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Tackling poverty is about making places work better for people

12 February 2019 Author: Stephen Hincks

The currently fractious debates around Brexit prompted me to think again about the issues that compelled people to vote to leave the EU in June 2016.

A collective failure to invest in places?

In part, the Brexit vote is symptomatic of the collective failure to invest adequately and fairly in places. Concerns over housing, public services, jobs, migration, social cohesion, and the sense of marginalisation that were writ large in communities up and down the country were pushed to the fore of public debate.

The fact that these issues are highly unlikely to be resolved on leaving the EU leads to a question that lies at the heart of urban policy: when it comes to tackling poverty and inequality, can more be achieved by improving the circumstances of individuals than can be achieved by improving the places where they live?

This deceptively simple question has been debated in the UK for half a century. Those who favour an individualised approach 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?

The need for a new policy dawn

Over 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 four UK governments (2010-) for various political and economic reasons despite offering important lessons for placed-based urban policy.

The RTPI's report 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. 

The report argues that the built environment can have profound effects on people’s behaviours and opportunities. It 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 that of the social conditions and 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. 

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.

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.

What the RTPI report demonstrates through various examples from across the UK 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.

Rather than labelling planning ‘pointless’, more attention needs to be paid to promoting the ways in which planning delivers 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 expediency.

Planning is not perfect or a panacea for all societal-ills, but without good planning the UK would be a far more unequal and poverty-ridden place. These are lessons that are surely pertinent and in need of concerted attention as we move towards 29th March.

This blog first appeared in June 2016 and has been edited for republication.

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

Stephen Hincks

Stephen Hincks

Dr Stephen Hincks is Reader at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Sheffield.