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Life Expectancy Wirral

The Wirral peninsular is a beautiful yet, in some senses, divided area. Despite pockets of great affluence, it is in the lowest 20% of deprived districts nationally. Life expectancy for those on the River Mersey side of the Wirral is 11.6 years less than those on the River Dee side. This project was developed in response to this situation, with one central aim: To enable Christian communities to respond to the issues surrounding the unacceptable differentiation in life expectancy on the Wirral.

The impetus for the project came when the Bishop of Birkenhead heard the statistics about the gap in life expectancy between East and West Wirral through a conversation with the Chief Executive and Leader of Wirral Council. “When I heard about this inequality expressed in this difference [in life expectancy] I was shocked and convicted. I went away and thought if the churches across the Wirral can’t do anything about this we should be shot. I knew about the inequality, but something about this bare fact expressed the wrongness of what I seemed to be taking for granted.”

The need was demonstrated by the statistics for life expectancy and the Indices of Deprivation which were taken from the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. The Wirral is a peninsula set between the rivers Dee, on the west, and Mersey, on the east. According to the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2007, Wirral is the 60th most deprived of the 354 districts in the country. The IMD places 32 of Wirral’s Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in the lowest 5% in England. According to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) the greatest levels of child deprivation are found in Birkenhead, Tranmere, Bidston and Seacombe.

A number of significant factors contribute to the ‘gap’ in life expectancy between the east and west sides of the Wirral. Deaths from cardiovascular disease are twice as high in the most deprived areas of the borough, compared to the rest of the borough overall. In addition, smoking rates are twice as high in areas of deprivation and mortality from digestive disease (including liver disease and cirrhosis) are almost three times higher in these areas. Rates of emergency admissions to hospitals in deprived wards such as Bidston and Birkenhead are twice as high as those in more affluent wards such as Clatterbridge and Heswall.

The Life Expectancy Project

The Project began in 2009. The chosen method for achieving the aim of enabling Christian communities to respond to the gap in life expectancy across the Wirral was to bring two groups together from different churches – one from a rich and one from a poor area. The two groups were to be guided through a series of discussions in which issues of poverty and life expectancy would be examined. The process would encourage the groups to think about how they could engage with these issues. The project was planned around a five stage model, following a study, action and reflection process:

· Stage One - Listening to the World, including examining local statistics and learning about local poverty.
· Stage Two - Listening to the Word, discussing Biblical perspectives and thinking about Christian responses.
· Stage Three - Exploring and Connecting, sharing views and experiences and discussing how to respond to the issues raised in stages one and two.
· Stage Four - Responding and Applying, reflecting together on a possible project or actions that would engage with poverty and life expectancy issues.
· Stage Five - Sustaining – including evaluating the pilot project and considering extending the work.

Stages one and two were undertaken by the groups separately over the course of three facilitated sessions. Stages three and four brought the groups together and stage five is ongoing. It was hoped that through the sessions each group would learn more about local deprivation, find out about each other’s areas and understand the Biblical imperative for engaging practically with the issues that surround poverty.

At first, a pilot project was established bringing together two Christian communities from either side of the Wirral to work in partnership. They were the Church of the Good Shepherd in Heswall, one of Wirral’s most affluent areas, and Christ Church Birkenhead, one of the most deprived. Groups from the two churches each went through a preparatory phase of training, research and study, led by trained facilitators, and then came together to work in a collaborative partnership to consider the issues of quality of life and life expectancy, identify appropriate responses to those issues and to work out how to implement those responses.

It was recognised that a successful and sustainable connection between the two groups would be crucial to the outcomes of the project. This would offer an opportunity to develop a creative relationship with mutual goals and a shared commitment to learning from each other. However, this was also understood to be a complex process with many potential pitfalls. Much thought, therefore, was put into the development of the relationship between the two groups, with a number of recommendations adopted to strengthen and maintain it. These included building ‘ownership’ of the project within the two groups’ wider churches and opportunities within the sessions to strengthen and share group identity through telling local and personal stories.

The Project’s evolution

An evaluation of the pilot project concluded that it had been a success and that the model should be replicated more widely. A ‘summit’ event was held in 2010 to report on the pilot scheme and to receive feedback and suggestions for future development of the work. Over 100 people attended from churches of different denominations across Wirral. A follow up meeting was held later in 2010 for churches and local councillors where feedback and ideas for future direction were gathered. A further Summit is planned for September 2011.

Various resource materials have been created:

· A resource pack for facilitators to use with future pairings. The initial process and session content has been modified significantly in response to the evaluation of the pilot and subsequent comments.

