Geoff Mulgan: Living in the wrong postcode can shorten your life

From a speech by the director of the Institute of Community Studies to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation centenary conference in York

Britain in 1904 looks at first glance like a foreign country: 40 per cent of families had no running water or sanitation, landowners had a veto on laws and most adults didn't have the vote. Yet in other ways it's not so distant: 10,000 British citizens alive today were alive then, and we share with the Edwardians the divide between a tiny minority of the super rich, and poverty entrenched in precisely the same places that Charles Booth mapped in his surveys.

The favelas of Rio and the slums of Mumbai have little in common with a depressed fishing community in north-east Scotland. But we know that where you are born or live shapes what you become, whether through the direct impact of crime or schools, or less directly through contacts and opportunities. As you travel eastwards along London's Central Line, every stop means a year lower life expectancy. In parts of England there are wards where no one has a university education and streets where no one has a job.

After the sharp rise in poverty in the 1980s, a lot of progress has been made: unemployment has fallen sharply, child poverty is coming down, school results have improved fastest in poor areas and many of the grimmest estates are being improved.

But its unlikely to be enough. We need not only money, drive and imagination but also political commitment over many decades. As HR Mencken once wrote, "for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat ... and wrong." But a country that has successfully contained the once intractable problems of mass unemployment and high inflation should be able to put poverty into the history books, and end forever the situation where having the wrong postcode is a life-threatening condition.

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