Poverty-stricken children across Cumbria are living in cramped, squalid conditions that affect their health, development and ability to learn.

These are the findings of a new report launched today by the Child Poverty Forum West Cumbria, which both highlights the problem and calls for action.

Across Cumbria, there are now almost 20,000 youngsters living below the breadline.

In the worst-hit areas, including Sandwith in Whitehaven, nearly half of all children are classed as living in poverty. In others, including parts of Carlisle, Workington and Maryport, roughly a third are affected.

Former headteacher Willie Slavin is chairman of the West Cumbria Child Poverty Forum and a trustee of the Howgill Family Centre in Whitehaven.

He is among those who have compiled the new report, looking at the impact of poor housing on children’s life chances. “If you read this report we get a picture of the reality many are facing. These situations are all too common for disadvantaged families.

“When I was a headteacher I was always aware that once children left the cosy, warm school premises, I had no control of what happened to them until they came back the next day. The house they went to was where they were for the majority of their time,” he said. “We imagine a warm, cosy, nurturing environment but often that is not the case.”

The report includes hard-hitting real life stories of families struggling to make ends meet in Allerdale and Copeland - and the conditions their children are living in as a result.

In one, a single mum with five children, aged between two weeks and seven years, is living in a small two-bedroomed home which she rents privately. Four of the children sleep in the same small room and there is no washing machine, so the mum has to take all of their dirty clothes on the bus to a relative’s house. As a result, the children often wear the same clothes for a week.

Dan Tremelling, team manager at Barnardo’s in Allerdale, said: “You can just about open the door to the bedroom. There are four beds literally stacked one next to the other. There’s no room to play, no floor space.

“They can’t move house because mum has a history of debt problems, of rent arrears. The problems she and the children are experiencing are not new to this family and are intergenerational. This was of living seems okay to mum. This is what she has known and how she lives.”

Mr Tremelling also tells of another situation involving a family living in social housing.

The parents and two children, including a baby, moved to this property for a new start.

“In reality, water damaging electrical fittings and plaster caused endless problems affecting their ability to use their bathroom and kitchen. Their social landlord has not responded well and relationships between tenant and landlord deteriorated,” he said.

“As a consequence of repairs not being done, the family are unable to redecorate or fit a carpet they have saved for, and the baby wasn’t allowed to crawl around because there was bare concrete no parent is going to put a child down on, so he spent a lot of time either in his mum’s arms or in his pram. All this has a knock-on effect on the child’s development.”