· A four page workbook, Understanding the language of the nature of poverty, for use by groups or individuals, to consider the nature of the language used and the attitudes held in relation to people who are experiencing poverty.

· An attitude survey that can be used at the outset with people involved in the project and again at the end to determine how far there has been any change.

· A video to tell others about the project.

The pair of churches involved in the pilot identified short, medium and long term goals to work towards together. Later other churches began the pairing process (St Bridget’s, West Kirby, St Oswald’s, Bidston, Laird Street Baptist and St Mary’s, Upton) and several more are keen to take part in future pairings.


The project is managed by a Steering Group, chaired by the Bishop of Birkenhead and comprising the Joint Director of Public Health, representatives of participating churches, Wirral BESOM Project[1], Forum Housing Association, the Diocese of Chester and lay people from different denominations on both sides of the Wirral. The main leadership came first from the Bishop of Birkenhead and then from the Steering Group.


Initially there was a need for funding, church premises for the meetings, volunteer time for facilitation and evaluation and support from Public Health in supplying statistics and maps. There is a continuing need for church premises and volunteer time plus funding for the part-time Co-ordinator’s salary (14 hours per week).

Funding has included grant aid from CUF and the Diocese, donations from Forum Housing Association and church giving. Financial security is always very short term. “We go up to the wire, then a bit more appears.”

Non-financial help has come from the Diocese in employing and managing the Co-ordinator; from other churches in providing volunteers and from the Health Service in providing data and other support. The main form of additional support required would be greater financial security.


The two volunteer facilitators involved per pair of churches each give at least 26 hours which, calculated on the basis of the minimum wage, amounts to £312 and other volunteers give time in fundraising and other types of support work as well as on the Steering Group. All these are skilled people who in practice would earn far more than the minimum wage.

Links with other projects or organisations

Locally, there has been a connection with Voluntary Community Action Wirral (VCAW): feedback indicated the lack of communication between churches and between them and the statutory sector and there was a suggestion of starting a database. However VCAW was also in the process of creating a database for all voluntary organisations and therefore Life Expectancy Wirral worked with them to develop the resource and churches were encouraged to send material to them.

There has been consultation with Church Action on Poverty as well as reference made to a booklet produced by the Media Trust, the Society of Editors and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for the production of the workbook, Understanding the language of the nature of poverty.

The project is involved in a consortium including Catholic Children’s Society, Homestart and Tranmere Community Project that has submitted a Lottery bid to work with a certain number of families over five years. If the funding is won (outcome expected in July 2011), the work would include the social determinants of health such as isolation. The Church’s contribution would be aspects such as social networking and support groups. The work would also adopt an assets-based approach to poverty drawing on work by Church Action on Poverty.

There have been conversations with CUF about the possibility of using this model in London.


There were various outcomes from the partnership between the groups from the two churches including:

· Wider community events in Birkenhead encouraged the local community to engage with support services. For example, the Health Action Team attended an Attic Sale and Summer Fair and gave advice and basic health checks to people they would not otherwise have met.

· A strengthened and supported local church in Birkenhead is better able to deliver responses to life expectancy issues. For example, there are plans for an upgraded church kitchen that can be used to provide cooking courses to young people to address concerns around healthy eating and budgeting.

· People’s pre-conceived ideas have been challenged and members of the group from the church in West Wirral, having learned about poverty and gained insights into its realities from the perspective of those living in poverty, became more motivated to continue to participate in the project.

Success factors

The project represents “the church doing what it is good at” – slowing down the process to have time to develop relationships. Steps were taken to put people at their ease especially when the churches were brought together. For example, the first joint meeting incorporated having a meal together. Having skilled facilitators and good resource materials was therefore critical to success.


The main practical barrier is funding. However, the project has also underlined the need to change attitudes and overcome inaccurate preconceptions about people in poverty. There was some problem in getting wealthier churches to participate. A video has been created to promote Life Expectancy Wirral, which aims to address some of the concerns of church that are apprehensive about taking part.

Challenges and opportunities

Funding will continue to be the major challenge, but there are a number of ways in which the project could develop further:

· having mentors in schools;
· having the equivalent of street pastors in parks;
· doing more work on the asset based approach to sustainable livelihoods.

At present, the Steering Group are awaiting the meeting planned for September 2011, which may elicit other ideas and will help to inform the future management structure of Life Expectancy Wirral..

Wendy Robertson

[1] Local Besoms helps people make a difference by providing a bridge between those who want to give time, money, things or skills and those who are in need and ensuring that what is given is used effectively.