Why inequality matters

IMG_1269“The people will always forget” was a significant line in the documentary The Divide which I saw this weekend as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. In the film the line refers to the belief repeated by those to blame for the sub prime mortgage crash in the US, the bankers and financiers, who led us into the Global Financial Crisis and then expected us to bail them out. It’s an assumption that one could well believe our politicians make on a regular basis when taking some of the decisions they do – it’s ok they’ll forget about it when it comes to voting! It’s also an assumption that means we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past and that potentially stops us from addressing many of today’s issues and concerns. Which brings me to the subject of this discussion – the increasing levels of inequality in the UK and the growing divide between top and bottom.

The Divide catalogues the stories of different individuals in the UK and US just trying to get on in life. It highlights all too easily the increasing divide between those that ‘have’ and those that don’t. It illustrates the growing extent to which many of us are perhaps mistakenly driven by money and consumerism, by keeping up with our peers or striving to do better than them, and aspiring for things that are, in the end, unlikely to make us any happier. The main message of the film is based on the book “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, first published in 2009, but becoming ever more pertinent as time goes on. One of the most important points that the book makes is that inequality affects all of us. The problems are not just confined to the poor, the effects are seen across all aspects of society. Income inequality is a social pollutant because it spreads and everyone is worse off in a more unequal society.

The film illustrated many relevant issues that we are beginning to see the impact of in the UK, but in this post I’m just going to pick up on a couple of them that I think are becoming ever more relevant, that is, the impact of zero hours contracts and the growth of gated communities.

The use of zero hours contracts has become more prevalent in the UK in recent years across a range of sectors. Whilst some in government have tried to argue that it suits both workers and employers, the human impact of these contracts is illustrated particularly well by the film. If you don’t know how many hours you will be working in any particular week how can you budget for rent, food, bills etc? Imagine the levels of stress this type of contract could impose on you from day to day. You don’t know when you will be needed or for how long, so you don’t know what time you need to go in to work, if at all. You don’t know what you will earn in a week, so how can you plan ahead? The insecurity and uncertainly this creates is huge. Imagine having to live with that, even as a single person, but what if you have children and have to plan for their lives too, how does that work? In New Zealand this form of contract has been banned altogether (by a centre-right government), perhaps we could learn something from them?

The concept of gated communities has been around for some time now, with many more at a massive scale in the US, but something that is also creeping into the UK. In the US it’s a way of creating a sanitised community, where white people can feel safe surrounded by other white people, protected by armed guards at the entrance to their ‘community’. The community in the film had its own golf course, lake, play areas and parks and was characterised by large individual houses in their own plot of land. It’s a community that to many would look and feel like ‘prison’ but which in the US is something to aspire to. In the film these places came across as very exclusive, a place to live where people felt safe, but also where people felt isolated. There was in fact little sense of community in evidence, with estate agents promoting the place as lovely and quiet and where you won’t see your neighbours. That’s not a community! In the UK these types of gated community are happening, not on the scale of the US, but they’re there to make people feel safe, so people can surround themselves with other people who have money and status. To me it would feel like a prison, where you have to sign in visitors and go through guard gates just to get home, and where the diversity that makes our communities so rich and fascinating is totally missing. Let’s hope we choose to learn less from the US and focus more on the innovative and creative approach of our European and Scandinavian neighbours.

This point on who we learn from is an interesting one, which was picked up during the discussion with Kate Pickett after the film. It seems the devolved administrations of the UK are more likely to look to Scandinavia, The Netherlands and Germany for inspiration, when it comes to tackling inequality, than the UK Parliament as a whole, where sadly, all to often we look to the US for ideas.

From "The Spirit Level"

From “The Spirit Level”

That is the US where health and social inequalities are worse than anywhere else and where income inequalities are at their most extreme. There are many lessons to learn from elsewhere but let’s please make sure we are looking in the right direction. For example, in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, they are looking at paying citizens a basic income and in Bhutan a Gross National Happiness Framework was introduced to replace measures based on GDP. 

Inequality destroys empathy” that’s why whilst inequality does of course matter, it doesn’t matter how you achieve greater equality. There are a range of many different measures and policies from across the political spectrum that can work. The key is to do something about top and bottom levels of pay to create greater income equality because as Kate Pickett put it “every action we take individually matters and can make a difference”.

Housing, devolution and growth – top posts of 2015

IMG_3362Well it is that time of year again isn’t it? Time to sum up what was popular on my blog in 2015. Housing, devolution, growth and a bit about values, sums up the topics of the five most popular posts. These were closely followed by others on housing, devolution, cities and governance, with the odd diversion into PhD world.

So the winner of most popular blog of the year is one I wrote quite recently and that got re-published on a few other blog and news sites too – the invisibility of homelessness. This was a somewhat emotional blog about living in a prosperous city like Bristol, where homelessness is increasing and where more and more people are finding themselves in need of help and support in order to have a decent home to live in. It was also about the plight of ex-servicemen who live on the streets and how we have let them down as a society. The topic obviously struck a cord with many people as the post received twice as many views as the next most popular.

