NO matter how many times mum Stephanie washes down and repaints the walls of her two-bed flat, the dark patches of mould reappear.
She claims its spores have left her and her three-year-old son with chronic asthma which is sometimes so severe, they can barely breathe.
10Weston-Super-Mare has some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UKCredit: Nigel Iskander10The cost of living crisis is deepening residents’ troublesCredit: Nigel IskanderBut she says her private landlord, who charges her £750 a month to live in this damp ground floor flat, has refused to treat it.
Like every landlord in Weston-Super-Mare, he knows he’ll have little trouble re-letting it if she moves out.
In a nearby street in this poverty-ridden corner of the UK, her friend Jess has similar problems at the maisonette she shares with her three children.
Unlike Stephanie, Jess was able to secure her property through a local housing association, who charge her just £420 a month for her similar-sized home.
Such are the inequalities fuelling the raging poverty in the once-affluent seaside town on the Somerset coast.
Add to that the cost of living crisis, rampant inflation, soaring energy costs and a collapsed local economy, and it is easy to see why many in the town have lost hope.
‘What kind of a world is this?’
“What kind of a world is this for my son?” Stephanie shrugs as she stands with her arms round him at a bus stop, in an area of the town so poor that it consistently ranks in the top one per cent of the UK’s poverty tables.
A 2015 poverty study – one of the most thorough ever conducted – by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government found that nine neighbourhoods in Weston-Super-Mare were among the most deprived in the UK.
Blinking against the low February sun, Stephanie adds: “It’s costing me just about everything I’ve got to keep hold of this flat and it’s awful.
“There’s damp in every room and the walls are covered in black mould.
“I’ve complained to the private landlord but he doesn’t want to know. He just tells me I’ve got to wash it down and repaint it, which I do, but within a few days, it’s back.
“If I put the heating on and opened the windows, that might help, but the gas and electric are so expensive now, I can’t afford to turn the heating on any more.
“Now I’ve developed asthma for the first time in my life and so has my son. The doctor says it’s almost certainly been caused by the mould problem.
“I can’t believe I’m having to pay £750 a month to live in a slum.”
10Rubbish piles up on a corner of an estateCredit: Nigel Iskander10Buildings have been left in desperate need of repairsCredit: Nigel Iskander10The seafront of Weston-Super-MareCredit: Nigel IskanderStephanie is one of hundreds of local residents who in the coming days will take her place in a queue snaking out of the entrance at a local community centre where, thanks to the local council, they can now claim an emergency £40 payment towards household energy costs.
The ad hoc payment is welcome, locals say, but add that it is “a drop in the ocean”.
One resident, who asked not to be named, said: “I’d rather have the payment than not have it, but to be honest 40 quid’s worth of fuel in our house will last about three days.”
The initiative was launched days ago and is not means-tested, meaning all a resident has to do to claim the payment is turn up at the community centre with proof of their address.
Fraser Black, finance and resources manager at the centre, said that for many elderly residents in the community, the payment could be “a life saver”.
“Any extra money that can be provided to keep people warm this winter can only be a good thing,” he said.
“Many have lived without heating this winter because they simply cannot afford to put it on. If this helps get people through a cold spell, it will save lives.”
The centre’s food bank, which opens three days a week, has been emptied by the “unprecedented” demand in recent weeks and crowds swell around the rails crammed with donated clothing in the foyer.
A thriving café offers heavily discounted fresh food and there’s a GP surgery and library all under the same roof at the lottery-funded enterprise, which was founded in 2003.
10Mark Graham, CEO at For All Healthy Living Centre, says demand for their food bank has doubled in a yearCredit: Nigel Iskander10Many local businesses are shuttered upCredit: Nigel IskanderCEO Mark Graham says the food bank alone filled more than 700 plates in December – more than double the demand on its shelves a year earlier.
“Today the storeroom shelves are literally bare, but in a day or two they will be replenished. Local supermarkets chip in, we get donations from the public and the sales of second-hand clothing all help,” he said.
“It’s becoming a lifeline for more and more people. The problems people face today are worse than we’ve ever known. These are unprecedented times.
“Everyday essentials – food, heating, water – have become increasingly unaffordable and incomes are going down all the time in real, and sadly, too often, actual terms.
“Private landlords are charging double what the housing associations and local authority charge for rent because they can.
“The cost of living crisis is running out of control now and that is causing huge numbers of people with mental health problems, anxiety and depression in particular.
“Clearly, drugs are a problem too. Our nearest rehabilitation centre has the highest proportion of drug users in the country. We’re top of all the wrong league tables.”
10Residents say soaring rent prices have left them feeling trappedCredit: Nigel Iskander10Despite the hardship, there remains a warm community spiritCredit: Nigel IskanderMr Graham says more than 8,000 people use the centre each week.
One of them, Charlotte Haines, a 40-year-old mother of two, grew up in the area and regularly returns to Bournville.
“I come here to meet up with family and friends, and browse the second-hand clothes rails and books,” she said.
Mrs Haines, a former Bristol Zoo worker now teaching animal management to over-16s at a local further education college, added: “The community spirit here is very strong, which it needs to be with what is happening in the world nowadays.
“Life is tough for people here, but I am always telling my students they must never lose hope. It is important to push through barriers and overcome every challenge put in your way.
“I am doing everything in my power to prepare them for life in a difficult world. I don’t want them to let their minds stop them from reaching their goals.”
Local Labour councillor Ian Parker, who has represented the South ward for the last 27 years, blames “chronic under-investment” for the area’s problems.
He is also concerned many locals have become increasingly isolated since the pandemic.
“My surgery used to be packed with people wanting to talk through their problems but now they just stay indoors,” he said. “The area is becoming a ghost town.
“It worries me that their voices are no longer being heard, which makes helping them even more difficult.
“Those who do come and see me are often having to deal with dreadful struggles with their mental health, usually as a direct result of poverty.
“These health and wealth inequalities need addressing urgently. There are no easy, quick solutions, but without a doubt money would help.”
10Teacher Charlotte Haines tells her students they must never lose hopeCredit: Nigel Iskander
Story Credit: thesun.co.uk