‘This is a place of great need’ - Inside the Bristol neighbourhood with the lowest life expectancy for women

‘People here have more of a mountain to climb’

The volunteers at the Withywood Centre food bank are aghast.

I’ve wandered in on a chilly Tuesday, hoping to speak to someone who knows the area well - and the kindly group have taken me under their wing.

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They listen patiently as I go off on a tangent about a small town in Nottinghamshire where I used to live, but gasp in unison when I tell them that the one-bed flat I rented there set me back a whopping £350 a month.

“That is ludicrous,” says one. “We’re talking about £900 for a one-bed down here, at the very least. And that’s just south Bristol.

“It’s no wonder that people are struggling to put food on the table.”

The Withywood Centre.

While flitting from one side of the room to the other with trollies of donated tins and pasta, volunteers tell me they aren’t at all shocked to hear is that Withywood currently holds the lowest life expectancy for women across the city.

According to new data from Public Health England, women living in Withywood can expect to live for 77 years.

That’s 13 years less than women living in more affluent areas like Clifton Village and Henleaze, where you can expect to reach the ripe old ages of 89 and 90 respectively.

The life expectancy gap across the country is a growing chasm that has been all the more exacerbated by coronavirus - something food bank volunteers know about all too well.

Tracy Phillips is the community development manager at the Withywood Centre and manages the food bank on her days off.

She said: “I love Withywood. The people are not only deeply honest, they are generous - all the food you see here has been donated by the local community.

“But these figures don’t surprise me at all - this is an area of great need.”

Food bank manager at the Withywood Centre, Tracy Phillips.

A food bank volunteer doesn’t just pack donations, it’s a pastoral role.

Tracy and her colleagues are always there to lend an ear, comforting clients who come in ‘desperate’ and ‘ashamed when they really don’t need to be’.

“We have improved the area over the year but thanks to the pandemic, funding is even lower than it was,” she adds.

“And on top of that, our client numbers are growing because of this hiccup involving the £20 dip in Universal Credit.

“That might not seem like a lot of money to other people but for someone living on benefits it’s a huge difference.

“South Bristol is often missed, forgotten about.

“If the government wants people to live longer, they need to chuck some money at it, urgently.”

According to a Quality of Life report published this year by Bristol City Council, Withywood is one of the most deprived areas in the city.

The report found that 39 per cent of residents are living with an illness or health condition that affects their day-to-day life.

While 555.2 per 100,000 deaths in the Withywood and Hartcliffe ward occur prematurely - ‘significantly worse’ than Bristol’s overall average of 377.5 deaths.

Figures also show that 68 per cent of residents are overweight or obese, 23 per cent of households smoke and less than half of residents are getting enough regular exercise per week.

And 42 per cent of residents feel that crime affects their day-to-day lives.

Diane Ramm, an elderly lady having lunch in the on-site cafe, reiterated this problem.

She has lived in Withywood since the 1960s and thinks the area has deteriorated over the decades.

Diane told us: “It doesn’t surprise me to hear women here are dying early in Withywood, although I do know a lot of women who are living here with cancer.

Diane Ramm has lived in Withywood since the 1960s.

“In the earlier days it was good, but now not so much.

“Housing is an issue, and there are problems with vandalism and drugs.

“I feel safe in the Withywood Centre but not once I’m outside.

“I get abused in the street a lot - people shout at me because I ride my mobility scooter on the pavement.

“Whether you get looked after or not depends on your friends and neighbours. I’m lucky because I have good friends.”

Other residents aren’t up for commenting, but one shouts over to me: “There’s nothing at all for kids.”

There are plenty of people dotted around the cafe having a coffee and a bicker, now engaged in discussion about what’s great and not so great about the suburb.

The building is also home to numerous other services including Age UK, South Bristol Advice Services and IntoUniversity, a charity that aims to help disadvantaged young people gain a place in higher education.

Councillor Helen Holland at The Gatehouse Centre.

It’s an over-used phrase, but unassuming hubs like the Withywood Centre really are the lifeblood of the community - tackling loneliness, alleviating the impacts of poverty, instilling belief.

All these things help to improve the life expectancy gap.

A short walk away is a similar scheme called the Gatehouse Centre, where we meet Councillor Helen Holland.

She has represented this ward for 30 years and is already well aware of the life expectancy gap between it and the wealthier parts of the city.

She told us: “Sadly, it’s one of a basket of indicators that show that this area is one of the most disadvantaged in the city and actually one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country.

“That often surprises people because, on the face of it, Bristol is a thriving city.

“People don’t think about those areas of high deprivation but we’ve got them here in Bristol and this is one of them.

“I think we need to be careful about telling the story of the city in a way that more deprived areas feel doesn’t reflect them.

“Some of the inequalities here would be around things like school achievement.

“Even though many of the schools here are good or outstanding schools, some children aren’t coming into the classroom with the socialisation or language skills you’d see in areas where people might be better off.

“There’s more fear of crime here, more domestic violence and incidence of smoking is still very high.”

Interestingly, Councillor Holland thinks high smoking rates may be due in part to the legacy of the Wills tobacco factory that operated in Hartcliffe from 1974 to 1990.

But the solution to these problems won’t happen overnight, says Councillor Holland, and they need to stem from the minds of those living and working here.

“What we’ve learned is that solutions that come from outside won’t be as beneficial as solutions from those who understand the fine grain of the community,” she added.

“What I mean by that is residents, businesses and organisations that have grown from the needs of Withywood and Hartcliffe.

”It’s across so many policy areas. It begins with the best start in life, working with mums-to-be and their babies, which we already do through the children’s centres and nurseries.

“There are some amazing organisations here but there’s no doubt that 10 years of austerity have impacted on the public services they spend.

“Though the city council supports them in whatever way they can, they have had to fight harder for grants and bids.

“People also need to take more responsibility for their own health but doing that in a way that comes from what people need, not what others are telling them they should be doing.

“Then there are the long-term issues like accessibility, transport and the reliability of the bus service.

“All of those things come into the picture.”

Councillor Holland has watched the ward evolve over three decades and isn’t going anywhere yet.

“I wouldn’t have been here all this time if I didn’t think this place had so much going for it,” she said.

“I love the setting of the area, the green spaces we’ve got and the opportunity for people to use these green spaces to improve wellbeing and physical activity.

“I love the strength of the community and the incredible organisations working hard to make a difference.

“I do think there are tremendous assets and people do love living here.

“They just have more of a mountain to climb.”

Upon launching in early October, BristolWorld started Level Up Bristol, a campaign that aims to shed light on the vast inequalities of the city despite its immense wealth.

We believe it’s wrong for a city that attracts huge investment to also have one in seven of its people living in the most deprived areas of the country.

We stand to highlight inequalities across the city, shine a light on those making a difference and hold those in power to account.