What should a North East child poverty strategy look like?
IPPR North worked with the North East Child Poverty Commission (NECPC) to publish Child Poverty and Devolution in North East England in September 2020.
The report called on local, regional and national leaders to make ending child poverty their priority. It recommended addressing child poverty be embedded into future devolution deals, and the levers of devolution be used to help support parents into good quality work, through employment programmes and accessible childcare. It also urged combined authorities in the region to create and prioritise programmes that address child and family poverty, co-ordinate action between local authorities, and work in partnership with schools, local institutions and communities.
Since then, two things have happened.
Increasing challenges facing the North East
Firstly, the scale of the challenge has continued to increase. In 2021, the North East overtook London in having the highest rate of child poverty in the country, having experienced the UK’s steepest increases since 2014-15. Almost two in five babies, children and young people across the North East (38 per cent) are growing up in poverty – the large majority from working families – and the gap between the regional and UK child poverty average has reached a 20 year high.
This presents a direct barrier to the government’s levelling up agenda. Falling living standards for North East families today are creating poorer educational and health outcomes, reduced opportunities, lower productivity and deeper regional inequalities for the next generation – the parents and carers of tomorrow. Yet it is central government policy decisions which have driven many of these widening inequalities. A decade of austerity, underinvestment in local authorities, cuts to vital support services, and the erosion of our social security safety net all disproportionately impact families and children in the North East. Already high levels of hardship in the region have been further exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
The most frustrating aspect of this challenge is that it is not inevitable, and it can be solved. Our research in 2020 highlighted that between 1999-2013, the North East saw the biggest fall in child poverty of any UK region or nation. We know that the right policy decisions and investment in families can work, because they have done so before. Addressing child poverty in our region would lay the foundations for long-term economic resilience and genuinely inclusive growth.
Cross-sector consensus and collaboration
The second change, though, has been a positive one. A clear cross-sector consensus has emerged on the urgency of tackling this fundamental challenge for the region. The North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) have partnered with VONNE (Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East) and the NECPC to call for government intervention. An even wider coalition of organisations – including health, education, trade unions and individual charities – have repeatedly come together on the importance of an adequate social security system for the region’s children and families (here and here, for example). Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner has also recognised the clear link between poverty and the likelihood of being a victim of crime, and the need to address this – alongside properly investing in young people – to make communities across the region safer.
There has also been a marked shift in regional collaboration to tackle child poverty. Following our 2020 report, the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and its three constituent members (Northumberland, Newcastle and North Tyneside) introduced a Child Poverty Prevention Programme, working with schools and employers to tackle the symptoms and causes of child poverty. The programme’s interventions have been piloted in 86 schools across the authority this academic year, and 30 employers are being supported to identify ways in which they can support employees with their financial wellbeing.
The work of the North East Child Poverty Commission
Across the region, the NECPC has grown in strength. Since 2019 it has been hosted by – but is independent of – Newcastle University, bringing in new cross-sector stakeholders and is currently chaired by Anna Turley. Last year, the Commission published Getting the Building Blocks Wrong, exploring why child poverty has risen so steeply in the North East over recent years. The publication also explored a suite of structural challenges facing the region, including low-paid work, ‘economic inactivity’, disabilities and having higher rates of families who are much more likely to be in poverty. While acknowledging that central government currently controls the “overwhelming majority of policy levers” to address child poverty in England, the report again highlighted the importance of collaboration and devolved funding.
Recently, this regional collaboration has been most evident in the new North East devolution deal, published in December 2022. The deal unites (or reunites) the seven local authorities north of Teesside with a shared focus on regional investment to unlock economic growth. Crucially, the deal is the first in the country to enshrine a commitment to tackling child poverty, noting that:
38 per cent of North East children live in relative poverty, with over half of those in working households. Recognising the significant human and economic cost, the North East Mayoral Combined Authority commits to the continuation and expansion of the NTCA’s Child Poverty Prevention pilot, based on interventions to support poverty prevention in school, workplace and family settings. It will undertake this work with a wider coalition of partners and consider how best to capitalise on national activity and government programmes.
In order to learn from – and potentially scale up – the pilot phase of this programme, the government commits to explore collaboration with North East Mayoral Combined Authority to address priorities for better health. The Department for Education also commits to working with the North East Mayoral Combined Authority to advise how best to address priorities identified in the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision green paper.
[North East Devolution Deal, 59-60]
At the deal’s launch, Levelling Up secretary Michael Gove emphasised the agreement will “give more power to the mayoral combined authority and the other local authorities” to help address the “significant challenge that child poverty presents us”.
Introducing IPPR North and NECPC’s new project
Of course, central government must be held to account too. Investing in a fairer and more accessible social security system, introducing a national living wage pegged to the actual cost of living, and extending free school meals across England would be some of the most impactful policy interventions to reduce child poverty.
But wider devolution is a new opportunity to work together across the communities most affected, and to use the funding and powers that will be available in the region to tackle some of the structural drivers of child poverty specific to the North East. That shared commitment to tackling this issue must extend to Tees Valley, which has some of the highest child poverty rates in the country. Once the new North East Combined Authority is up and running in May 2024, we will have two elected mayors in our region with significant funding, networks and voice to intervene.
That’s why NECPC and IPPR North are partnering on a new project over the coming year – bringing together stakeholders from right across the region to answer the question: What should a child poverty strategy for the North East look like?
This work will be steered by a cross-sector advisory group, independently chaired by former regional MP Baroness Hilary Armstrong, and informed by youth advisers facilitated by charity Youth Focus: North East.
What we will explore: and how we will do it
Building on the findings of the Getting the Building Blocks Wrong report, we’ll be speaking with a wide range of organisations and young people to better understand some of the key challenges and potential solutions for families in the North East. We will identify the local and regional levers which can help address child poverty across the region, and analyse the range of work and good practice already taking place across different sectors - as well as working to identify gaps which need tackling.
We will explore how we can move away from normalising poverty alleviation and crisis responses to hardship – which have grown exponentially across the region in recent years – to a more strategic, longer-term approach which prevents and reduces poverty for children and families. And we will continue to highlight the national policy decisions which are disadvantaging the North East, and undermining work to tackle poverty here at a local and regional level.
We will build upon the region’s many strengths and assets, including its young people, because we know the North East can be the most fantastic place to live and raise a family – but not everyone is able to benefit from everything this beautiful part of the world has to offer. We want to work with people and organisations across the North East to co-create a plan for our region to be the best place for every baby, child and young person to grow up, thrive, and fulfil their potential.
Luke Myer is a Research Fellow at IPPR North. He tweets at @IPPRLuke.
Amanda Bailey is Director of the North East Child Poverty Commission. She tweets at @nechildpoverty.