ResPublica Associate Julian Dobson writes for the Guardian blog
In the 1960s a local newspaper hailed a ‘plan for gracious living’ in a new town that would be home to more than 15,000 escapees from Liverpool‘s slums and deprivation.
But when residents arrived at the Cantril Farm estate in Knowsley in 1965 there were no shops and no buses back to the places they knew. Because the land was bought by Liverpool City Council but the county of Lancashire was responsible for education, Cantril Farm had no schools until the Catholic church moved in.
The Radburn layout, designed to separate pedestrians and cars, created un-overlooked, unsafe spaces and increased the sense of insularity. By the mid-1980s the estate’s reputation had become so poor that ownership was transferred to a new landlord, the Stockbridge Village Trust (now Villages Housing), and the area rebranded in an attempt to signal a new start.
It has taken decades and millions of pounds of public investment for Stockbridge Village to begin to become the place it was meant to be. Nearly half a century on, Stockbridge Village is celebrating the completion of a ‘village centre’ with a sports hall, swimming pool, café, studios and a youth club – the kind of facilities and spaces for community activity that should have been considered at the beginning.
Today the government risks repeating the story of Cantril Farm as social support is cut and housing providers are under pressure to build as many homes as cheaply as possible. A new report for the think tank ResPublica, published today explains how we can do better.
It argues that the route to a more productive, dynamic and sustainable economy begins when people can live lives that fulfil their potential and sustain their wellbeing. That will not happen when many are unable to contribute fully to the public good.
The report, Responsible recovery: A social contract for local growth, takes the current political debates about fairness and places them in the context of real people’s lives. It argues that community life and reciprocity are at the heart of any sustainable recovery, and that government policy and local practice need to enable all to contribute to the best of their resources and abilities.
For that to happen, policies need to be people-centred, locally accountable and locally responsive. The report takes the ‘sustainable livelihoods’ model that has been tried and tested in the context of international development, and picks up on work by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty in Manchester and Teesside. It views the journey out of poverty as a shift from surviving to coping, from coping to adapting to change, and from adapting to accumulating.
The assets people need to accumulate to escape poverty are not just material. They include social assets such as family, friends and neighbours; human assets such as practical skills; and public assets such as local services, infrastructure and community organisations.
Undermine one set of assets through policies such as the bedroom tax, which destabilises community life and penalises those on the lowest incomes, or through funding cuts to local voluntary organisations, and it becomes harder to build the others. The loss of affordable childcare, for example, can make all the difference between a job being worthwhile and becoming a poverty trap.
The report proposes three interrelated approaches designed to build and sustain individual and community assets in order to enable people to contribute fully to society.
Secure and affordable housing is the first building block. By developing intelligently, with a view to long-term community sustainability rather than short-term completion targets, housing providers can lay the foundations for well-functioning communities, avoiding the numbers-driven errors that plagued the postwar council estates and many housing association estates of the 1980s.
Second, the public services that support poorer communities need to be opened up to them, providing job and training opportunities for those who are on the edges of the labour market. The Fresh Horizons social enterprise in Huddersfield shows how local people with limited experience and qualifications can provide locally sensitive and accountable services such as home repairs, childcare and youth work, and managing community facilities. In doing so they bring income into the community and provide positive role models for friends and neighbours.
Third, government needs to localise employment support and the Work Programme so that it is sensitive to local labour market conditions and trusted by local people. Current policies make little distinction between looking for a job in Surrey and trying to find work in Sunderland. Local accountability and conditionality must be coupled with an approach that encourages all to contribute to their communities, valuing the time spent volunteering, not just the time spent filling out job application forms.
The paper puts forward a raft of recommendations to help put these approaches into practice. These include extending participatory budgeting schemes; ‘community deals’ devolving services to locally accountable organisations; selecting housing providers on the basis of their long term investment in communities; and using procurement and contracting to create local social and economic value.
None of these proposals are magic bullets. But all involve a shift of mindset that values and supports people living in our poorest communities and views them as equals.
Julian Dobson is a ResPublica Research Associate. He is a writer, speaker and commentator on regeneration, place-making, civil society and social policy. He is also a trainer, adviser and facilitator,...