The other top posts were as follows:

  • Time to return to core values – this was a post-election commentary about the Lib Dem and Labour leadership campaigns and the need for a real, grown up political debate about core values and principles. A debate that is as relevant now as it was in July!
  • The devolution debate: what about Bristol? – about the need for a metro mayor and combined authority, and why devolution matters, with growing concerns that the Bristol city region is being left behind. Again, as relevant now, if not more so, as it was in May when I wrote this piece.
  • How to solve the housing crisis – this post was actually about a pre-election debate I went to with parliamentary candidates, where there was common agreement on the housing problem and that things needed to change, but where there was little in the way of innovative or creative solutions on offer. An interesting debate but one that left me feeling less than positive about what might change post-election.
  • Constraints on growth: what’s holding our cities back? – a post based on a report by IPPR and Shelter on growing cities, which identified the main constraints and provided some interesting and practical solutions for overcoming these. My take on the matter was that in the Bristol city region we needed a change of attitude and a growing willingness to embrace change before we could make a difference. Sadly, much of this willingness is still lacking and the constraints that are holding us back are still there, as they have been for many years.

One post that almost made it, and is worthy of a mention (at least in my view) is one I wrote after going to a debate about measuring poverty and living standards. This was about using evidence to support policy and how to attract policy makers attention by telling the right story, with some important lessons from New Zealand. This is no doubt a debate that along with the topics highlighted above will inevitably continue into 2016.

This year is going to be a busy year for me, with PhD fieldwork now in full swing, during a concentrated period leading up to the Bristol Mayoral election in May, so blog posts may be somewhat infrequent. We’ll see, but hopefully I’ll manage a few if you still keep reading them. Thanks for all your views, comments and support throughout 2015, much appreciated.

The challenge and complexity of cities

The Bristol Festival of the Future City presented the opportunity to learn more about the complex and challenging issues facing our cities. It was a week long event with many talks, discussions and presentations about a whole range of topics, some familiar, others less so. It was a week where Bristol was bursting at the seams with eminent speakers from across the globe, including academics, journalists, politicians, novelists, poets and commentators, all with something different to contribute.

I attended a number of events during the week, all of which provided insight, interest and challenge. I deliberately chose a mix of events to go to, to broaden my own horizons. I also chose to go and listen to some speakers I hadn’t heard before as well as some I was far more familiar with. There was certainly a lot of choice and on many an occasion I found myself wishing I could be in more than one place at the same time.

Rather than writing about one specific talk, I thought I’d draw out some of the themes that seemed to crop up across discussions and debates around the social policy issues relevant to cities. There were many more talks, covering many other issues about future cities, smart cities and technology, environmental and health issues, which I won’t cover here, as I didn’t attend those events. The themes I draw out are consistent themes that will inevitably be raised when discussing the challenges we face in our cities – the need for vision, city governance, housing and homelessness, and social mobility. I’ll touch on each of these briefly to explore some of the issues that came up and some of the questions that remain unanswered.

When it comes to vision there appears to be an increasing need for policy makers and politicians to think short, medium and long term, in a coherent and coordinated manner. However, whilst we seem well able to think in the moment and make short-term decisions, this is all too frequently done without any reference to the future impact or consequences of those decisions. What is lacking is a process of forward planning and thinking, like the visionaries of the past, who often thought about our cities and urban areas in a more creative and innovative way. As Sir Mark Walport put it in his presentation at the Launch event for the Festival, “thinking about the future can shape the future”. Without that future thinking we risk leaving the growth and development of our cities to an ad hoc, messy process of short termism and disjointed thinking, which leaves us well short of the creativity and innovation that is both needed and possible. The question is, do we have the ability, desire and bravery to unleash the potential of our cities?

The discussion around city governance was perhaps inevitable, particularly given the recent introduction of the Mayoral model in Bristol and recent announcements in other cities of devolution deals with metro mayors and combined authorities being established as the norm. City governance is undoubtedly changing at quite a pace, pushed along by central government to a central agenda, which according to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is driven by the need to reverse a century of centralisation to ‘return power to every part of our nation’.


He talked about the devolution deals as having ‘swept away required uniformity’, about a dynamic, competitive process to allow local strengths and local priorities to shine through. Despite this several commentators referred to the similarities and common ground found in many of the deals, with only small differences being identified around local projects amongst an overall uniformity of approach. This suggests, perhaps, that the vision, ambition and big ideas that need to be generated in our cities are not quite there yet. The reality of government processes and bureaucracy appears to be a long way short of some of the rhetoric? What did come across very clear was the notion that English local government structures are becoming very messy. Imagine a process of trying to explain to a group of foreign politicians or students how local government works, what the structure is and who takes decisions, and you might find it takes a very long time. We have unitary, country and district authorities; we have combined authorities with metro mayors to come; we have directly elected mayors running some councils, whilst others are run by leaders and cabinets, others still have reverted to the ‘old style’ committee system. It’s an ad hoc picture with seemingly no real coherence or commitment to a future uniformity.


