Social Exclusion and Poverty
A LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE
A discussion paper
A growing awareness
The second stage
Advice and support
An Infrastructure to stem the fragmentation
An outline model
This is the third draft of this short paper. The first draft was produced within SSSP on the basis of a small survey of anti-poverty statements from local authorities in England and Wales which arose initially from work on developing better governance of services for and with elderly people. The second draft was the result of discussions with colleagues in SocNet Associates, a consortium of which SSSP is a member.
This draft is the outcome of conversations with, and written comments from, a wide variety of colleagues. Several of them have come from local authorities but we have also had comments from Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Partnership at Work, NSF Wales, LGMB Anti-Poverty Unit, The National Local Government Forum Against Poverty, the Welsh Local Government Association, the Welsh Federation of Housing Associations, NACRO, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Wales and Glenys Kinnock M.E.P. Grateful thanks to all of them. If the bias is towards Wales at the moment I can only admit it. You start where you are!
This is still a discussion paper but we have now reached the stage of seeking support to pilot the model in two or three local authority areas and we should be glad to hear from any interested authority. Some authorities where such a pilot might be most valuable may feel so financially constrained that, with the best will in the world, they are unable to finance it. For that reason we would be very glad to hear from charitable foundations or commercial sponsors who would be interested in discussing financial backing for the pilots.
Finally the objectives fall closely in line with those of several departments of state including Department of Health, Department of Social Security, Home Office, Welsh Office and Department for Education and Employment. Government sponsorship would drive the agenda forward perhaps more effectively than anything else.
As this paper reached its final draft Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, made a keynote speech setting out the Governmentís commitment to establish a national initiative against social exclusion. Nothing in this paper is in conflict with the substance of that speech; on the contrary it can be regarded as a practical proposal for putting part of the Ministerís plans into effect.
A growing awareness
A major national debate is urgently needed about poverty in Britain but the majority of local authorities in England and Wales have recognised that it is not simply the product of national economic and social policy. Local policy and leadership can have a significant, even dramatic, impact. Many Councils have produced policy statements; many have undertaken surveys and evaluations of poverty in their area; and some have developed action programmes to implement a strategy. Our initial small study revealed a wide range of developing awareness and action. There seems to be a conceptual progression as members and officers develop their thinking.
For many people the starting point is to see poverty as a problem only for individuals. They perceive it as a shortage of money to buy basic essentials beginning with food. They assume that poverty is confined to "poor areas" of high unemployment and is largely an urban, if not an inner-city problem.
They assume to begin with that, because it is about personal income, it is largely outside the scope of the local authority except to the extent that they can influence job creation. Council X for example "does not have the ability to affect the broader economic factors that cause poverty." (quote from the recent anti-poverty statement of one Welsh local authority.
The second stage
The next stage is to begin to test assumptions by surveying the local situation. In order to do that there has to be some measurable definition of "real", "absolute" or "genuine" poverty . The pursuit of more precise criteria promotes debate and thought which are, in the end, often more important that the criteria themselves. Even the most sceptical at the outset come to understand that poverty is about much more than personal disposable income. Many local authority members and officers now regard the extent and prevalence of poverty as undermining the very roots of our democracy.
Out of the debate has come a growing recognition that poverty is not a single issue but a complex, which works together to cause individuals, families and sometimes whole communities to become marginalised, rejected and alienated within the wider society. The elements of poverty, like the elements of wealth, are highly convergent. Individuals, families and communities with low incomes strongly tend have low opportunities of every kind. They are not merely poorer but sicker, less educated, less well and less frequently employed, less well housed in a poorer environment. They have poorer leisure opportunities; they are more likely to be burgled and, especially if young, assaulted. Their older and frailer members feel vulnerable and unsafe in their own homes and streets. Their children and young people feel alienated, victimised, hostile and often fearful.
Responses to the problem
Many local authorities have reached that stage of recognition. There is an important political debate, now at last beginning in earnest, about what the State should do to stem the tide of poverty in Britain. But meanwhile no local authority can have much impact on poverty acting merely as the purchaser or provider of services to alleviate it. Local authorities must devise pragmatic strategies which do not have a significant impact on the level of their own expenditure, because they simply have no choice in that matter at the moment.
We have identified three existing kinds of responses, often in combination.
Direct action on the environment
Refurbishment of sub-standard housing; improving street furniture and cleanliness; traffic calming and the establishment of facilities. The best of these programmes are undertaken in close consultation with community representatives. Though there is sometimes scant recognition that residents associations and other such groupings often exclude those in greatest need, not by design but by the way they are established and function.
Advice and support
In some areas of high deprivation there is, usually in addition to direct action, a greater concentration of various services. Increased social services presence including such things as family centres and welfare advice; increased police presence though not, as far as we are aware, from a new local base. We have seen no evidence that the education service or the youth service has been part of this greater focus though that may be to do with the brief outlines we have usually seen.
Neither did we see evidence of any attempt to induce a greater retail trade presence nor such services as GP surgeries and libraries. However some authorities have established multi (local authority) agency access points: the so called "one stop shop". They usually cover at least all aspects of social services and housing and sometimes consumer protection and local authority complaints.
Some authorities have established community development workers or teams, not always under that name, on models reminiscent of the Community Development Projects of the 1970s, though on a smaller scale. In short their rôle is to empower local communities to take charge of their own destiny by providing facilitation and support rather than direct action.
