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Neighbourhoods and communities
Deep poverty and destitution

Reflections on 30 years of neighbourhood interventions

We need a profound and persistent compact between neighbourhood and nation, with long-term, patient investment in locally-led regeneration.

Written by:
Julian Dobson
Date published:
Reading time:
6 minutes

At the turn of the millennium Stephen Jacobs, director of a regeneration partnership in east London, wrote of his vision for the Canning Town neighbourhood to become somewhere ‘ordinary’ (Jacobs, 2000). His point was that local people didn’t want to be better off than their neighbours or to get rich, but simply to live in an area where local services functioned properly and they could go about their everyday lives without being stigmatised as poor or deprived.

Canning Town has changed in many respects, but its poverty problem is stubborn. Despite millions of pounds of housing investment, partly designed as a misguided attempt to change the social mix of the area rather than the living standards of those already there, Canning Town still ranks in the second most deprived decile in England. Food banks and similar charities have become entrenched features of local life.

Unfortunately, the true ‘lesson’ of past efforts to root out hardship at the level of neighbourhoods is that it is something we’re not very good at. In 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report with the telling title: ‘Person or place-based policies to tackle disadvantage? Not knowing what works’ (Griggs et al., 2008). That report examined a swathe of regeneration policies over the busy New Labour decade, to arrive at that uncertain headline. A similar report covering the last 15 years would have to grapple with a different history, an era of disinvestment in public services and a retreat from enthusiastic attempts at ‘joined-up thinking’. But, beyond the general observation that policymakers need to set out much more clearly what they intend to achieve, through what means, and how we can know if it’s working, it’s not obvious that it would reach many firmer specific conclusions.

A lost opportunity

There have been moments when it appeared as if a coherent set of foundations for regeneration were starting to be laid. Perhaps the high point was the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal of 2001, rooted in a comprehensive analysis of the multiple dimensions of what was then termed ‘social exclusion’, and implemented through specific mechanisms to require local authorities and public services to meet universal minimum requirements for service delivery.

The aim was to ensure equality of opportunity for places (and hence for people within them), such that ‘no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live’ within a couple of decades, in other words, by about now. In addition to focused initiatives such as New Deal for Communities, investment was channelled into improving public services more broadly through multi-year programmes such as the ‘Decent Homes’ drive on disrepair in social homes.

However well-intentioned, these programmes drew criticism for excessive bureaucracy, detachment from distinctive local aspirations, and a failure to invest expertise, time and resources in capacity and leadership. During the 2000s, reviews (and in some cases reforms) of social enterprise, the voluntary sector and the practice and process of transferring of assets to community-based organisations generated much discussion but didn’t succeed in spurring much consistent investment.

Such local frustrations eased the reversal of policy in 2010, when the Coalition Government abandoned New Labour’s aims and targets and devolved powers to communities through policies such as neighbourhood planning, vaguely encouraging wider resident-led action under the banner of a ‘big society’, pitched as an antidote to the excesses of Big Government.

Alongside these initiatives went a systematic defunding of local government, initially justified by post-financial-crash austerity but continued with little interruption for the next 12 years. The long-term impacts are now being felt as a succession of local authorities, recently including the largest one in the country, serving Birmingham, lapse into the public sector equivalent of administration.

Rebuilding foundations

The story of the last decade and a half is not simply one of policy failure, addressing the right issues with the wrong methods, although there has been much of that. It is also one of inattention. Policy cycles run for a few years in service of fluctuating political objectives, while neighbourhood challenges continue for lifetimes, irrespective of the party in power.

What’s needed is almost the opposite: a profound and persistent compact between neighbourhood and nation. The austerity years have underlined anew that a neighbourhood’s wellbeing requires a foundational level of security. Until housing, education, crime and public health are addressed consistently, local initiatives are fated to swim against destructive currents, and most will eventually sink. The ‘community anchor’ organisations that have survived, organisations like Manor and Castle Development Trust in Sheffield and Back on the Map in Sunderland, have done so largely because they could acquire assets and revenue streams in an earlier, more generous period.

The Lottery-funded Big Local scheme stands out as a positive, demonstrating the value of long-term, slow-burn investment in locally-led regeneration. It has supported relationship-building and initiatives that felt meaningful to local residents. But many Big Local schemes have been forced to use their resources to backfill holes left by unravelling public services. There was also a glimmer of hope when the pandemic thrust communities and neighbourhoods to the fore, with a kaleidoscope of mutual aid and local imagination emerging from the shared experience of lockdown. But it was short-lived: the relationships that grew out of the pandemic were seldom nurtured subsequently.

The broader record veers between damage and drift. But we must not conclude that this is because the issues are fundamentally insoluble. Rather, where communities are concerned it is plain that the state failed to deliver its side of the bargain. The Levelling Up White Paper of 2022 is a case in point, a set of laudable aspirations mooted without any acknowledgement of the need to provide credible means to achieve them.

A change in culture

The management consultant Peter Drucker observed that culture eats strategy for breakfast. He might have added that culture turns policy into toast, given how few crumbs remain from the 3 and a half decades since Margaret Thatcher’s little-remembered 1987 declaration that she would revive the ‘inner cities’. What’s needed is a different culture.

What matters for a neighbourhood is its long-term orientation, not the latest bright ideas in SW1. To borrow from the American polymath Donna Haraway, we need commitment to ‘stay with the trouble’. This means backing the energy, anger, determination and hope that still exist in many of our hard-pressed neighbourhoods with the consistent, patient, committed support that generations of activists have continually asked for, repeatedly been promised, and then repeatedly had snatched from them.

There is no shortage of ideas or encouraging experiments concerning how, for example, to nurture deep and trusting relationships, or how to build local wealth within just and sustainable parameters. From ’asset-based’ approaches that recognise the skills, knowledge and connections of local people (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003), to Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2012), to community wealth building (Dubb, 2016) the approaches are there, just waiting to be adopted and adapted.

But without genuine and equitable partnership between community and state, we are left with the sporadic and passing bursts of localised practices for making-do, a collection of care and repair and ‘meanwhile’ activities necessitated by the continual retreat of those who have the power and the money to generate the conditions that make neighbourhood renewal possible. The making-do is worth celebrating, but not the short-termism that leaves our poorest places on an ever-circling carousel of interventions.

About the author

Julian Dobson is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University.

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