Borough facing ‘spiral of deprivation’: report

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MANY young people in Larne are becoming trapped in a “benefits culture” and believe they are better off unemployed, a new report has claimed.

A health and well-being profile - the first of its kind - has been compiled and published by the Public Health Agency in a bid to highlight what it describes as “health inequalities” in the borough.

Based on local health data combined with interviews from 77 local people, the comprehensive report details a range of issues such as the average life expectancy for men and women living in various wards and the most common causes of death. The report also studies social issues like parenting, teenage pregnancy and drugs/alcohol abuse.

The interviews took place between September 2010 and January 2011, and one of the main findings was that many of the social problems that exist in Larne, especially within the “disadvantaged estates”, occur due to a “spiral of deprivation”. Participants believed that many parents struggled and faced all kinds of challenges, and there was a general feeling that young people in many cases do not have a stable family environment, having to “fend for themselves and basically bring themselves up”.

Many interviewees from wards with low life expectancies felt benefit dependency was a key issue. It was also determined that of the seven wards with low life expectancy, five had claimant counts above the NI average.

The issue of education was also discussed, and there was a strong feeling that young people in the Larne area did not value the importance of school or appreciate the consequences of a lack of education. Non-attendance was identified as a problem for some schools, as was low educational achievement – the report highlighted that GCSE attainment has been below the NI average for five out of the past six years.

The perception of Larne was another major point of discussion, and even those people who claimed the town was a good place to live felt that Larne is not well thought of “either internally or externally”. This was due to a culmination of factors such as the disrepair of buildings on the Main Street, past tensions within the community stretching back several decades, and a view that Larne suffers from a lack of services.

Meanwhile, teenage pregnancy in Larne was found to be “particularly high” for the past decade, and excessive alcohol use was deemed to be a major problem in the more deprived areas.

The issue of drugs was also raised, with most participants claiming there was “little of no support” in the Larne area for those people with an addiction to illegal substances. However, the report also acknowledged that progress has been made in this area since the interviews were carried out.

Another common issue raised was that of elderly people, with many participants feeling that the older population in Larne was struggling and at risk from fuel or food poverty. Statistics show that 23 per cent of the Larne population is made up of people over the age of 60, which is 3.3 per cent higher than the NI average. Further, the projections for 2015 predict Larne will have a higher percentage of people aged 60 or more (25 per cent) compared to the NI average (21.1 per cent).

Overall, male life expectancy in Larne was found to have increased from 74.8 in 2001/03 to 77.2 in 2007/09, rising above the NI average, while female life expectancy also rose from 80.4 to 81.5 during the same period. However, there are a number of wards where life expectancy is regularly below the NI average, including Craigyhill, Ballycarry, Carnlough, Ballyloran, Blackcave and Central Larne.

The main cause of death in Larne was circulatory diseases from 1999 to 2010, with the exception of 2008 and 2010 when cancer was the primary cause. Deaths due to cancers were generally above the NI average, with lung cancer being the main type.

When the report was presented to Larne Borough Council’s development committee, Councillor Bobby McKee said much had been done to improve the town’s image in recent years.

“The attitude at one time was that Larne was a wee hole, but that has changed considerably thanks to the efforts of council and local community groups,” he added.

Alderman Roy Beggs warned that the report could “contribute to the negative perception of Larne” and claimed there was “another side to the story”.

“As a serving governor at Larne Grammar School, I can say that the recent exam results there have been outstanding and among the best in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Coast Road Cllr Maureen Morrow said it would be “wrong to dwell too much on the negatives without reminding people of the positives”, while Alderman Winston Fulton claimed the report “only shows the downsides” of life in the borough.

However, Ald Jack McKee told Mr McAfee he was glad the report “didn’t gloss over the problems in Larne”.

“We can’t be like the ostrich and stick our head in the sand. But by the same token, it is important to remember that Larne is no different to many other towns in Northern Ireland when it comes to these issues,” Ald McKee concluded.