Wednesday 28 May 2014

Why the Improvement Service is wrong on this one

This morning the Improvement Service, the organisation that is “Supporting Scottish Local Government and its partners to deliver better outcomes for communities” has a lot of coverage in Holyrood magazine for some research it has done looking at the “outcomes” in the most deprived 330 datazones in Scotland, the middle 330 datazones, and the least deprived 330 datazones, according to SIMD.

This has got me extremely riled and angry, but I am going to try and remain reasonably calm as I argue my case. The head of the Improvement Service, Colin Mair, is quoted as saying:
“The relationships examined represent neighbourhoods rather than individuals or households, which raises another significant observation: people born into a deprived neighbourhood in Scotland have a higher chance of being income deprived, of needing emergency hospitalisation, being a victim of crime, and achieving poorly in education. In this respect, the neighbourhood in which you live can have a substantial impact on your future experiences and outcomes.”

Now, essentially, this boils down to the Improvement Service proving that margarine causes people to get divorced. I cannot easily find the full report of the IS’s research to see if these points are addressed in it, but here’s the reasons why the reporting of this report, and seemingly its interpretation, are wrong.

Firstly, the SIMD is an index of measures of things like income deprivation, emergency hospitalisation, crime victimisation and educational attainment. If lots of people do badly in these indicators in a neighbourhood, then it will be low down in the index. That is what the index measures. Basically, all they are reporting is auto-correlation – that something is correlated to itself. If every single person in Scotland had the same outcomes, there would still be a “most deprived” and “least deprived” neighbourhoods in Scotland due to natural variation, it’s just the differences between them would be very slight and down to natural variation.

Secondly, Colin Mair speaks of people “born into” deprived neighbourhoods. The only longitudinal measure – i.e. a measure of the same thing over different points in time – that the SIMD includes is the datazone boundaries themselves. We can say nothing about the individuals within it. Between any two data points of the SIMD, the population of the neighbourhood might have completely changed. We can see this happening as the most deprived neighbourhoods slowly depopulate – by the 2013 SIMD they had about 14% of the population, as opposed to 15% if the population was randomly distributed – and the least deprived neighbourhoods increase in population. In the most recent SIMD the least deprived neighbourhood – Meggetland in Edinburgh – had a population 800 people too high. The Scottish Government know this and are thinking of redrawing the datazone boundaries, the trouble is if you do that the data is no longer comparable over time.

Thirdly, the SIMD is a relative measure of deprivation. This means two things that weaken this study. It cannot measure “affluence”; the indicators chosen mean that once you get into the top of the index it becomes pointless, as all the measures are focused on characteristics of deprivation. You cannot meaningfully say there is something different between a neighbourhood with one unemployed person and a neighbourhood with two unemployed people. Secondly, the datazone rankings move around a lot because neighbourhoods change. The most succinct way of summing this up is the knowledge of the residents of Ferguslie Park that there neighbourhood “became” the most deprived in Scotland not because it got any worse, but because places that were more deprived in Glasgow were demolished and the populations dispersed.

All we can say is that a third of all Scotland’s socially rented housing is in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland making up two-thirds of the housing in these neighbourhoods, and house prices are substantially lower. Subsequently it is housing allocations, spatial planning and housing markets that create deprived communities. Basically, we have historically put all our social housing in large estates; now it is people in greatest need who need social housing, so these neighbourhoods become concentrations of need and deprivation.

If people “born into” these neighbourhoods had worse outcomes, then we would be talking about neighbourhood effects existing – that is, an effect on life chances from living in a neighbourhood, that is over-and-above the effects of poverty, unemployment and other factors on the individual. And it’s fair to say that the evidence for the existence of neighbourhood effects in Scotland is mixed. A few years back Atkinson and Kintrea(£) identified very small effects on education and health, but nothing to justify the sort of language used by Colin Mair. More recently, van Ham and Manley (£) used actual longitudinal data from the Scottish Census, via the Scottish Longitudinal Survey, to look at whether neighbourhood had any impact on the chances of being employed on individuals. They found no evidence for a neighbourhood effect – the higher concentration of poor employment outcomes (i.e. being unemployed) was simply down to people having to access housing in these neighbourhoods.

From this though, I do not want to say that the neighbourhood does not matter at all. It just does not matter in the way the Improvement Service argue. Services should be targeted at deprived neighbourhoods, but not because if we “fix” these neighbourhoods we suddenly will solve the problems of inequality – we will not as the majority of people experiencing poverty do not live in the most deprived neighbourhoods. But you can make specific useful interventions: there is evidence that targeting employment initiatives at people living in deprived neighbourhoods gets you a bit more “bang for your buck”; the concentration of socially rented housing in these neighbourhoods means a third of all disabled people in Scotland live in these neighbourhoods, so you’d disproportionately help those people. Also, we do need to recognise because of the specific concentration of poverty and deprivation in these neighbourhoods they do need greater investment in basic services like environmental services (street cleaning etc.). The inverse care law is still in place.

What worries me is that the language used by the Improvement Service does two very bad things. Firstly, as I’ve argued here, it continues the pathologising of deprived neighbourhoods – blaming them for the problems that other people have lumped on them, without recognising the broader structural causes, especially the operation of housing allocations and markets. Secondly, it feeds into the deeply problematic “early intervention” agenda that has been the rage since the “cycles of poverty” literature of the 1960s, and as I highlighted last week was utterly demolished in the 1970s. Like the idea that there are “families with three generations of people who are workless” this idea that if the all-powerful bureaucrat sails into households and communities and tells them to pull up their socks and behave in a good, middle-class way, then they won’t be deprived keeps coming back again and again. To borrow a phrase used to described intergenerational worklessness myth, it’s like shooting zombies(£). But it’s a zombie I’ll keep shooting. As I argue here, yes we need a focus on place in Scottish social policy, but we cannot pretend this is going to solve wider structural problems in our whole society regarding wealth and income inequality, poor public services and entrenched spatial inequality as a result of historic planning decisions.

Finally, if we were serious about changing outcomes in neighbourhoods in Scotland then we would stop focusing on the bottom and focus at the top – demolish Morningside and Milngavie and turn them into mixed communities.

I’ve included a lot of links to paywalled academic papers in here – do get in touch if you want copies. 

And I’ve written this in a rage and quite quickly, so apologies for any egregious errors; as I say I could not easily access the Improvement Service’s actual report, so this is more of a reflection on the way it was interpreted by Holyrood Magazine.


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