Whilst housing is becoming one of the most important issues for our cities to deal with, the changing government agenda is perhaps providing greater restrictions on the options and opportunities for local government to tackle local housing problems, as the emphasis is pushed further and further towards the ultimate goal of home ownership. Despite this, local authorities are left to pick up the pieces of dysfunctional housing markets, and the lack of affordability, lack of supply and lack of choice this creates. In Bristol, and elsewhere, much of the conversation about housing quickly focuses in on a small number of issues that perhaps local government can do something about. Indeed, the Mayor of Bristol, in his State of the City address delivered at the end of the Festival, made reference to Bristol’s housing problem, with solutions based around releasing public land for housing and the increasing problem of homelessness in the city. There are of course many more housing issues that need tackling and a range of solutions that are required to provide decent, affordable homes for those that need them. Solutions that provide real choices, rather than forcing people down a particular route they may not wish to travel. Much of this process of providing solutions and choices is however seemingly out of the hands of local government and instead rests with central government, where social housing for rent is fast becoming a thing of the past, and affordable housing means ‘affordable’ to buy. The question remains about what local government can do to address the very real problems faced in their areas and what scope they have to be creative and innovative about housing solutions.


A final theme running through many of the debates, as well as the focus of some particular talks, is the issue of social mobility, or social immobility as one speaker termed it. Perhaps unusually, one of the discussions on this issue began with comments about redefining the issue, of the need to talk about social mobility alongside planning, design and transport with an understanding that how poverty is distributed around a city makes a real difference to the functioning of that city. All too often, the people with the least economic stability, living in the greatest poverty, are pushed to the edges of our cities, into peripheral estates, isolated from the wealth of the city. Our perceptions of cities and the way we feel about them are shaped by how we experience them. If our experience is one of isolation, exclusion and poverty, then our perception of the city is likely to be a negative one, where our desire is likely to be one of ‘escaping’ rather than staying. The focus soon shifted to the debate about barriers to social mobility not just being physical or economic, but also psychological, where ‘glass walls’ in people’s own heads stop them making progress. Marvin Rees made the point that to talk about social immobility means we have to talk about the people at the top as well as the people at the bottom, only then can we understand what the problem really is. Social mobility issues were discussed not as an accidental fallout of ‘the system’ but more as a manufactured, institutional part of a system that is needed to make it work, where there are the inevitable winners and losers, but where the starting position is anything but equal. The depressing conclusion to much this discussion was that the lack of social mobility in the UK is a problem that never goes away as the relationship between class and place hasn’t and won’t change, indeed if anything, it’s getting worse.

I thoroughly enjoyed the debates and discussions throughout the week that drew out the challenge and complexity of cities, which sought to provide linkages between and across issues and disciplines, looking to the future for solutions and ideas. The challenge is there to decision makers, policy makers and politicians to have the vision, creativity and bravery to grapple with the issues and develop big ideas and bold visions for the future of our cities.

The invisibility of homelessness

IMG_3362 The emphasis of this post is a bit of a departure from my normal topics, but related in a number of different ways to issues about housing, homelessness and social mobility. It has come about as a result of a number of things that have influenced me over the last few weeks. Some of those influences have been comments made in talks and discussions, whilst others have been the result of me opening my eyes and seeing what is around me. All too frequently we walk around the places we are familiar with without seeing what is right in front of us, without thinking about why something is the way it is.

In the last couple of months I have been to a whole load of talks about housing, mental health, health and wellbeing, social mobility and inequalities. I’ll write elsewhere about some of the consistent policy strands that came through many of these talks, but my focus here is on homelessness and social ‘immobility’.

In one talk I attended the presenter set out the extent to which homelessness has risen in recent years, in Bristol and nationally. The statistics make depressing reading, 90% increase in Bristol in the last 3 years and with the promise of more cuts to services, changes to social rented housing and benefits, this is likely to get worse. Equally shocking is the number of ex-servicemen who are sleeping on our streets, up to 1 in 3 of all homeless according to Crisis. The reasons for this are many and varied but one of the common themes is the feeling of shame associated with being in that position and the reluctance to seek help.

As a result of taking part in all these talks and discussions, about social inequality, homelessness, and poverty I found myself seeing my own city, Bristol, in a different way. I started to reflect once more about how I experience the city compared to others and how I take certain things for granted. On my way to and from some of these talks, at the Watershed in central Bristol, I walked past a young person wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a dog for company, several times. He was sleeping alongside a bar and outside the Bristol Green Capital unit, where hundreds of people must have walked past him all day long, and largely ignored his existence. The irony of the situation was one of the things that made me stop and think – I’d just come from a discussion about homelessness, where we had talked about why people sleep on the streets, frequently don’t ask for help and see themselves outside of society. We talked about our reaction to these people, how we ignore them and fail to even see them. We’d been talking about making Bristol a place for everyone, where opportunity and hope are part of what makes Bristol great. But when confronted with a homeless person, we walk on by, pretending not to see.

