Comment

Research demonstrating that the north-south divide grows ever wider will come as unwelcome news to ministers. For the people of much of Glasgow, parts of inner-city Manchester and Liverpool, Tyne Bridge and Bermondsey it is rather worse than that. It is yet another premature nail in their coffins.

The same place names recur endlessly in the Townsend Centre report, in list after list and on map after map of the UK's most downtrodden districts: Maryhill, Pollock, Govan, Riverside, Salford, Blackley.

They have the worst infant mortality rates, the most premature deaths, the highest GCSE failure rates, the lowest mean incomes, the greatest incidence of adult unemployment and the highest rates of long-term illness.

But why, despite the government's very public commitment to tackling inequalities, do they continue to worsen? In his introduction to the report, Professor Peter Townsend raises serious questions about the scale of the government's response over the past three years. He is right to do so. As time goes by, it becomes clear that while much of what ministers want to do is well intended and pushes in the right direction, it is simply overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the challenge.

Take, for example, public health minister Yvette Cooper's launch last week of a consultation document aimed at improving the access people living on deprived housing estates have to shops offering fresh food and good quality products.

Even leaving aside Ms Cooper's somewhat naive tone (not quite '. . . and some of them have to take two buses to get to Harvey Nicks. . .' but the undertone is clear), what precisely would be the point of a loan scheme to 'make it easier for retailers to start up new businesses in deprived neighbourhoods' when nobody there could afford to buy their goods?

As Professor Townsend points out, the whole issue of income distribution and living standards has yet to be addressed. Over the past 20 years, the gap in disposable income between the richest and poorest fifths of the population has risen from a ratio of 5:1 to a ratio of 10:1.

And unless and until a government commits itself to tackling poverty, and to the radical redistribution of income and wealth that implies, it cannot expect to make acceptable progress on health inequalities either.

Meanwhile, the coffin lids are being nailed down on the impoverished inhabitants of Maryhill, Salford and Bermondsey a full decade earlier than they would be had they just had the good for tune to be born in Esher, Chesham or Wokingham.