Bad news about hardship in Suffolk like ‘a bullet between the eyes’

Suffolk offers many attractive scenes,
but alongside the beauty is significant deprivation.
PHOTO

Suffolk offers many attractive scenes, but alongside the beauty is significant deprivation. PHOTO: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Clare, Countess of Euston, isn’t mincing her words. “There shouldn’t be 20,000 children in Suffolk living in abject poverty. It makes my blood freeze.”

There are lots of good things going on in Suffolk. Here, Lady Euston plants a tree to mark the openi

There are lots of good things going on in Suffolk. Here, Lady Euston plants a tree to mark the opening of Potsford Care Farm's new building, just outside Wickham Market - Credit: Su Anderson

Clare, Countess of Euston, isn’t mincing her words. “There shouldn’t be 20,000 children in Suffolk living in abject poverty. It makes my blood freeze.”

The recent academic study suggesting nearly half Suffolk’s neighbourhoods had become more deprived over the past five years was – says the Queen’s representative in the county – like “a bullet between the eyes”. She explains: “What was shocking was we presumed it was going to be better. I did. I really did.”

Suffolk’s Lord-Lieutenant offers an illustration that should wipe the scales from the eyes of anyone believing Suffolk is uniformly chocolate-box-perfect.

Lady Euston’s understanding is that most people seeking help from local food banks are couples – two parents working but still unable to make ends meet. “And that is really wrong. Life is very, very difficult. I’m shocked, actually, Steven. Ten years ago we had no food banks; now, I think we’ve got something like 54.”


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On Tuesday – in an unprecedented move in terms of scale and breadth – dozens of people will gather for a rural summit to talk about what is going wrong and how it might be remedied. They’ll include philanthropists and farmers, representatives of voluntary organisations and charities, police and magistrates, health practitioners, delegations from local government, folk from churches and the world of commerce.

It’s not going to be a time of hand-wringing or pointing the finger of blame for perceived failures of the past, but of ideas and a united determination to make life better for people. The aim is to draw up a robust strategy – to understand why things are this way and find answers that work. “The prize is so great,” says Lady Euston. “I feel very strongly that everyone coming, individually, can make a change for the better, but, together, the possibilities are infinite.” And she adds: “If we cannot together do something to make a significant difference, I will be astounded.”

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Providing much of the impetus for this initiative is that Hidden Needs report prepared by the University of Suffolk for grants-making body Suffolk Community Foundation.

Business success in Suffolk should be celebrated and serve as inspiration. Here, Lady Euston present

Business success in Suffolk should be celebrated and serve as inspiration. Here, Lady Euston presents the Queen's Award for Enterprise to Richard Vass, of Burland Technology Solutions in Great Blakenham - Credit: Archant

Published at the end of September, it said Suffolk was “still relatively advantaged”, but there were pockets of really severe deprivation in nearly all parts of the county.

Compared with the whole of England, Suffolk was less deprived and more advantaged – more than half its neighbourhoods among the 40% least-deprived countrywide. Yet a neighbourhood in Kirkley, Lowestoft, was the 10th most deprived in England, and parts of Ipswich were among the “worst” 10%. Extend that to the most deprived 20% and we find parts of Bury St Edmunds, Great Cornard, Combs Ford and Felixstowe.

More than 83,000 people in Suffolk contend with income deprivation – 5,000 more than 2011. This is 12% of the county’s population and includes 20,000 children and 25,000 older people.

While most deprivation is found in large towns, 28% of income-deprived people live in rural areas.

Deprivation was defined as being more than financial – though that is a big influence. Rural isolation is also a major factor, with the loss of services such as GP surgeries leaving people vulnerable if they don’t have the use of a car.

For Lady Euston, who has spent most of her adult life working within the voluntary sector, the new report validates years of niggling concern about pockets of hardship within a county that, in many ways, appeared pretty comfortable.

Suffolk Community Foundation issued its first Hidden Needs study in 2011. Its findings then were a wake-up call. While many households were indeed prosperous, others faced significant disadvantage and unmet need.

“When Hidden Needs came out, it really was a shock it was like that. On all the indices of deprivation, Suffolk had been coming out very ‘average’, and we all thought ‘That’s not brilliant, but it’s not too bad.’ But it was average only because the really affluent bits skewed the average. I was shocked to see that even round where I live” – between Bury St Edmunds and Thetford – “some of the villages came up among the ‘worst’. I thought ‘I drive through these every day…’ It was really shocking, actually.”

Clare, Countess of Euston. 'I feel very strongly that everyone coming, individually, can make a chan

Clare, Countess of Euston. 'I feel very strongly that everyone coming, individually, can make a change for the better, but, together, the possibilities are infinite.' She adds: 'If we cannot together do something to make a significant difference, I will be astounded' - Credit: Alex Kilbee

Hidden Needs 2011 wasn’t simply filed in a drawer and left to gather dust. Lady Euston says it did influence initiatives and policy in Suffolk, such as with public health. “It was pushing on an open door.”

And, since then, thoughts about rural hardship have never been far from mind.

During her spell as president of the Suffolk Show in 2014, “I noticed that when they were founded in 1832, one of their main charitable objectives was the relief of rural poverty. So that just rang a little bell”. She had an idea that saw Suffolk Agricultural Association launch a rural lifeline fund in 2014.

Lady Euston was also a trustee of Suffolk Community Foundation, and says chief executive Stephen Singleton “always said that whatever was said about urban deprivation, you could bet your bottom dollar it was worse out in the rural areas, where there was a lack of access to services”.

