‘Don’t leave us behind’ – is the cry today on behalf of babies in Birmingham and Black Country communities who deserve a more equal chance to reach their potential.
Today we urge Minister for Communities Michael Gove to keep these children, born in some of our most neglected communities, in mind as he works out the details of his grand ‘upgrade’ mission.
Read more: What’s in the government’s upgrade plan? The government is committed to investing in regions in difficulty
Today Birmingham Live and our print partner Birmingham Mail have joined forces with other Reach titles across the North and Midlands to speak with one voice on this issue and ensure we work towards a future where our babies’ prospects are more equal.
Children in left-behind parts of the country – like those featured on Tuesday’s front pages in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle – are much more likely to leave school without good qualifications, have a job poorly paid, suffer health problems and eventually die early.
As part of our effort to define who we think the upgrade should be for, we spoke to parents of two little ones about their hopes and fears — and the challenges facing our newborns.
These are their stories.
Anas, now 10 months old, and Imaani, now 18 months old, were born into very different families and circumstances, but each live in some of the most deprived areas of the city.
Handsome boy Anas lives with his mother and five siblings in temporary accommodation in Newtown, officially the second most deprived and one of the youngest boroughs in the city and in England.
Mom is a refugee from Darfur in Sudan, a country ravaged by civil war and famine, which she fled in the certain hope of a better and safer life.
With her husband, she has six children, all born in England.
The couple are now separated and mom takes care of the six children.
“I used to work as a housekeeper in a children’s nursery with a low salary, but now I can’t go to work because my baby is still very small,” she said.
“We’re on Universal Credit and it’s very difficult to cover our living expenses like gas and food bills.”
She had a car, but was written off after being hit by another car. It was his lifeline.
With six children to transport between different schools and to medical appointments etc., she now has to walk everywhere, regardless of the weather or the darkness of the streets, or rely on public transport.
When asked what she wishes for the future of her baby, she does not hesitate:
“I want my baby to grow up to be a very educated person. I want him to go to college and be a doctor or an engineer. I want him to have enough money to have a better life than mine.
“I pray that he has a long life, that he is healthy and that he is a good person and helps others like an imam.”
His reasons why he might not succeed are all rooted in his surroundings.
“If my baby grows up with bad friends, he won’t work hard. If his school is not good, they will not push him to do well.
“I also think that because we don’t have a lot of money, I won’t be able to pay the extra tuition fees for him to get top marks in his exams or to send him to sports clubs so that he doesn’t stay with the wrong crowd because he’s bored.
Newtown is a neighborhood decimated by municipal cuts.
Two years ago, locals spoke of his “torn heart” as community places were closed.
Saidul Haque Saeed, lead organizer for Citizens UK in Birmingham, who works with community organizations and schools in Newtown, spoke at the time of the “helplessness” felt by locals.
“Parents, teachers, families and churches in Newtown all have a real sense of helplessness.
“Services are going at a rapid pace – the police station is closed to the public, municipal services have been removed from the housing office there, the drum and the community centre, and now the swimming pool, are gone.
“People in this region feel like they don’t matter. It’s really disturbing that they feel so disconnected, while being overlooked by two cathedrals and the skyscrapers of the city, and that they will also be the city’s gateway to the Commonwealth Games.”
I ask Anas’ mother what she thinks the area needs to improve.
“There are a lot of things that need to be improved in Newtown. There is no indoor playgroup for babies or children. There used to be a local children’s center but it moved to Winson Green.
“There are only two swings in St George’s Park in Newtown – only two in an area full of families with young children!
“There’s no room for women’s exercise and gym since they closed the pools (which had women-only sessions).”
It is considered a vital requirement in an area where there are so many Muslim families.
“Our only GP in the area is terrible to reach on the phone in the morning. Even if you show up very early for an appointment, you will be queuing for a very long time and you may not get one.
“Public lighting is bad and there are a lot of landfills. Many drug addicts and traffickers work openly in the region. You will find syringes in the park. The council doesn’t always fix houses, street lights, or even the playground in the park.
“The streets are unsafe, but it’s also scary for families when the towers are full of dangerous people – some with dogs. There were people in the offices (in the blocks) monitoring anti-social behavior and crime, but they left.
And when asked if Newtown is being treated fairly, his response is telling.
“I think Newtown is being treated unfairly. The region needs politicians, the council, the police, the NHS and everyone in charge to show they really care about making Newtown a good place.
“A good place where people can live, work or visit, like they do in the city center next door – it’s like Dubai there,” she says of the city center.
Across town, 18-month-old Imaani lives with her mother and father and two older siblings, ages 12 and 3.
Mum is a part time counselor and full time student, studying for a social work qualification. Dad works in logistics and currently works nights to allow mom to study while juggling childcare.
They own their own house, which they saved up and bought to be close to their since deceased parents.
Imaani’s mother spoke about her hopes and fears for her baby and her family.
What are your hopes for your baby’s future?
“I want her to be safe, to fulfill her potential, to be happy and to get everything she can out of life.”
What do you think could be preventing your baby from achieving this goal?
“I don’t think she’s safe here and I don’t have much faith in the local schools. The only way for her to fulfill her potential is if we can get away from here as things stand.
“On safety, speeding cars, there’s trash everywhere, people are disrespectful, there’s criminal activity and drug dealing, we have HMOs nearby and there’s a lot of shouting and shouting , especially at night. It’s upsetting.
“I can’t imagine letting her walk to school on her own through the neighborhood, because of the cars and the condition of the neighborhood.”
What do you think your region needs most to improve?
“MPs and local politicians need to sit down with residents to come up with an action plan and make things better – from the condition of the streets to the quality of schools to traffic problems. We would like the police to act against drug trafficking.
“We would like wheelie bins – that would be a big improvement, there would be less litter scattered around and fewer rats. More cameras could help stop people stealing.
“They need to spend more money cleaning the sidewalks. I hate walking in the area, lots of broken glass, dog poo, it really is a mess.
“Local populations must also do their part. People are not proud of themselves, I see people taking children to school in dressing gowns, it’s a bad example.”
“My eldest wants to cycle to school, but I don’t think it’s safe. I have never seen anyone riding a bike here. So they need to set up separate bike lanes, that would be helpful.
“We are very close to the M6 and Spaghetti Junction, the air we inhale is not fresh, it tastes like fuel.
“I have to drive because I have to take the kids to two different schools and then me to work in the morning, so without a car life would be very difficult.”
Aston is among the most deprived areas in the city (ranked 11 out of 69) and has the ninth lowest average income by area.
Fewer people are employed and more people apply for unemployment benefits than the city average.
A third of residents are under 18. Seven out of ten residents are Asian, mainly Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian. Among the others, most are black Africans or black West Indians.
About half of the residents have little or no qualifications.
The area is home to Aston Villa FC and the M6 motorway passes nearby.
“I don’t trust the local schools, they need more investment and more specialist teachers. I fear that my children are not reaching their full potential. It took my eldest three years to get diagnosed with learning difficulties, dyslexia and dyspraxia, the school kept telling us he was fine.
“There are so many things to do. Better partnerships with big companies to invest in the area would help, better bike paths, better street cleaning, parking, pest control – all of those things would make a difference.
“I used to work in Sutton Coldfield, ten minutes away by car, and it’s so clean and the people are respectful. The bar is low here and people’s behavior responds to that.
What do you like in the area?
“Easy access to shops and supermarkets, but above all the proximity to friends and family – that’s a really big plus for us.”
Do you live in an area that you feel has been neglected and needs ‘upgrading’? Tell us about your experiences and what needs to change. Email email@example.com