These projects are particularly vulnerable in a period of very heavily constrained public expenditure. They have no "statutory" backing and are entirely permissive. And any evidence of their success, if it is actually being evaluated, has to be measured in years rather than months
It must be acknowledged with regret that evidence in support of the effective impact of such projects, at least from the CDP evaluations, is not particularly strong. Those projects may have been sufficiently different from the modern ones to make direct analogies unsafe. One must not become too much a prisoner of history!
There is one piece of evidence from the evaluation of the Community Development Projects which should be taken very seriously by those authorities which have established such teams. Paradoxically the more successful they appeared to be when in operation, the more damaging to the community was their eventual demise when it came about. This implies the establishment of evaluation criteria immediately so that, if there is evidence of success, the current projects can be protected when the authority is looking round desperately for savings.
Building on current approaches
All three of these kinds of responses are valuable in themselves. But we do fear that they demand a higher level of public expenditure than most local authorities can sustain in order to have a significant impact. Many of the statements we studied also recognised that.
The first two approaches appear to rely for their effect on better provision, albeit in consultation with residents about what that provision should be. It places very heavy dependence on the local authority (and occasionally other) services to deliver. As long as they are able to deliver the improved environment and quality of advice and support will lift the quality of life. But it is vulnerable to economic downturn and other local expenditure priorities. In order to reduce its vulnerability the recipients need help to develop their ability to take greater control of these resources themselves.
The third approach is designed to address this. The difficulty with much community development is that it relies for its effect on mobilising the resources of those who have least. People who have a major struggle to maintain personal survival are expected to take an interest in the plight of the community around them. The surprising thing is that it works sometimes as well as it does. Good community development draws in many resources to provide additional support, but on the whole it is from the very local community where the churches, the voluntary organisations and the statutory agencies are most stretched. Poverty is the product of a wider social fabric, the folds of which must be drawn in if it is to be addressed effectively.
A new framework for a changing world
We need a broad vision of the way the social and economic functioning of a community acts on individuals and families and they on it. And we need to recognise that "community" means different things than it once did. Where once people defined themselves, and were defined by others, largely in terms of where they lived that is now only one way of defining "community" for the great majority. A major feature of modern poverty is that the poor alone remain largely defined in that way.
There is a great deal of energy and goodwill in all communities; at street level, among tradespeople, service and industrial employers, the churches, the public services, voluntary organisations, health, education and social work professionals and the police. As social structure has fragmented and become more nuclear this energy has not necessarily lessened but it has become more issue focused and less community focused. Age Concern, Victim Support, Housing Associations, Drug Counselling, School Governors and many, many more groupings and organisations function in relative isolation and sometimes mutual hostility.
The fragmentation of the health service, the financial emasculation of local authorities and the enormous pressure on resources stemming largely from poverty itself have all contributed to moving the public focus too away from community development and to the provision of survival services.
If the energy which is focused, often to powerful effect, on the issues which make up poverty could be networked and directed towards common goals the whole would be much greater than the parts.
A large part of the "clientele" of most of these organisations experience poverty, partly from lack of cash, partly from exclusion from active participation in the means of addressing the problem. The paradox is that the very people who should be at the centre of the debate have no part in identifying priorities for action.
Local government cannot set up a service to make serious inroads into cash poverty. Its own cash limits impose severe restrictions on the extent to which it can make a substantial impact on environmental and social poverty. What can it do more than it is doing already.?
An Infrastructure to stem the fragmentation
All these agencies, voluntary organisations, community groups and commercial organisations have their own agendas. They will not take kindly to someone telling them what they should do. But with the right kind of governance they might well be persuaded to invest some of their energies into a venture which contributes to their agenda. A more stable more assured community produces a better workforce, a stronger customer base, less crime, less demand for benefits, less sickness, a more educable and tractable school population, less drug and alcohol dependency. It is difficult to imagine what legitimate agency or group would not benefit. But we do need a major shift of perspective for that message to be widely shared.
A key step in that process would be for the local authority to establish an infrastructure through which participation could be promoted and facilitated.
Such an infrastructure needs to be flexible and open enough to be seen as enabling and supportive by the many disparate groups and individuals who can make a difference. It also needs to be sufficiently strong to draw their energies together and create a constructive and growing virtuous circle. Above all it would need to be inclusive and draw in the people on whom it would have the greatest impact, into decisions and priorities.
There should be two criteria by which the effectiveness of the infrastructure would be evaluated. Has it had an impact on the level of disposable incomes among the lowest quartile in the local authority area, especially in the parts which have been particularly targeted? Has it succeeded in including the people to whom it is addressed? These are only two elements of poverty but cash poverty and exclusion are so central to the whole problem that a focus on them as a surrogate for all the other elements is unlikely to distort the picture significantly.
An outline model
The infrastructure could be established in a number of ways, but it must be robust, simple, understandable and attractive. The following model is designed as an example which meets those criteria
The local authority would establish a steering group, led by members and served by the Chief Executive. Its functions would be:-
The whole ethos would be a search for opportunities for and ways of including others.
Any voluntary or public organisation, firm, community initiative or local group could become part of the social exclusion initiative through one of these routes provided they:-
Publicity would be a central aspect of the initiative and the best local minds would be sought to find ways of explaining the purpose of the initiative and showing how it works. Perhaps there would be a visual model something (or again nothing) like this; with contact information and examples attached.
First published by SSSP August 1997