The Cambridge children who have never seen the River Cam
Children living in the most deprived areas of Cambridge have such limited opportunities that many have never seen the River Cam, an artist working with them has discovered.
There has long been concern about poverty within Cambridge, which has topped the Centre for Cities league as Britain’s most unequal city.
Now Hilary Cox Condron, who works for charity Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination and who is also a county councillor, has spoken out about her heartbreaking experiences while organising workshops in Cambridge schools – including going with pockets full of food because the children arrive hungry.
She told the Cambridge Independent: “Yesterday I took a small group of children to a city council tree belt in north Cambridge. Some of these children didn’t even know Cambridge had a river, despite living about a mile away – and despite us knowing the emotional and mental health benefits of being in open spaces, of access to trees, water and nature.
“That is inequality. We were in this nature area for about 35 minutes. One of the boys said it was the best day of his life.”
Cllr Cox Condron (Lab, Arbury) explained how she “comes away crying” after talking to teachers and children at schools she works with because of the inequality she witnesses.
“I am working at a school that serves the children from my ward in Arbury,” she said.
“One third of the children there are living in homes where the police have been called for domestic violence incidents. There are children sleeping with eight people between two rooms – children who are the main carers for their parent. Children who – because of a school system so focused and pressured on academic outcomes – already feel ‘useless’ by the time they start at secondary school. I take food into workshops knowing there will be children arriving hungry. Some children I work with have never eaten an apple.”
Cllr Cox Condron is worried about the “devastating impact” that cuts to pre-school early learning has had on the development and wellbeing of children, citing the closure of Sure Start centres.
And she added: “The arts continue to be annihilated and cut from school curriculums, when the arts and creativity are at the very core of exploring who we are, our place and connection to our environment – an essential means for our children to express themselves and nurture the imagination needed to visualise new solutions and a better future.”
Her colleague, Ruth Sapsed, who is director of the Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination, added: “When we found out children had never heard of the river in Cambridge, even though it is on their doorstep, it was a real reminder of how small some children’s lives are.
“This is a wonderful city to grow up in. I’m really happy I raised my three daughters here. But they found a real sense of connection to it. They swam in the river, they cycled around, they spent time hanging out in meadows because they felt that the city was theirs to explore and I think that’s a real reminder that many children and families don’t feel that.
“These parents weren’t taken to green spaces themselves as children, their children are now given time for this in school. Those habits that we take for granted need to be encouraged and supported. And that’s why working with children on this in schools is vital.
“We’ve drifted into this terrible place where children’s lives have been drying out. School is so dry now and children are not given time for creativity and imagination and being in nature.
“Schools are straight back under pressure to start catching up. It’s all about closing the gap and this means that they’re not giving time for those sort of really essential things. That actually give us health and wellbeing, which we’ve got to have first.”
Cambridgeshire County Council passed a motion on Tuesday promising to create mental health hubs for young people in the county where they can access help on a drop in basis.
Speaking after the motion was approved, Cllr Samantha Hoy (Con, Wisbech East) said: “We are one of the bottom five counties for funding of young people’s mental health services, while sadly waiting lists remain very high.
“I have heard too many awful stories of young people in crisis to sit back and do nothing. And as I made clear during the meeting this is a non-political issue, so I would like to thank councillors from all parties for supporting this motion. It is now time for action, and I hope today is the first step in making sure young people get the full support they deserve.”
Cllr Cox Condron welcomed the hubs but added that the county needs to put in place measures that would stop young people falling into mental ill health in the first place.
She said: “The mental health hubs are vital – but, in the words of Desmond Tutu: ‘There comes a point when we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.’”
Meanwhile, Cambridge City Council is planning its budget around tackling inequality. The city has previously been named the most unequal in the country by the Centre for Cities on more than one occasion.
The council’s proposals include maintaining a full council tax reduction scheme for residents on the lowest incomes, funding staff and voluntary agencies to help residents maximise income from benefits, and offering discretionary payments to some, distributing more than £1.7m in grants to community organisations working on local projects to help those in most need, and working to reduce food poverty and building more council houses.
Cllr Mike Davey, executive councillor for finance and resources, said: “Last year we introduced our budget setting report by saying that 2020 had been a year like no other – sadly 2021 has proved to be equally difficult for many people, and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and other significant factors, makes financial planning difficult.
“Despite this context, our ambitious but prudent budget proposals will ensure that the council continues to provide high-quality services to residents, to support people in our community who are most in need, to lead the city’s response to climate change and to keep supporting local businesses in difficult times.”
Liberal Democrat housing spokesperson Cllr Jamie Dalzell was unimpressed, arguing: “Labour’s housing budget didn’t bring forward any new schemes to address growing inequality or the climate emergency.”