If you lack transport out in the countryside, or if your own mobility is hampered, it can be hard getting anywhere. “Services have been quietly disappearing, without us almost noticing: post offices closing, pubs closing, fewer buses, fewer day services for older people.” Then there’s patchy mobile phone coverage and not-so-fast broadband.

Another conversation Lady Euston had was with Roger Finbow, chairman of Woodbridge-based charity Seckford Foundation. He understood the concerns. As did Community Action Suffolk, an umbrella group supporting organisations in the voluntary and social enterprise sector.

The new Hidden Needs report was a seismic jolt and provides urgent impetus for change. “What has depressed me is the fact that after five years, instead of even holding steady, we seem to have got worse. We have slipped back. Dramatically,” says Lady Euston.

It was particularly shocking because the county hadn’t twiddled its thumbs. “People have put in huge effort over the five years – we’ve got more community shops, good neighbour schemes, the hospices have got fantastic schemes with hundreds of volunteers – but why is it getting worse?”

The Hidden Needs report, 2016

The Hidden Needs report, 2016 - Credit: Archant

Those four partner organisations mentioned above, Lady Euston and others decided a major conference was vital, “but we’ll call it a summit because it’s got more sense of urgency. It’s become more urgent because the last three big pieces of research, this year, have all shown that Suffolk, for some reason, is getting worse – and getting worse faster than any other county.”

The summit will – will – start trying to find the answers and, it’s hoped, draw up a workable strategy. But there are immediate things that can be done.

For one, we could try being a little less modest and stoic – charming Suffolk traits that often act as a ball and chain. Lady Euston remembers a conversation with someone from the lottery fund, who wondered why there were so few applications from Suffolk. It seems we don’t push ourselves forward. Others do.

Then there are all the good things going on in the county… it’s just that we prefer not to make a fuss about them.

“There are fantastic projects going on. Community shops, car-sharing, pubs taken over by villages, the good neighbour schemes… but, being in Suffolk, you sometimes feel we’re not all talking to each other.”

If we banged the drum a bit more about our successes, other towns and villages might be inspired to follow those examples – and the team behind an established community shop, pub or older folks’ lunch club would probably be happy to pass on the benefit of their wisdom. “Because we aren’t a ‘show-off county’, we work together very well, I think. We don’t say ‘This is my pigeon.’ We keep egos out of it. I’ve always found Suffolk is really good at genuine partnerships. People pick up the telephone and have a chat; not send thousands of bossy emails. It’s our hidden strength.”

At grass roots, there’s much that can be done to improve life. We can all be a good friend to a neighbour, for instance. The message of Hidden Needs can also be used to try to lever grants and funds for worthy causes – to open that community shop or buy chairs for a new older folk’s social club.

We can also try to persuade central government to put its muscle behind a corner of the UK that needs a bit of a lift.

Lady Euston says we’re lucky that Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Thérèse Coffey in the summer became Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“She has always spoken to me about her worries about what happens ‘beyond the grid’, as she puts it.” Where there’s no mains gas, for example. “I think it is something with which she will help us. She’s got a very open ear about it.” On a positive note, we can already point to evidence that uniting behind a robust locally-drawn plan, and refusing to accept the status quo, works. Not so long ago, Suffolk was woeful at helping its under-fives reach a “good” level of development. Five years on, it’s now pretty much on a par with England as a whole. Similarly, the Raising the Bar initiative to improve standards in education is definitely bearing fruit.

The summit is bound to come up with more ideas behind which the county can unite.

Speaking of which, there was talk of delegates being asked to write a pledge on a card – something they or their organisation could do to help – sticking it on a board and promising to fulfil it. Will they be asked to do that?

“They must! I’ll say they won’t be allowed out of the door until they have!” laughs Lady Euston. Seriously, she says: “I know there are solutions. Think of this summit as the first step. I know we can do some-thing.”

The talent is there. Let’s help it fly

Clare, Countess of Euston, has an MA in modern history from London University. Are there any lessons of the past from which Suffolk can draw inspiration?

“I was always terribly impressed by John F. Kennedy when he brought all those young people from Africa.”

This was 1960, when the then senator convinced the Kennedy Foundation to pay for the flight to America of about 250 students from Kenya and half a dozen other East African countries. Their chances of higher education were very limited under the colonial regime in their homelands.

They studied in American universities and more African students followed. Many returned to their home nations to do good work, and there was at last one Nobel Peace Prize winner among them.

What became known as the student airlift indirectly helped a young Kenyan called Barack Obama to study at the University of Hawaii. He’d marry an American student. Their son is, of course, the current US president.

Lady Euston finds inspiration in the stories. “We need to find a way of bringing exceptional people out of the woodwork, to help us. Exceptional Suffolk people – of whom there are lots.”

She’d like to see a situation where the county is able to help fund talented local people with ideas and see if those ideas take off.

Lady Euston spent many years working with The Henry Smith Charity, which had a project like that in Northern Ireland – backing likely candidates for four years. “They picked 10 and I think six did something exceptional and two did something ‘OK’. It wasn’t a bad strike rate. It was about looking for the people.”

There are already local success stories that should serve as inspiration, and whose experience might benefit the wider good of Suffolk.

In Acton, near Sudbury, for instance, Lady Euston recently presented ProSynth Ltd with its Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

It might have only 18 employees, but overseas sales have grown by 90% over three years and the firm provides complex chemistry services for research and development work at some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies.

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