Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Tackling poverty?

I’m just back from two days spent at the Poverty Alliance fifth Poverty Assembly. It’s far too long since I’ve been at an event like this and I really enjoyed it, although was a bit disappointed how attendance thinned out, especially among the sort of policymakers who could probably learn the most and make a difference.

I want to reflect for a moment on the plenary speeches today by Jackie Killeen, Scotland Director of the Big Lottery Fund and Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which I thought were very interesting. Jackie highlighted a programme the BLF have been running called Support and Connect which essentially funds projects to alleviate real hardship – foodbanks etc. She explained that she was very surprised they had ended up funding projects like this as it was not something they thought they would end up doing.

Julia Unwin also did something that is very unfashionable and highlighted the massive progress on tackling poverty between until 2010 (and particular from 1992). Particular achievements were the disconnection between older age and poverty. It had been taken for granted that as you grew older you would end up in extreme poverty. We got to the stage where we had almost eradicated that issue before 2010. We had also got to the stage where the connection between poverty and squalor had almost been added – yes people experienced poverty, but they did not also have to live in very poor quality housing. We had also moved on from talking about destitution to talking about relative poverty. We are now back to having to consider helping people with absolutely nothing. The powerful message of this bit of her speech was that we can make decisions to make a big difference to tackle poverty if there is a political will.

She went on to a similar point as Jackie was making – that post 2008 and with austerity, things have changed. We have demographic pressures on services and massive reductions in budgets. During the rest of the two days, I spent a lot of time in a session discussion whether area regeneration can make a difference in tackling poverty. Reflecting on the plenaries, I could not help but think we are at the same place when it comes to regeneration. From 1997 in particular, we were making big strides in renewing housing in deprived neighbourhoods, starting to target services and coproduce services in interesting ways in neighbourhoods (such as the developments after the New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal). For all their localist rhetoric, at Westminster policy is tumbling backwards as funding is diverted away from deprived local authorities and as the Communities and Local Government Select Committee said, they don’t even have a regeneration policy.

I’d like to say things are better in Scotland. We do have a regeneration strategy - Achieving a Sustainable Future. However, when a Scottish Government civil servant talked through this I was very troubled by the way the policy problem was framed and therefore the solutions. The contemporary focus on community empowerment in Scotland, although laudable, does easily slip into pathologising discourses, that blame communities for not being empowered enough, completely ignoring the massive inequalities when it comes to empowerment and capability, not to mention the states’ response.

A really interesting point on the civil servants slides was that they wanted to empower communities to “exploit opportunities in communities” based on their essays. I was fascinated by the lack of agency and choice of words. Exploit is a very strong word: capital exploits labour; colonialism exploited slaves; economic growth exploits the planet and its resources. Yet, without agency “exploit” becomes lovely – all communities have assets, we just have to put them to work. But we have to ask who is doing the exploiting? Can the community exploit their own assets and maintain the benefits of this? Are public services exploiting local communities to do things they can no longer afford to do (clean the streets, care for vulnerable children, alleviate poverty)? Are community assets being exploited to make a small cabal of developers a lot of money?

Quite practically, when I look at the delivery of services around me and listen to people in projects, it seems that local authorities in Scotland and other public services are retreating from good work they were doing because of the cuts, be that through the “Strathclydisation” of Police Scotland ending community policing in the Lothians as I used to experience it or through the litter that I wade through on the streets of my local neighbourhood, or the cuts that community projects are facing as local authorities protect core, statutory services.

But, just like with tackling poverty, we can make choices to make more money available for the state as a whole, and for deprived neighbourhoods. On the latter was a nice idea (which I’m sort of editing here) that came out of our group, which is having a much more strategic approach to public sector recruitment to make sure that it benefits deprived neighbourhoods the most. I think this would be a very exciting area for spatial strategy to go into, and there is some good practice I’ve read about already from the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. On the former, today started with a panel of MSPs. I’d recommend going back on the #PovertyAssembly twitter tag and look at some of the tweets from it. Basically, it did end up being rather a Patrick Harvie love-in. But much as almost everyone agreed with his wonderful blend of Green politics and radical economics, this really has not been turned into action. And I’m sorry, I cannot see it being turned into action anytime soon unless our politicians are braver and lead public debate more. We live in a very rich country. We have enough money to pay for a large, supportive state, and to ensure everyone, no matter where they live, has a dignified life. 

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