more likely to be obese, have tooth decay and suffer injuries, and less likely to reach a good level of development ready for school than those in the 30 least deprived areas.

Disrupting these regional and socio-economic trends will take strong political resolve, as well as strong leadership and ambitious strategy at a national level. After some promising signs that a pincer movement against inequality was in the offing, with thousands more health visitors to support young families, and a plan for an economic 'northern powerhouse', Government may be losing its nerve. Just as major work to improve the North's transport network has been 'paused', a £200 million cut to public health funding - which will pay those health visitors' wages - has also been announced.

But to really tackle poor health in the early years we also need to understand and respond to those inequalities that are less easy to explain. There is significant variation within England's regions. And there are no shortage of examples of local authority areas that seem to have better than average early childhood obesity, tooth decay or injury rates despite high levels of deprivation.

This variation in early childhood outcomes between different areas is particularly pertinent given that local authorities will be handed responsibility for improving young children's health from this October, and will also be food for thought for the 'devo-Manc' innovators.

We must all hope that fresh eyes being cast on the challenge will re-invigorate the fight against health inequalities. It is clear that decision makers at all levels need to keep the faith and throw everything at this battle.