This whole debate then reminded me about a situation I found myself in a few years ago in an area of Bristol I know well and have walked through for many years. There was a young man, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting on a bench in the freezing cold, just gently asking passers by if they could spare a little cash to help him out. Most people were ignoring him, but then the chap walking along just in front of me stopped and shouted at the man on the bench, berating him for begging and telling him to get a job. The young man (we’ll call him Greg for now) looked stunned and didn’t respond, other people seemed to speed up their walking and move on as quickly as they could. At the time my first inclination was to walk on quickly and ignore this, after all what’s it got to do with me? Then I thought about it some more and I hesitated, then stopped. The shouty man had moved on by then, thankfully. So I sat down next to Greg on the bench and asked him if he was ok (quite possibly a really stupid question), but he responded with a grimace and then a smile, saying that he had been worried things would turn nasty, that he would be attacked and was just glad the shouty man had gone. He thanked me for stopping and was incredibly polite.

We got chatting, I stayed there for well over an hour talking to him (after I’d popped round the corner to get us both a hot drink and a snack). He seemed to want to talk, so I just listened, I was concerned not to ask too many questions but was equally curious about why he was in the situation he was. So, as ‘Greg’ explained to me, he was an ex-serviceman, invalided out with PTSD, his partner had left him and he was alone, without a job and without anywhere to live. He’d tried to get a job but because of the PTSD he found it hard to adapt and fit in sometimes, as he put it, his temper and depression occasionally got the better of him. So he’d come back to Bristol, which is where he’d grown up, and moved around the parks and open spaces, sleeping out most of the time, begging for money to buy food and surviving day to day. He was articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and ashamed of his situation. He blamed no one but himself for this, although he did admit that he thought there should be more support from the armed forces for people like him, at the point when they are discharged as well as later on. All he wanted was a chance – a chance to prove himself again, to get a job, to do something worthwhile, to make him feel proud and valued. It was difficult to get up and walk away from our discussion, to leave him there on the bench, open to abuse but mostly invisible to everyone, but that’s what I had to do in the end.

I often wonder what became of Greg, as I never actually saw him again. The situation left me feeling powerless but also ashamed that we as a city and a country don’t do more to help those who have put their lives on the line for us, and ashamed and disappointed that our automatic response is often to pretend they don’t exist. Behind every homeless person on our streets is a story, often a depressing, sad and complex story. I’ve heard politicians and policy makers say that some of these people don’t want to be helped, as if that is something that excuses from trying. Sorry but I just don’t believe that, no one chooses to live like that, on the streets, in the cold and the rain, at constant risk of violence and abuse. There are many different reasons why people may refuse the help offered, or not feel able to accept or even seek out help. Maybe they just don’t want to be helped in the way we are offering, maybe they need a very different type of help and support, or maybe they just feel we don’t actually care that much or that they’re not worth it?

The challenge for me, and many others, is working out what we can do to help, who are the people that can take the decisions that will prove decisive and life changing for homeless people and how we can raise the profile of this very difficult and complex issue. A good starting point are the many charities that do help homeless people, such as Crisis and Shelter, as well as those that focus on helping ex-servicemen who are having difficulty adjusting to life after the forces, such as Rock2Recovery. But surely more can and should be done?

In a wealthy and prosperous city like Bristol homelessness should be a thing of the past. Instead of which it’s actually increasing, it’s getting worse! We have some excellent charities in Bristol and nationally providing some outstanding services to homeless people and ex-servicemen, but still the problem exists and is increasing. Someone at the Bristol Mayor’s Annual Lecture asked if we could become the first city to ensure no ex-servicemen were left to sleep on our streets. An excellent question and a superb ambition. If anywhere can do it, then surely Bristol can?

Measuring Poverty and Living Standards

There’s an interesting debate that’s been going on for some time now about measuring poverty and getting the issue onto the agenda so people sit up and take notice in the right way. It’s an area of academia that I haven’t really engaged in before, but one where I have a personal interest in seeking to see the debate move in the right kind of direction. A direction that takes us away from the concept of demonising the poor and those living in poverty and instead acknowledges the levels of inequality and seeks to do something about it in a way that benefits those most in need. The recent Policy & Politics conference in Bristol had inequality and poverty as one of its main themes and at the time I wrote a couple of blogs on the plenary sessions – the human cost of inequality (Kate Pickett) and why social inequality persists (Danny Dorlling). Both these presentations provided plenty of evidence to illustrate just how significant a problem we have in the UK and how it is getting worse.

IMG_4039Last week I went to a seminar on this very issue run by the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, where the subject of debate was about how to gain traction and create change from academic research and evidence. The focus of the discussion was about using living standards rather than poverty indicators and the difference this can make when trying to attract the attention of politicians and policy makers. It was an interesting and thought provoking debate which gave some pointers on how we can translate measures and indicators into policy and action, as well as why it’s helpful to look at living standards for everyone rather than just looking at those in poverty.

The first speaker, Bryan Perry from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, talked about how by using evidence in the ‘right’ way, that was responsive to the needs of politicians, using the Material Wellbeing Index, they had managed to gain traction and make an impact on policy. The key was talking about trends rather than absolute numbers, providing simple statistics that tell the ‘right’ story and making the most of the opportunities as they arise. The focus of their work on living standards has served to highlight the differences, to show how life at the bottom is radically different, and to emphasise the point, in simple terms, about what people don’t have rather than about what they need. This has resulted in a centre-right government actually implementing increases in benefit payments as part of their policy, rather than seeking to reduce them at every opportunity.

