I doubt whether 'timidity' or 'reticence' are the first words on the lips of many people who have followed the coalition government’s announcements since the general election. Simplification of the benefits system is a case in point. On localism too, where the level of ambition and action so far could not really be described as timid.
But what about when these two concerns – the concern with supporting people to move out of poverty and the concern with supporting institutions and citizens at a local level – are looked at together? And what about places which might be need support to move out of poverty?
Interim findings from our ongoing research on poverty and place gives voice to residents of relatively disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and that voice gives considerable support to notions of simplicity and localism. People can all too easily find themselves constantly negotiating their options in meeting the series of complex challenges that face them – not just in times of recession or austerity but in the good times too. In the words of one interviewee reflecting on the recent recession:
Yeah, we always have a credit crunch anyway; we've had it every year for every day of our lives since we've been married or whatever so it’s no different for us. If you’re a low-income worker, it’s no different from every other day.
And resident experiences in one relatively deprived neighbourhood are not directly comparable to resident experiences in another, however similar the statistical indicators may look. Place does matter. As well as having varying access to economic opportunities, neighbourhoods also have different experiences of access to social resources and community support. Partly this relates to the present, but partly it relates to how neighbourhoods have their own collective histories.
But where do you take a conclusion that rather than being supported to 'beat the odds', people and communities are better served by changing the odds they face? What chance is there of this is an age of austerity, with public spending cuts looming? Well, how about calling in another topical 'buzzword'– fairness? If things aren’t fair to begin with, then an equal distribution of pain may simply entrench the original injustice. Is it too much to hope that national policy-makers and local strategists will be up for making difficult decisions in the direction of fairness too?
Against a backdrop of the recent storm, one little stream of Joseph Rowntree Foundation research has been trickling along for years. It's about environmental services (street cleaning and the like) and has considered such issues as whether poor neighbourhoods always get a fair deal (they don't) and whether remedying this would always and necessarily cost more (it wouldn't). But it has sometimes been hard – or more complicated than it need be – to make changes that would make things fairer because of a lack of local political appetite.
So even – or perhaps especially – in the middle of a big society tightening its belt, the state needs the courage to risk being seen as a little bit unfair if it is to achieve outcomes that are truly socially just. When it comes to taking the hit, one size should not fit all. Skewing resources towards people or places in greatest need might be necessary. So come on politicians, policy-makers and local strategists – be brave!