Friday, 24 February 2012

The return of place in Scottish Public Policy

I've recently won a contract to do a rapid literature and data review of place-based policies - effectively area-based initiatives - in Scotland. I've previously blogged about the fact Scotland, last year, announced a regeneration policy, which is more than the UK coalition government could manage. But doing this review has highlighted to me the degree to which place is making a big return to Scottish policy, and not in an altogether unproblematic way. For example, the Christie Commission report, in its chapter on inequalities states:
"Living in an area with poor quality housing, low employment rates and high crime levels impacts on the health and wellbeing of all those that live there and perpetuates both the generational and geographical experience of poor outcomes. The most acute levels of deprivation tend therefore to be highly localised, with a spatial clustering of poor outcomes. Evidence indicates that tackling these multiple problems in isolation addresses neither the experience of negative outcomes through people’s lives, nor their root causes." p.56

We do have some evidence that neighbourhood, or area-effects, do exist in Scotland (see, this paper, for example) but they're not as strong as this paragraph in Christie makes out. Also, as I argue in regards to a similar equivalence (i.e. list) in this paper, presenting things in this ways hides logic, or suggests logical links that are not necessarily there and "blames" the neighbourhood for problems that are not of its making. This report is another example of this.

This does seem to be a worrying and growing trend in Scottish policy. Christie is full of references to "failure demand" and it seems that people are making the same mistake as they made in the 1980s - seeing failure in particular neighbourhoods and presuming the solution must also lie there - see Alasdair Rae's excellent paper on this which effectively disentangles the various scales at which neighbourhood problems are linked. The emphasis on early-intervention in Scottish policy seems to be another driver of this turn to place. It seems we presume that all children brought up in certain neighbourhoods will be neglected so we must concentrate our efforts at those neighbourhoods. Growing Up in Scotland demonstrated that around 40% of Scottish children will experience poverty at some point in their lives. Living in one of the 15% most deprived neighbourhoods did increase the chances of living in poverty, but certainly did not cause poverty. 

I'm not against the spatial targeting of policy. As I argue in my most recent paper, it actually seems that in our desperate rush to get away from area-based policies we've lost what they were really good at - producing obvious, meaningful change in neighbourhoods. But they are never going to tackle severe inequalities across society.

Back in the 1990s Scotland has one of the world's most ambitious area-based initiatives running in four neighbourhoods - New Life for Urban Scotland. So I'm told, at devolution, someone from the Welsh Office got chatting to someone from the Scottish Office, and lo and behold Wales gained its own version of New Life in Communities First. Now, while Scotland dives headlong back into non-strategic area based interventions, the WAG is changing Communities First, after a very critical audit report highlighted many of the weaknesses found elsewhere, including Scotland, before. Wales is now moving to a "strategic" approach to regeneration that Scotland adopted in 2002 and is now dropping.

Es ever, drop me an email (or the other authors directly) if you want copies of papers behind paywalls and I'll see what I can do.


  1. No offence Peter, but 1 or 2 of your academic colleages have been promoting strategic approaches to regeneration for years and according to recent evaluations of regeneration in Scotland, this approach has failed too many people, too many places, too many times. I am an academic myself. However, their agendas was primarily to get funding for their research, to get published and write conclusions based on what the funders wanted. There has and continues to be an entrenched and self-motivated dishonesty by those who call themselves academics. What people don't get is that life does not begin and stop in neighbourhoods in both a spatial and temporal sense. Horizons are broader, deeper and embedded beyond the datazone or lower level SOA. Problem is, we have too many middle class academics who fail miserably in understanding that (because they neglect or fail to understand mor ecomplex evdience and approaches) and then they are promoted as 'experts' in whatever ill-thought through agenda is bringing in the money. Evidence-based policy? Fat chance, when the evdidence is so manipulated to 'fit' with the original objectives of the agenda - and that agenda was ill concieved and manipulated in the first place by the same self-interested 'academic' experts who suggested it in the first place.

  2. Hi anonymous - I wish you'd identified yourself!

    I don't take any offence from what you're saying - in my work I try and reflect on the position I find myself in. I always feel very awkward about being the middle-class, English academic researching deprived neighbourhoods - this is partly my reason for now researching affluent neighbourhoods.

    I completely agree that "people don't get is that life does not begin and stop in neighbourhoods in both a spatial and temporal sense. Horizons are broader, deeper and embedded beyond the datazone or lower level SOA". But there are some things that are place and neighbourhood based and we do need to understand better what they are and help provide solutions within the neighbourhood.

    And we need to do something immediately about the much broader trends of entrenched inequality and the doxa that sustains this (a post on that coming up).

    As an academic, it's always the tension of delivering this very political message, while trying to have "impact" or at least get policymakers to engage in an interesting and informed debate on the issues.

  3. Dr Yasminah Beebeejaun (twitter yasminah_b)14 March 2012 at 12:06

    I think that this raises some interesting issues around research and the interplay of experiential and traditional forms of research and knowledge. As an academic who has spent periods of my life living in areas that would be classed as deprived, I think that neighbour effects are not sufficiently understood.

    Of course everyone has a life beyond the confines of the specific neighbourhood but the effects of the neighbourhood on life do have a part to play. I would say that this is actually most evident in the everyday interactions with the various arms of the state who felt empowered to disrespect and ignore the 'community' and their concerns. Of course the challenge is linking these different kinds of knowledge and experience which is difficult to do in the academic environment.

    All academics do have agendas and there is plain bad practice. But many of the academics working on this issue have an agenda simply of wanting to reduce inequalities however they define and research them. Whatever class the person is shouldn't be a point of discrimination or something to feel awkward about in my view. Their values are the more important issue

  4. Interesting points Yasminah. I moved to a deprived/gentrifying neighbourhood (Leith) in Edinburgh, moved to a very affluent neighbourhood and then moved back to Leith where I effectively live in a gated community with one of the most deprived datazones in Scotland just across the road - so I think I have an idea of where you're coming from.

    And I agree with your final paragraph and that's where I come at this from with the idea of a "social democratic regeneration policy" that does something. Also a point interestingly engaged with in Libby Porter and Kate Shaw's "Whose Urban Renaissance" collection.

  5. This conversation reminds me of my mum's decision to vote against the creation of a parish council where she lived, as it would direct more attention (thus indirectly more resources) to an area which was already significantly better off than most.