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Sun 5 December 2021

The health outcomes of the north and Midlands have been levelled down since the Conservatives took office, reports Sam Bright

Some 80% of ‘Red Wall’ areas in England have suffered a decline in healthy life expectancy for either men or women since the Conservative Party took office in 2010, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

Healthy life expectancy is the amount of time that a person can expect to live in a good state of health. The average healthy life expectancy in the UK was 62.9 years for men and 63.3 years for women from 2017 to 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The Byline Intelligence Team assessed the healthy life expectancy for Red Wall areas in England – former industrial heartlands in the north and Midlands, many of which flipped from Labour to the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election – inspecting data for the closest conurbations to these seats (ONS data does not correlate directly with parliamentary constituencies).

The analysis revealed that healthy life expectancy for either men or women had fallen in 16 of the 20 areas for which data is available during the period from 2009-11 to 2017-19.

In the 20 Red Wall areas, average healthy life expectancy for men rose marginally from an average of 59.71 years in 2009-11 to 59.74 in 2017-19. In nine of the areas, healthy life expectancy for men fell during the period.

Overall, healthy life expectancy for women fell in these Red Wall areas, from 60.6 years to 59.9. In 14(70%) of the areas, healthy life expectancy for women fell during the period.

Thus, on average in the Red Wall, men and women are expected to be in poor health six year before the UK retirement age of 66. Across the country, healthy life expectancy for men has risen marginally since 2009-11 from 62.7 to 62.9 years, while healthy life expectancy for females has dropped from 63.8 to 63.3.

The analysis found that only one Red Wall area (out of 20) exceeded the UK-wide average healthy life expectancy for men, while only three exceeded the average for women.

A new paper in the Lancet health journal has found that, overall, life expectancy has been falling in many areas of the north over the past decade. It found extreme differences in life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of the country – with men in parts of Blackpool expected to live for 68.3 years, compared to 95.3 years in some areas of Kensington and Chelsea in London.

The esteemed health academic and researcher Sir Michael Marmot conducted a review in 2020, looking at the health prospects of people in England. He came to similar conclusions, noting that the poorest areas had seen a growth in sickness and premature death over the past decade, while people in the richest places were living longer.

There has even been a cleavage at a regional level, with the highest life expectancy enjoyed by London, the south-east and the south-west, and the lowest life expectancy seen in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire.

Marmot’s diagnosis placed responsibility at the feet of successive Conservative governments. In 2010, he recommended that public spending on the social causes of poor health – including poverty, homelessness and insecure work – should increase, while state funds should be distributed more equitably to those in need.

By 2020, however, Marmot concluded that state spending on the key social determinants of health had fallen, and that the funding was allocated in a less equitable way. He wrote:

“Austerity has taken its toll… From rising child poverty and the closure of children’s centres, to declines in education funding, an increase in precarious work and zero hours contracts, to a housing affordability crisis and a rise in homelessness, to people with insufficient money to lead a healthy life and resorting to foodbanks in large numbers, to ignored communities with poor conditions and little reason for hope. And these outcomes, on the whole, are even worse for minority ethnic population groups and people with disabilities.”

This appears to pose a political paradox. The Conservatives have gained seats in areas that have suffered from the worst outcomes of Conservative policies since the party took power in 2010. As the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank has noted, absolute spending cuts during the austerity years were six times larger in the poorest places than in the richest.

When Byline Times spoke to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham earlier this week – who formerly represented the Red Wall seat of Leigh – he suggested that voters applied blame to both national and local leaders, with local MPs and councils censured for the cut-backs implemented by Whitehall. Services are largely administered by councils, even if the funding is granted by ministers in London, and people saw the retrenchment of local services as at least partly the fault of their local (Labour) representatives.

The Prime Minister’s flagship policy is to “level up” the very areas that the Conservative Party levelled down from 2010 to 2019. If he fails, the poorest parts of the country will have experienced more than a decade of declining health outcomes.

Additional reporting by Sascha Lavin

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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