For Dr Anna Livingstone, who campaigns for Keep our NHS public, it is “scandalous but unsurprising”. Livingstone is referring to figures that the healthy life expectancy of women in Tower Hamlets, at 55.9, is the lowest in the UK.
“This is the borough where we have some of the wealthiest of the world in the financial Towers of Canary Wharf, and this is just the average,” she says.
Tower Hamlets had some of the worst health scores in the UK, and the worst score for women’s health expectancy according to last week’s Office for National Statistics report. What was shocking about this low score was the disparity between Tower Hamlets’ lowest score for women’s healthy life expectancy and Richmond Upon Thames’, which has the highest score despite being just miles down the Thames.
Tower Hamlets suffers from inequality, not just with its fellow London boroughs, but also within the borough itself. The 2012 ‘Time to Act’ report produced by the council revealed that there is 11.2 years difference in life expectancy for men between the richest and poorest in the borough, and 6.5 years difference for women.
In the most deprived ward, 11.5 per cent of babies are born with a low birth weight, compared to a London average of 7.5 per cent. A low birth weight speaks to health of the child, but is also indicative of maternal health.
Dr Livingstone, who has worked as a doctor in the area since 1983, thinks cuts are to blame. She said: “Lives are increasingly depressing and restricted. The slashing of benefits can be devastating for the mental and physical health of those already unwell, for whom there really is no prospect of ever managing work. I see women distraught, unable to look after themselves and suicidal. In the NHS and through the local government, we have all tried to work to reduce health inequality, but so much is beyond our control.”
Tower Hamlets reflects the UK’s wider problems with inequality. There are rich bankers in Canary Wharf, but also huge levels of long term unemployment.
It was described by Giles Fraser, chair of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission, as: “one of the richest and one of the poorest parts of Britain”. As the ‘Time to Act’ report says: “There is arguably nowhere in the country where inequality is more pronounced.”
A similar report to last week’s was released in 2014 by the ONS, when it was discovered that England’s poorest will live nine years less than the richest and the 2016 report highlights that nothing has changed despite those appalling figures.
According to the report, The Tower Hamlets economy is worth £6 billion per year, more than Monaco, Malta and Jersey, and provides 230,000 jobs. This wealth is not distributed, as 49 percent of children in the borough live in poverty, the highest proportion in the country.
Despite investments in the area, there are still a huge proportion of residents on low incomes in overpriced and overcrowded housing.
“There is some of the worst overcrowding in the country and the shortage of social housing and reduction of eligibility for it means people are stuck [in undersized housing], homeless or families may have several children sharing their room, and family support is broken up,” said Dr Livingstone.
A clear indicator of poverty in an area is the number of free school meals, and a rate higher than 35 per cent is considered high band in the Department for Education’s statistics.
In 2011, the same year of the data that the ONS used for last week’s report, it was reported that 56.5 per cent of secondary school pupils in Tower Hamlets receive free school meals. This was over twice the national average of 18 per cent in English state schools.
A council spokesperson said: “Premature death rates are closely linked to poverty and deprivation — where Tower Hamlets scores highly — as well as lifestyle factors such as poor diet or smoking. However, we are working hard to tackle the biggest health issues such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and tobacco use that have a huge impact on life expectancy, as well as dealing with the wider issues, such as poor housing, in the borough.
“We have developed a health and wellbeing strategy which we are currently refreshing with partners across the council, NHS and non-statutory sectors to improve health in early years, provide foundations for healthy lives, increase early detection of long term health conditions and improve mental wellbeing. This also links to wider council strategies to tackle poverty, increase educational attainment, improve housing and improve the physical environment which can impact on health outcomes for our residents.”
Healthwatch Tower Hamlets said, when asked about the report: “[We] are extremely concerned about the poor health expectancies in Tower Hamlets and the capacity of the NHS and the local authority to respond under increasing cost pressures. We’re particularly concerned with the figures for women as often they are the key drivers of healthy lifestyles for the whole family. We’d like to see more work with the community as a whole to tackle these issues. People can’t depend on the NHS or public health to sort out problems we all need to work together.”