The discussion then turned to the UK with a presentation from Demi Patsios, on the development of a UK Living Standards Index (UKLSI), where the point was made that in order to understand the poor we need to understand the rich, therefore just looking at those in poverty is only a small part of the story we need to capture. The ability to understand poverty in the general context of society provides that broader picture and story, which serves to highlight the extent and levels of inequality, rather than just the hardships at one end of the spectrum and enables us to develop policies that are directed at the full spectrum of society. The UKLSI aims to measure what matters most to people under three main themes: what we have, what we do and where we live. Whilst it is much more complicated that this and brings together both objective and subjective data into 10 domains and 275 different measures, the overall concept and themes are simple to understand and highlight some important differences and issues. The Index helps us to understand ‘what we have’ by looking at essential v desirables and luxuries v wants. It looks at ‘what we do’ through political, social and community engagement and ‘where we live’ by satisfaction with our accommodation and neighbourhood. It brings together the types of measures that appear in things like the Living Wage calculations and local authority Quality of Life indicators, and it does it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion.

But what does all this add to the debate and will our politicians take any notice? How do we make this type of discussion gain traction in the UK, in the face of current media and government interest in individualising the problem and stigmatising the poor, whilst ensuring the poverty discourse is firmly focused away from the rich and powerful?

The current government’s approach, as outlined by Dave Gordon in his presentation, is to repeal the only legislation we had with real targets to reduce poverty (the Child Poverty Act) and to replace this with measures on educational attainment and workless households. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this approach can work with the recent commitment under the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and to “reduce inequality within and among countries”.

From my own experience, as an ex-politician and someone who has worked with politicians and policy makers over many years, the key for me is making the messages simple. Yes, providing the evidence to support the simple statements, but only after you’ve sold them the message to begin with. Overcomplicating things with lots of measures and targets just serves to mask the message and hide the key points. Something that combines simple messages with supporting evidence; that illustrates disparities in living standards; and provides for micro level analysis would seem to be the right kind of approach.

Top of the blogs 2014 – politics, poverty and housing

Well it’s come to that time of year when everyone does their ‘best of 2014’ so I thought I’d join the crowd and highlight the most popular blogs on my site this year. It’s always difficult to know which blogs will take hold and generate interest and comment, and I am always surprised by those that do and equally by some that don’t. This surprise is compounded by my constant amazement that anyone is actually interested enough to read them to begin with!!

My blogs during 2014 have been mostly about housing, planning and inequality, often based on what’s happening in Bristol, as well as elsewhere, but always just about issues that are important to me! Whilst my posting of new blogs tends to be erratic and irregular, readership of my blog has steadily increased over the year, with more views and comments as time goes on.

So to the blogs that were most popular on my site:

  • Time for grown up politics? this one came top of the popularity stakes by a long way and even though it was written back in July it still receives a steady trickle of views now. It’s about the negativity of politics and our distrust of politicians;
  • Economic growth & poverty – LEPs take note! which talks about why just creating jobs isn’t enough to tackling the rising poverty experienced in our cite. This was one of several blogs about this topic and why LEPs need to do more to address inequality of opportunity;
  • Bristol – a divided city? this one was about one of the biggest issues Bristol as a prosperous city faces, about the divide between rich and poor and the lack of a strategy to address the issues that need addressing. It was sparked by my involvement in a BBC programme about the same issue.
  • A Mayor for greater Bristol? a controversial blog about bringing the 4 councils around Bristol together more formally to take strategic decisions, working in partnership and collaboratively under one leader. To say opinion is divided on this one would be an understatement;
  • Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy? a popular post that gets regular views, which challenges the short term approach to housing policy adopted by many of our politicians and calls for a coherent, long term plan for housing, locally and nationally.

Well that’s it, a mix of posts about politics, poverty, housing and democracy, that seem to have captured some interest. I thank everyone who reads my blogs for their interest, forbearance and support.

I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and New Year, and look forward to 2015, a year when politics, housing and poverty will undoubtedly be central issues once more.

Poverty of hope and opportunity

Facebookinstagramsocialtile2-300x300Blog Action Day this year is all about inequality, an issue I have written about several times on this blog in relation to Bristol, my home city, and its many contradictions. On the surface, a prosperous and wealthy city, but also one that suffers contradictions of poverty and inequality of opportunity. Too many people only see what they want to see and seem happy to sweep the difficult issues under the carpet, whilst others shout from the sidelines about the injustice of it all. Politicians and business leaders play at the edges of the issues, but seem far more focused on other things and particularly keen to promote the best bits of the city, forever telling us that Bristol is a great place to live. But sadly that image is only for some, not for all who live here. Bristol certainly has a great deal to offer but perhaps suffers a little from complacency and a misguided belief that somehow growth will benefit everyone and everything will be alright. Our constant failure to see poverty and social exclusion as an issue that needs to be central to all our plans, programmes and funding streams, means we are falling behind and the gap between rich and poor in the city is growing ever wider.

