Have deprived neighbourhoods been left to fend for themselves?

What does the future hold for deprived neighbourhoods? John Low looks at the impact of Labour's policies and the Coalition's approach.

Did Labour’s neighbourhood renewal policies turn the tide for deprived neighbourhoods, asks John Low – and what does the future hold?

England has a long history of successful work in neighbourhoods, so casting an occasional eye back invariably pays dividends.

A report from LSE’s Social Policy in a Cold Climate programme revisits Labour’s record on neighbourhood renewal, assessing how far it realised Tony Blair’s bold 1997 vision for England that ‘no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live.’ The report lists many improvements in health, school attainment, worklessness, and community safety. The savings made from reducing worklessness alone equalled five times the £312m invested.

These gains came about through a multi-pronged approach: targets for Whitehall departments; neighbourhood renewal programmes; extra resources for local authorities; resources for the voluntary sector to build skills in communities; independent monitoring and evaluation.

Labour’s efforts, the report says, sometimes fell short, but are we perhaps expecting too much of neighbourhood renewal? Previous LSE work compared progress in deprived neighbourhoods between 1995 and 2005. In 1995, these neighbourhoods were ‘swimming against the tide’: despite their efforts to improve, broader trends were still pushing these communities further back. By contrast in 2005, the estates were ‘turning the tide’: long-standing problems had been tackled, the economy had improved, and the estates had become more normal. The outcomes were not perfect: but clearly far better than if no investment had been made at all.

In 2010, the new administration contested Labour’s record on regeneration, challenged the extent of change in deprived neighbourhoods and judged it to be a poor return for the public money invested. In any case, micro-managing regeneration at the local level was not a proper role for Government. Under Localism and Big Society, responsibility for neighbourhoods was firmly devolved to the local level, while measures were also introduced to transfer powers to resilient communities and active citizens. Spending cuts have accelerated these processes.

In some quarters, these changes have been welcomed, perhaps nowhere more so than amongst those parts of community and voluntary sector yearning for the freedom to operate outside municipal strictures. There have been some interesting developments, such as Big Local and the Community Organisers, both of which strongly prioritise community empowerment. It is striking though that national neighbourhood initiatives are now mostly arms-lengthed or separate from Government.

Breaking with the pattern of of the last 40 years, Government in England is no longer an active player in neighbourhood renewal. Apart from community budgets, it provides no new resources for neighbourhoods, no lead on neighbourhood policy, no evaluations. Even supporters of Localism policies have started to argue that ‘community empowerment on its own is not enough.’ Looking ahead, how do we think deprived neighbourhoods will fare?

  • Will the withdrawal of investment lead again to widening gaps and significant knock-on costs?
  • How will public spending cuts and welfare reforms affect deprived neighbourhoods? We know already that that many local authorities lack the capacity to analyse these impacts
  • Is there evidence that the work of Local Enterprise Partnerships is having a positive impact on deprived communities?
  • How will the lack of an active central government lead affect the fortunes of deprived neighbourhoods?
  • Labour’s neighbourhood renewal strategy was based on a European notion of social inclusion. Labour’s strategy lies dismantled, but what is the notion for deprived neighbourhoods now? Community empowerment? Hauling themselves up by their own bootstraps? And if they can’t – will they be left to slip backwards, swimming hopelessly against a hostile tide?

The Social policy in a cold climate programme is part of our work on Austerity in the UK.