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Time to think anew about the role of place in poverty and social mobility

08 May 2015 Author:

Inequality and who has benefited so far from the economic recovery have been important topics in the debates running up to the general election. These debates have also had a strong spatial dimension. For example, in London a recent report by the LSE and the University of Manchester has shown that the richest 10% of Londoners were a quarter wealthier in 2010/12 than before recession, while the poorest 10% of Londoners lost nearly a fifth of net income over a similar period. Danny Dorling’s London Mapper project has visualised spatially insights into the state of poverty and inequality in London.

The first thing to consider is that social and economic issues are inseparable. Inequality has a high social cost, as demonstrated in work such as the Marmot Review of health inequalities and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, among others. But there is also increasing understanding the economic cost as well; for example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has shown that income inequality has a negative impact on growth.

However, too often the debates around these issues have lacked a spatial dimension, at least in much mainstream media coverage. For example, in reductions in public spending have had different impacts spatially; among others, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report has shown that cuts have hit the most deprived areas the hardest. More broadly, many national welfare policies are spatially blind; for instance high basic living costs mean that the introduction of the benefit cap has a much larger impact in London than elsewhere – 45% of households seeing their benefits reduced are in the capital, as Maire Williams of Centre for Cities argued in a blog post.

Yet some economists such as Paul Cheshire, Max Nathan and Henry Overman (in Urban Economics and Urban Policy) and Edward Glaeser (in Triumph of the City) have argued that the focus of policy should be on people rather than places. This would mean supporting people to achieve better individual outcomes regardless of where they live, increasing geographic mobility so that it is easier for people to move to successful areas, and reducing the barriers to the expansion of these areas.

Who is right? Although ‘people’-oriented programmes such as education or employment support are crucial, the concentration of inferior housing, inadequate infrastructure and poor employment opportunities in some places can reinforce the levels of deprivation experienced by the community. Having to move and leave your home, friends and family in order to live with somewhere with good infrastructure and services should not be the only way out for people living in poverty. Public services have a vital importance in neighbourhoods of high need and low private resources, which raises concerns about the effects of further reductions in public spending. Poverty has dimensions which relate to income but also to the built environment, such as food poverty, fuel poverty or transport poverty. Spatial dynamics can fuel the creation of inequality and social exclusion.

Place matters alongside people – just like the economy and society, they are inseparable. Yet the lack of funding for area-based initiatives and regeneration in England over the past few years suggests a neglect of place. No targets were set in relation to neighbourhood inequalities and spatial inequalities were not monitored; further, the mechanisms by which mainstream programmes were aligned with each other to meet the needs of poor neighbourhoods have been discontinued.

Can we really tackle poverty and inequality without looking at the role of place? The question of patterns of poverty and inequality and their spatial distribution, and/whether this has been shaped by policy interventions or the absence of policy, remains relevant. That’s why the RTPI is developing research on place-based initiatives to tackle inequality and poverty. While the future of special area-based initiatives is unknown, we should aim to tackle poverty and inequality issues in a way which is sensitive to place, combined with universalist, structural approaches. It’s not either ‘people’ or ‘places’. Where people live affects people and their life chances.

If you would like to contribute to this research project please email