Bristol has over many decades secured government funding for regeneration programmes to provide additional support and initiatives in areas of deprivation and poverty, but those areas are still the same decades later, and many of the issues that need addressing are still the same – unemployment, low educational attainment, low skills, fuel poverty, poor housing, lack of facilities.

Just over 15 years ago I was employed to set up and run a project in Hartcliffe, South Bristol. It’s an area that features high on indices of multiple deprivation and which constantly seems to be lagging behind the rest of the city, but it’s equally an area that receives little attention from the policy makers and decision makers. It seems to be both conceptually and geographically on the edge of the city, forgotten and ignored by many, yet expected to be grateful for the small improvements that are made after many years of debate, discussion and planning. But back to the project I was involved with, the Hartcliffe Campus Project, set up through the initiative of a couple staff (Gus and Tania) at Teyfant Primary School who managed to get some business people interested in the area and their vision for what could happen there. It started with a simple idea about making a pond for the children, improving the sports facilities and improving the environment around the primary school, but grew into a vision about lifelong learning and sustainable development. For anyone that knows the area, the site is now the Bridge Learning Campus, bringing together the old primary, secondary and tertiary education establishments that previously inhabited the site in separate buildings and structures, into a more combined and coordinated approach to education in new buildings and structures set within a campus style development.

When I started off in the job there was no organisation, I was the only member of staff, had no office (I used the nurses office when she wasn’t there) and was employed to engage with local people to get some input to a sports lottery bid. I was given the help and support of one of the school admin staff, a local mum, with children at the school, who had lived in Hartcliffe all her life and whose parents had moved there when it was first built. We talked to people, we went to see them where they were getting together anyway, we invited them  to meetings, we did projects with the children to get them interested and talking about it to their parents, we worked with youth workers to engage the teenagers, we leafleted and help fun events to get as many people engaged as possible. As a result, things changed pretty quickly, the project became huge, it became about so much more than a sports bid. The vision, creativity and ideas developed slowly, from a low base to one where eventually we tapped into people’s hopes. This phase of the project taught me a huge amount about what poverty does to people across different generations. I learnt about the lack of aspiration, hope and belief that many in that community suffered, because they’d had their hopes dashed just once too often, or because it wasn’t for the likes of them! I also learnt about the absolute determination many of the parents in that community had to make a better life for their children. Many of the local mums were the ones who ran the community groups and projects, who engaged with the regeneration programmes, who gave up their time to make things happen and who firmly believed that change was possible. Without them our project wouldn’t have been the success it was.

One of the most shocking things for me, which I think serves to illustrate how deeply ingrained issues of inequality and poverty are, was the lack hope I saw in so many people, young and old, that we talked to throughout the project. This came to the surface in different ways, some negative and some positive. One example, which almost brought us to tears, was when we asked a class of the primary school children to draw a picture of what they would most like to see change in their area, what they would love to have nearby. We got the expected pictures of cinemas, McDonald’s, new houses, play parks etc. but we also got a picture of some lovely red flowers, with the caption “Carlos would like flowers” a sad indictment of just how dull the local environment was, with lots of green space but no parks/gardens with colour. A limited aspiration perhaps, but also a wonderful example of a childs ability to see what is missing – colour! Another example was the older couple who came along to an event to look at the proposals we had for a Millennium Green, a park and garden area to be situated on Bishport Avenue, close to the Primary School. Their response when we described our plans was entirely defeatist, they’d seen it all before, “what’s the point, they’ll only wreck it anyway”. This was a pretty standard response from many of the adults we spoke to and also some of the younger children, who had seen teenagers destroy anything good in the area. We were advised not to waste our time and money providing a play area, seating and gardens because it wouldn’t last.

gus & tan

Gus and Tania at the Hartcliffe Millennium Green launch

The Millennium Green did happen, we secured Millennium Commission funding, built the park and garden, the play equipment and seating area, the flowerbeds and rockery, community orchard, the willow tunnels, amphitheatre, the teenage shelter, wildlife pond and natural play areas. Much of it is still there, and more has been developed since, and in its own way has transformed a little corner of the Hartcliffe Campus site for the whole community to enjoy – you can see the street view here. We soon learnt that when the teenagers set fire to the benches or play equipment, we replaced them; when the locals popped down to the rockery area and helped themselves to the South Cerney stone we had used for the pathways, we replaced it. We also involved them in the next steps, the vision for the rest of the site and what they thought was still missing formed the next stage of the project.

