1. Governance
May 11, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 12:01pm

The government’s “welfare revolution” has forgotten something important: where we live

By Victoria Pinoncely

As CityMetric’s sister publication The New Statesman discovered when it returned to the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow in November, the “welfare revolution” started by Iain Duncan Smith has failed to change the fundamental condition of many poorer people’s lives. Indeed, its report concluded that it has made things worse.

Easterhouse was, of course, where the former Work & Pensions Secretary had his “epiphany” and was “converted” to fighting for social justice, so moved was he by the poverty he saw on the estate. But if the revolution that started in Easterhouse is failing, a major reason might be found in what was overlooked from the beginning: the importance of the environment to people’s life chances and opportunities.

So-called “people-based” approaches have often dominated thinking around welfare and deprivation: how we can reduce disincentives and barriers to work, support or compel people to find and retain employment, even intervene in the lives of “Troubled Families”.

But however important, this set of policies ignores what we might call “place poverty”. Many of the root causes of deprivation and social inequality are bound up with, and reflected in, the poor environmental quality of places and neighbourhoods.

For instance, a lack of affordable housing has a knock-on effect on other household expenses such as paying for heating or good quality food, and can force households into debt. The location of housing relative to jobs, and the lack of regular and reliable public transport, can make it difficult for people without their own car to attend job interviews or keep hold of a job. Some neighbourhoods are physically segregated and denuded of services and amenities, reinforcing their social exclusion.

Looking only at a person’s income won’t give us a comprehensive picture of how deprived there are; we also need to recognise and measure the extent to which they are “place poor”.

Put simply then, Easterhouse isn’t a poor place just because it’s got poor people in it. It’s also a poor place because it’s an environment that in many ways serves to trap people in poverty.

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The government has recently announced its intention to take a “comprehensive approach to regeneration” to so-called “sink estates” in England, with £140m of loan funding to private sector organisations to lever additional funding for the regeneration of 100 estates. In doing so, policymakers appear to have recognised the link between the built environment, poverty and a range of social problems.

That’s to be welcomed. However, as the Royal Town Planning Institute argues in its new report such an approach still seems to be far too limited in both funding and scope.


A helpful and informative infographic.

As part of the government’s announcement, the Packington estate in Islington has, rightly, been heralded as an exemplar of regeneration. However, Packington alone benefited from £33m in public funding. Attempting to regenerate many more estates for much less would seem to imply a reliance on the sale of private housing: this will only be financially viable in some places and raises significant questions about the extent to which genuinely affordable housing for existing will be maintained.

Moreover, there’s the question of whether the government has recognised the extent to which the environment matters. Demolishing and rebuilding estates is one thing, but the positive impact on people’s lives is likely to be limited if their broader environmental poverty remains firmly in place.

Not everything in people’s lives is determined by the places in which they live, of course. Academics continue to debate the significance of “area effects”, with some claiming that who you are matters more than where you live. The danger, though, is that effectively writing-off places means writing-off the people live in them – hardly a good starting point for a comprehensive approach to tackling persistent poverty and widening inequality.

Instead, let’s think about all of the tools at our disposal – including good planning, city devolution deals, new mayors, local enterprise partnerships et al. – that could improve people’s lives by improving their environments.

To do anything else is to expect a “revolution” without real change – as the residents of Easterhouse could have told us.

Victoria Pinoncely works in policy and research at the Royal Town Planning Institute. You can follow her on twitter here, and find the RTPI’s report on place poverty here.

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