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Tackling poverty and inequality needs to take account of place, not just people

27 May 2016 Author: Dr Stephen Hincks

In this guest blog, Dr Stephen Hincks from the University of Manchester asks whether when it comes to tackling poverty and inequality, more can be achieved by improving the circumstances of individuals than can be achieved by targeting the places where they live.

 Greater Northern Square Manchester Photo Credit Alan Stanton

Great Northern Square, Manchester. Photo credit: Alan Stanton/Flickr.

When it comes to tackling poverty and inequality, can more be achieved by improving the circumstances of individuals than can be achieved by targeting the places where they live?

This deceptively simple question has been at the heart of urban policy debates in the UK for half a century. Those who favour an individualised approach to tackling poverty and inequality often point to evidence of how personal capabilities, skills, aspirations, and family circumstances directly affect individual outcomes and life chances. This line of thinking has been particularly marked in recent policy agendas in the UK, most notably around welfare and planning reform.

But are approaches that target the individual enough on their own to reduce poverty and inequality? This piece discusses whether there is a rationale for better harnessing the potential of places as a way of enhancing opportunities and individual potential.

The need for a new policy dawn

Almost 40 years of research suggests that targeting individual circumstances on their own will not be enough to reduce poverty and inequality and that individuals are directly affected by the health, educational, housing, and employment opportunities that are available to them in the places where they live. This evidence, it seems, has been conveniently dismissed by the last two governments for various political and economic reasons despite offering important lessons for placed-based urban policy. The new report published by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) – Poverty, place and inequality – contends that these forgotten lessons need to be rediscovered and used to promote a new era of place-based initiatives to combat poverty and inequality in a more holistic way than has been the case in the recent past. 

The report argues that the built environment can have profound effects on people’s behaviours and opportunities. Whilst clearly needing to be mindful of the limitations of previous area-based initiatives, the report draws on evidence of how problems such as worklessness, low incomes, lack of aspirations, and ill-health are not simply a reflection of individual circumstances but are also a reflection of the social conditions and the opportunities that are available to people living in a particular place. Indeed, many of the root causes of deprivation and social inequality are bound up in the quality of the neighbourhoods, streets, and local economies in which people live. The devastating impacts of welfare reform on the most disadvantaged individuals have been compounded by a policy culture that is neglectful of the unevenness of opportunities within different places. 

In arguing for a ‘return of place’ in wider policy thinking, the report contends that a stronger focus on place-based programmes of intervention could do much to reduce poverty, inequality and the social problems that stem from them. Yet the benefits of any place-based approach will only be fully realised if these are aligned with socially progressive and redistributive people-centred policies. To date, the devolution and localism agenda has been overly concerned with maximising opportunities for economic growth but important questions linked to social justice have been neglected. What is striking about many of the devolution deals that are being rolled-out across cities in England is their often explicit commitment to tackling ‘dependency’ without any comparable commitment to tackling poverty, deprivation and inequality. There are opportunities for local authorities to tackle such problems through New Development Deals, Tax Increment Financing, and the retention of business rates. However, the pervasive reach of economic growth agendas emanating from central government suggests that, in all likelihood, many of these redistributive opportunities will be wasted unless tangible commitments to tackling place-based poverty and inequality are embedded within new devolution deals.

The commitment to tackling place-based poverty and inequality also requires the adoption of a more comprehensive definition of social justice than is currently being used by central government departments. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has defined a set of social justice indicators that they are hoping will influence how government, private and voluntary sector partners provide services at national and local levels. However, missing from the framework developed by the DWP are any measures of the quality of the local environment. Government funded research has shown that environmental conditions have a significant bearing on local quality of life and opportunities and so addressing this deficiency is critical to tackling the root causes, rather than merely the symptoms, of poverty and inequality.

And so it might be assumed that David Cameron’s announcement to create a new scheme to regenerate 100 of the most disadvantaged housing estates in England in January 2016 would have advocates of place-based policy singing from the roof-tops. Clearly, after an extended hiatus in placed-based urban policy, the intervention is certainly welcome. However, the proposal is riddled with uncertainties and limitations that give cause for much concern rather than optimism.

At the heart of the programme is a new £140 million public fund that will be used to pump-prime the planning process, enable temporary rehousing of affected residents, and offset early construction costs. However, there is no overarching regeneration framework to accompany this newly launched programme – it is to be published later this year. The Programme’s lack of strategic direction is palpable and the level of funding attached to it carries a sense of tokenism rather than a serious commitment to place-based urban policy. But perhaps the most worrying feature of the Estates Regeneration Programme is the fact that the funds will be used predominantly to incentivise the private sector to deliver change on the ground. Yet, with the exception of passing reference in the prospectus accompanying the programme to establishing a set of protective guarantees for tenants and homeowners and the inclusion of a ‘due diligence’ form that partners will be required to complete, there is little indication of how government oversight will operate to safeguard residents from the risks of gentrification, led by the private sector.

Seemingly, the government is placing significant emphasis on the role of the 17-strong member Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel to oversee the Programme. This group of experts have been brought together to “…ensure that there are strong protections in place for existing residents so they will always be given the right to return to their communities”. However, this panel doesn’t involve direct representation of local communities, academics and researchers who have been working on publically funded regeneration and urban policy research, or local authority planning officers that have contributed to deliver high quality, urban design-led regeneration. Granted, in the press release that accompanied the announcement of the Estates Regeneration scheme, it is pointed out that the advisory group will work with individuals, groups, and external agencies as part of the programme of works. But surely it makes sense to draw on the expertise of these individuals, groups and agencies rather than relying on their passing involvement if, as David Cameron suggests, we are to “…learn the lessons from the failed attempts to regenerate estates in the past”.

Planning: a critical link in tackling place-based poverty and inequality

In government and policy circles, much has been said and written about how planning is an impediment to economic growth and acts as a drag anchor on development. It is not uncommon to read in policy statements or to hear in interviews with politicians that planning is too negative, overly bureaucratic and inefficient, is too slow, and that it puts developers off when it comes to investing in UK PLC. A comment in David Cameron’s statement for the launch of the Estate Regeneration Programme captures all these nuances in a nutshell. He declares that progress has been impeded by “…a raft of pointless planning rules, local politics, and tenants’ concerns about whether regeneration would be done fairly”, and goes on to state “And if we’re honest, there often just wasn’t the political will and momentum in government to cut through all of this to get things done”.

What the RTPI report demonstrates is the extent to which planning is widely misread, and how planning can be used in progressive ways to help tackle placed-based poverty and inequality. Various examples from across the UK are documented in the report, which illustrate the positive effects of planning-led interventions on the lives of ordinary people. The lack of attention given to these progressive outcomes of planning is not a reflection of the fact they do not exist, but is testament to a political agenda that is intent on reducing the reach of the state and its influence on the way people live.

And so, rather than labelling planning ‘pointless’, more attention needs to be paid to promoting the ways in which planning delivers positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes; the necessary ingredients to tackling place-based poverty and inequality. Equally critical is the need to demonstrate how planning can lead to more equitable futures by engendering a culture of democratic accountability, fairness and scrutiny in decision-making, rather than seeing these as functions to be circumvented for political and economic expedience. Planning is not perfect or a panacea for all societal-ills but without planning the UK would be a far more unequal and poverty-ridden place.

Guest blogs do not necessarily represent the views of the RTPI.

Dr Stephen Hincks

Dr Stephen Hincks

Dr Stephen Hincks is Senior Lecturer in Spatial Planning at the University of Manchester.