Whilst there were undoubtedly some successes with the project, as with many other projects operating in the area, they could only touch the surface of the real issues of exclusion, inequality of opportunity and poverty of hope. Those things were all too evident throughout the project and still remain even now in Hartcliffe and in many of our communities, for different reasons. Sometimes we just need to stand back and consider how different people experience the same place, the same city. We should ask ourselves “how does someone else perceive my city/town/village?” If they have no spare money, no car, very little spare time because they’re working 2 or more low paid jobs and everyday is a struggle to pay the bills and make ends meet, how does that person see  this place? Because I’m sure many would not see the image we portray of our cities, they will see their neighbourhoods devoid of change, with poor environments, lacking in infrastructure and facilitates, poor schools, no jobs and where it seems no one cares because litter, vandalism, crime and dereliction are a part of everyday life. These are the inequalities we need to remember when we talk about how great our city is, when we talk about growth and prosperity and when we enjoy what our city centres have to offer, remember not everyone will see it like that!

Bristol – a divided city?

Bristol – a divided city was the subject of a short documentary produced by BBC One for Inside Out West (sadly no longer available to view on iPlayer). The story is one of a growing city, one that on first glance seems prosperous and wealthy, but once you scratch beneath the surface and move out of the centre of the city, a poorer, less wealthy and altogether different kind of city is revealed. The programme served to illustrate just how different people can experience the same city, how different areas of a city are excluded from the growth and opportunities that others benefit from and how so far we have largely failed to provide solutions that make a real, long-term difference. Sally Challoner, BCC reporter, provided a picture of the divided city with a snapshot of some truly shocking statistics outlining just how many children live in poverty in our so called prosperous city – 25% across the city as a whole, but with massive differences depending on where you live – 53% in Lawrence Hill and 34% in Southmead, but only 1% in Henleaze.

The quote below is from Sally’s reflections in the programme on growing up in Hartcliffe and so neatly sums up the reality facing many people in Bristol –

“Of course, growing up in poverty you don’t really know any different. It’s only when you go out into the wider world that you realise that maybe your education wasn’t great, your family doesn’t have any business contacts to give you an idea of how to get into the employment market, your parents can’t help you with a deposit to get you onto the housing ladder, things like that. So you start out life with a disadvantage and spend years just trying to catch up.”

In the programme itself and in a Radio Bristol discussion the same day there were two key points raised that I thought I’d explore further, as I believe they are both flawed in their explanations and solutions:

  • With a strong economy, providing more jobs, everyone will benefit.
  • We need more money & power from government to solve the problems of poverty in our city.

The first point was made by a Tory MP and is an often quoted response to poverty and social exclusion – if we just provide growth and more jobs everyone will eventually benefit. Indeed, it’s the very argument used by the Local Enterprise Partnership and the business community for focusing our economic plans on existing growth sectors and areas rather than having anything real to say about areas and communities traditionally excluded from the benefits of growth. I am firmly signed up to the school of thought that says ‘trickle-down’ economics doesn’t work, just providing lots of jobs won’t solve poverty in our cities. Of course it helps and a growing economy is certainly better than one in recession, but growth on its own does not provide opportunities for all people and communities, it doesn’t overcome the problems that exist in the poorer areas of our cities. If it did, the growth experienced in the 1980s and beyond would have changed the social and economic map of Bristol. Instead, we find the same areas of Bristol featuring in the most deprived areas of the country now as we always have, the same ten communities with high poverty indices now as 10, 20, 30 years ago. The sooner decision makers and politicians in Bristol accept this the sooner we can move on from flawed policy approaches that clearly do not work.

The second point was made by Bristol’s Mayor, George Ferguson, and whilst I would agree that more money and/or greater ability and power to do things differently in Bristol would be a help, it will only work if we stop seeing poverty as something completely separate to economic development and growth. It reminds me of the debate about environmental issues 20 years ago, when environment was seen as separate, something that should be dealt with separately and not relevant to the council’s core business. Putting things into neat little silos is not the answer, it just makes it easier for everyone to ignore it or assume it’s someone else’s problem. That’s what used to happen to environmental issues, and it’s what we are in danger of doing with issues relating to poverty. Surely part of the answer has to be using what resources and power we already have to address poverty as part of every policy and strategy area. Why treat it separately?

Other areas seem to have taken up the mantle of combining economic development and poverty, of creating Strategic Economic Plans through their LEPs that have alleviating poverty and social exclusion as the main purpose of their plans – see an earlier blogpost I wrote on this for some examples – (Consigning trickle down to the dustbin of poverty). The challenge in Bristol is how we make this happen when the current approach appears to be about creating silos of activity – poverty according to the LEP is not their problem, someone else is dealing with that, they are just about jobs and growth. How do we encourage the business community and the LEP to see alleviating poverty as integral to the growth of the city region, to increasing out prosperity as a city and to truly achieving the potential that the whole city has? How do we ensure that future City Deal’s, Strategic Economic Plans, bids for funding and Council strategies and plans all have addressing poverty at the heart of them? A tall order no doubt, but until we do, then we are consigning the same communities to living in poverty, in a world where the divide between rich and poor is ever increasing.

Blogging for a year – how did that happen?

DSCN0159It’s almost exactly one year since I started this blog. I did so as a response to losing my job and finding I no longer had an outlet for comments, writing and thoughts. Where once it was part of what I did for a living, it now became a hobby, an opportunity to share comments and thoughts on a whole range of different issues, a place to rant and react to things, where I could just be me! A good friend of mine suggested to me at the time that it was important to stay visible and to maintain a profile, so for me that is also part of what blogging is about (seems to work to a point!).

