Money: Streets split into spenders and sufferers

My street is a visible reminder of the huge financial gulf be- tween those of us who have prospered from the booming economy and those who are merely surviving. All the terraced houses are identical. The only difference is between those that are owner-occupied and renovated, extended and generally beautified. And those that aren't.

The balance used to be fairly even. But in recent months there has been a marked rise in the number of builders' vans and skips in the street.

They are even converting the derelict warehouse at the end of the road into loft apartments.

It's a pattern repeated all over the country, although the extremes of wealth are most marked in London.

While the cash rich are content to spend lavishly on their homes and on consumer durables, life for those who haven't got spare cash is getting harder to bear.

The spending boom isn't likely to slow up because of last week's small rate rise. There are still around 10 would-be buyers for every property marketed in some hotspots in London. They aren't likely to be put off by a slight rise in the cost of mortgages.

But the spending boom has led to a massive rise in the number of people reporting debt problems. The National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux (Nacab) reports that 900,000 people sought its help with debt issues in the past year, up 12 per cent overall on 1997/8.

That figure includes people who have mortgage and other housing debts (worryingly, there has also been a surge in the number of people who are being pursued for debts on houses repossessed in the early 1990s).

And the number of people who have problems with credit cards, loans and other consumer debts has risen by a massive 18 per cent.

Nacab puts some of this rise down to the precarious position of people on low incomes. Even a small or temporary drop can be disastrous and force them to turn to credit to keep afloat.

But the easy availability of credit has made matters a lot worse for many people. Nacab says parents have a particularly hard time saying no to their children's demands.

So who should help? The 900,000 people who have sought help for debt are the smart ones.

Many more just try to survive without dealing with their underlying problems. The banks, financial advisers and other mainstream financial institutions have been criticised for ignoring the needs of the less well-off.

A government report due out any day now will call for banks and building societies to offer financial services to those who are currently seen as poor credit risks.

The really encouraging news came on Friday: the Government is to make personal finance part of the national curriculum from September 2000 onwards.

It will take time to filter through the system, but this should mean a radical shift in the way we all view our finances. Once we have a better idea how to manage our incomes effectively, there should be fewer than 900,000 people visiting citizens' advice bureaux for debt advice.

i.berwick@independent.co.uk

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