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Cabinet position aims to tackle poverty in deprived areas of city

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 26, 2012

Ryland Doyle

Ryland Doyle

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TARGET Areas is another new cabinet position created by Labour — and it could leave you scratching your head as to what it means.

Essentially it is targeting areas of the city which are deprived and in desperate need of greater attention.

The councillor tasked with this responsibility is Ryland Doyle and the wards highlighted are Townhill, Penderry and the top half of Castle (the areas north of the train station).

Mr Doyle's experience lies with helping to tackle poverty in deprived areas, spending a decade working for Communities First, the Welsh Government's "tackling poverty agenda".

So far, Mr Doyle has been looking at what needs to be done, where and how.

One of the councillor's biggest concerns is the life expectancy gap between Swansea East and Swansea West —13 years.

But in the two and a half wards listed as target areas, that gaps widens further. In Townhill the gap is nearly 17 years, where the average life expectancy is 67, compared with 84 in parts of the west.

Something, Mr Doyle says, needs to be done.

Another issue is children in care (known in the authority as looked-after children, or LACs). A report in July said there were 550 LACs in Swansea, but 277 were from the target areas.

"That's an astonishing figure," Mr Doyle said. "Especially as these are relatively small geographical areas."

Child poverty is high in these areas. In one primary school located in these wards between 80 and 85 per cent of pupils receive free school meals — the Welsh Government's marker for child poverty.

However, the average for the target areas hovers around the 70 per cent mark.

In order to qualify for free school meals, parents must be on a certain level of benefits and tax credits.

"We have been trying for some time to have a concerted, targeted approach," Mr Doyle said

"My role is to begin to focus the council departments to think about these areas.

"We need to look at them when setting budget proposals, working with partnership agencies so we can progress, making sure the focus is on these issues."

So, what is the focus? To get people off benefits if possible, and out of poverty.

"We need to look at employment issues and upskilling people to make they are well places to take advantage of any job opportunities," he said.

"If they are on benefits, we need to make sure they are the correct levels of benefits.

"But welfare reform will be the biggest challenge many people in the target areas will have faced in some years."

The coalition government in Westminster has been rapidly overhauling the UK's welfare system.

Changes include a reduction to housing benefits and benefits being paid directly to the claimant. Housing benefits will be reduced based on the number of empty bedrooms they have.

Changes coming in next year include size criteria assessment for under-occupancy.

It calculates those needing one bedroom as one adult aged over 16, a couple, two children of the same sex aged between 10 and 16 and any two children under 10.

So if a family made up of one couple and two girls aged 13 and 15 live in a three-bedroom house, they would be under-occupying and have a spare room.

In certain circumstances a families could lose £14 a week per spare room.

The trouble is, Swansea Council doesn't have enough houses to move everyone around. And legislation around building more homes is so complicated, it is almost impossible to do.

So the council is having to look at all options when it comes to homes. And if it did have lots of homes, Mr Doyle said, it would create a problem of having to move people around once they outgrow a home, or if the children move out.

But this goes against what Mr Doyle thinks social housing should be.

"It comes down to what we see council housing as being," he added. "Are they stop-gap measures, or are they homes for life? That's what they should be."

Managing their own finances on a monthly basis will also be a challenge.

Mr Doyle wants the housing department to put people in touch with credit unions, such as LASA in Swansea, to see what can be done to help this people in a financially responsible way.

Mr Doyle also would like to see people educated about managing their money — and this responsibility may well fall to the council.

Libraries will also feel the strain of the new welfare system, he said, with the government setting targets of 80 per cent of claims being made online.

In the target areas, only 25 per cent of homes have internet access, so they will be likely to head to their local library to make that claim — if at all.

In the meantime, Mr Doyle has been visiting schools and community groups to talk to them about how they feel.

"They do see themselves as deprived," he said. "But they do not often talk about the issues which most people link to poverty, like those the Welsh Government use as indicators.

"We're taking a long-term approach — this isn't something that can be done in two years. These areas need long-term investment and commitment of resources."

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