Continue reading

Consigning ‘trickle-down’ to the dustbin of poverty

There’s some excellent debate being generated at the moment about economic growth and poverty, with Joseph Rowntree Foundation, New Start Magazine and Centre for Local Economic Strategies leading the way with some excellent reports and blogs over the last few weeks. Whilst I’m not sure I can add much more to what has been said, there are a few key points just worth pulling out and exploring in a local context, to illustrate where we might learn something from this important discussion.

What much of this debate boils down to are the following key observations:

  • trickle-down doesn’t work
  • economic growth and poverty can’t be tackled separately
  • gap between rich and poor is widening

Perhaps the biggest issue that needs emphasising is that trickle-down just doesn’t work – disputed by some, but more accepted now than ever before, is the notion that if we create enough jobs and prosperity then everyone will benefit eventually is a myth. A myth supported and promoted by those that do benefit, by those that wouldn’t understand poverty as they have never experienced it and/or by those that actually just do not care – it’s an easy cop out for decision makers and politicians, it’s easier just to see economic growth as the solution without having to worry about other things, that are all too complex! So the focus is on economic growth, as a separate policy, without looking at difficult things like poverty and inequality of opportunity as these are dealt with by others in different policies and strategies.

But, as Neil McInroy of CLES points out “what’s the point of local economic development if it does not deliver social outcomes or address poverty” – exactly, what is the point? Growth for growths sake, that marginalises issues around the distribution of benefits is pointless, it merely serves to increase the wealth and prosperity of those that already have wealth to begin with, rather than address the very real issues of poverty experienced by many people in our cities, towns and rural areas.

Seems pretty obvious when you distill the debate to such simple concepts doesn’t it? So why is the government still entirely focused on approaches to economic growth that retain obvious silos around jobs/GVA/GDP?  Perhaps it’s a continuation of an approach that seeks to demonise those in poverty, who may not have a job (although many do), and who dare to claim benefits from the state or seek ‘handouts’ in the form of food and housing? Or maybe it’s just a natural fall out from our national political focus on austerity and Plan A, with all activity centred around reducing the deficit by hitting those hardest who actually have the least? Whatever the reason our government seems to be ignoring the obvious, that is doesn’t work, and not only that but they are imposing their views and approach on us at a local level. Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are producing economic strategies that focus on jobs and GVA growth, because that’s what’ll get the money from government and that’s what they’ll be assessed against.

Some areas, though, do seem to have the ambition and critical thinking ability to go beyond the government brief and to draw the connections between growth and poverty and to bring their own local agendas to their economic plans. For example, as discussed by Josh Stott of JRF in New Start Magazine, the Leeds area seems to be doing something different by working in partnership to address poverty as part of the economic strategy, by linking the two agendas together and acknowledging that poverty reduction is very much on the agenda of the council, city region partnership and others. Manchester is doing something quite interesting too, by working with CLES to look at how to build a local civil economy, in a report which outlines the importance of civic leadership where it is everyone’s responsibility to shape the destiny of the city by working together – difficult to argue with that but so often not how decision makers and politicians see things.

However, not everywhere seems to be embracing this agenda or taking the opportunity to challenge the government over the narrowness of theirs. I’m sorry to say that, to me at least, it looks like Bristol and the West of England are following the silo mentality of government and through the Strategic Economic Plan developed by the LEP and supported by all four local councils, are merely seeking to grow jobs and GVA in the hope that this will eventually, somehow, benefit all those in need. The plan has a heavy focus on ‘return on investment’, mentioned endlessly as perhaps our biggest selling point – if the government give us the money we’ll make more money for them and the UK economy than anywhere else outside of London. So we draw up a strategy that does that, focuses on high growth sectors, where productivity is high and can be further improved, where multiplier effects are greatest.

But, and this is a huge but, so what? What benefit does that provide us with locally and more importantly who will benefit? Not those in the most poverty, not those in low quality jobs and not those who need it most. And, of course, anyone who dares to challenge this is accused of lacking ambition, or being uncomfortable with growth and change and not wanting the best for Bristol. Some of the business community have very strongly promoted the notion of critical mass and the need for growth and prosperity, which of course we will all eventually share in. Sadly they seem to be missing the point – this just doesn’t work and the evidence is there to clearly show that it doesn’t work. So why do business leaders, the West of England LEP and some of our politicians constantly fall back on this outdated, irrelevant notion? Is it because it serves existing implicit agendas, suits those already in power or those who are doing quite nicely out of the way things work at the moment, or is it just they don’t care or don’t understand? I can hazard a guess at the answer, as I’m sure you can!

So the question remains, what needs to change to make this work better? The report by the Smith Institute (the subject of a recent blog) talks about the need to reform LEPs and focus on ‘good growth’ which at least would be a start. But, change needs to happen quickly, before these plans get set in stone and form the future of our economic policy locally and nationally. I’d like to see business, politicians, LEP members take the economic growth and poverty agenda on board properly, with ambition and clarity, because why wouldn’t you?