Health: Touring an inner circle of Hell

Health Check
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LIKE MANY reporters I have enjoyed a few freebies in my time. I have stayed in some swanky hotels and propped up some fancy bars over the past 20 years, although I am older and wiser now and more cautious about accepting hospitality. But none has been as memorable as the three days I spent touring housing estates in Scotland paid for by Strathclyde City Council.

I visited Easterhouse on the outskirts of Edinburgh and was shocked by what I saw. Though the term had not then been invented - this was the early 1980s - it was my first experience of a "food desert", as identified by Sir Donald Acheson, the former government chief medical officer in a speach last week.

I was working for New Society, the social policy magazine, so I was used to covering stories about the poor. But nothing prepared me for what I found at Easterhouse - an estate of decaying tower blocks housing 60,000 people, isolated, bleak, and unimaginably depressing. This was not just a food desert - it was a social, cultural and economic desert, too.

There was, at the time, a single shop serving a community the size of a small town. There was no cinema, no swimming pool, no library, no park - and above all no colour. It was a place abandoned in a half-grey light, forgotten by and cut off from the living world.

At the time I lived in Hackney, east London, which then had the distinction of being the most deprived borough in England. It qualified for this title on the basis of its high number of unemployed, single parents, elderly living alone and overcrowded housing.

But when I returned from Easterhouse and went shopping for cheap fruit and veg in Ridley Road market, with its crowds of bargain hunters and smell of toffee apples and bagels; when I took my children swimming in Hackney Baths and then to Victoria Park or the Rio Cinema, I thought that if this was deprivation, Easterhouse was sunk in some deeper circle of Hell. I am told things have changed in Easterhouse since. There has been huge investment, a new supermarket and much else besides. But as Bob Holman, a former social worker and Easterhouse resident for 20 years who has done more than anyone else to publicise its plight, explained in Saturday's Independent, the problems are still grave.

And as our reports from Breadline Britain have proved over the last few days, it is not only people but communities who are impoverished. Deprivation derives from lack of money, which we can all understand, but also from lack of access to resources which we who live in more prosperous communities - and I include Hackney - take for granted.

In health terms, as Sir Donald has spelt out, the greatest impact of restricted access to good, cheap varied food is on pregnant women bearing the next generation. Mothers who eat a poor diet in pregnancy tend to have lower birth weight babies who, in turn, are more likely to develop chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes in middle age.

Targeting these women should be the priority, he will say in his report on health inequalities to be published in the next few weeks.

Attracting retailers into deprived urban and out-of-town estates and persuading them to sell affordable, nutritious food is an essential first step. Ministers are considering ideas including establishing food co-operatives, doing deals with supermarkets to supply cheap own-brand lines, and a review of the planning regulations.

Until an oasis has been created in the food desert, there is little chance the social and cultural deserts can be helped to bloom.