Neighbourhood renewal: Learning from Labour’s record

Ruth Lupton, Institute of EducationAs part of a much bigger programme looking at the impacts of government policy and spending on poverty and inequality in the UK I recently had the opportunity, with Alex Fenton and Amanda Fitzgerald, to review Labour’s record on neighbourhood renewal in England between 1997-2010.

Three main things struck me from reading through all the policy documents and evaluations and checking progress against targets.  One was that progress had been made on most fronts.  For example, gaps in worklessness rates between the poorest neighbourhoods and others had narrowed, and despite some widening following the financial crash, were still smaller in 2010 than in 2000.  Gaps on all education and some health indicators (but not life expectancy) narrowed. Burglary rates fell by a half and the relatively higher risk of burglary experienced by those in deprived neighbourhoods reduced.  Fewer people reported serious problems with crime, litter and vandalism.

Of course not all these changes can be attributed to neighbourhood renewal policy and it would be surprising if they were – relatively little neighbourhood renewal money went on health,education and worklessness.  However, in a time when income inequality overall did not fall, it is striking that gaps between neighbourhoods did narrow.

Second, I was struck by just how fundamental the rationale of Labour’s policy under Tony Blair was from that under Gordon Brown.  In the heady days of the policy action teams of 1999/2000, the reason for the new policy regime was social justice – greater equity in the distribution of services, opportunities, and economic and social goods.  A whole policy machinery was put in place to ensure the systematic and long term loading of local funding and services to poorer neighbourhoods.  A particularly strong emphasis was placed on living conditions – crime and neighbourhood environments, because ‘people on low incomes should not have to suffer conditions and services that are failing and so different from what the rest of the population receives’, said the social exclusion unit, while the neighbourhood renewal unit described its floor targets as ‘the social equivalent of the minimum wage’. Lower crime and fear of crime, better homes, environments, child care provision, parks playgrounds and schools were ends in themselves in Blair’s articulation of neighbourhood renewal, because  no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live’ .

Under Gordon Brown, by contrast,  ‘neighbourhood renewal’ was subsumed under ‘regeneration’,  which had three purposes according to DCLG’s 2009 Regeneration Framework: improving economic performance, improving rates of work and enterprise and creating sustainable places where people want to live and work and businesses want to invest.  Here the objective was not a long term skew in government spending, but the opposite – state intervention only where markets had temporary failed, and with a specific ambition to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of ‘subsidising rather than transforming lives.  A more just distribution of services, facilities and environments didn’t get a mention, except that returning all areas to market functionality would benefit people with barriers to full mobility(between areas) and who were therefore most likely to suffer disproportionately from large spatial differences in economic performance’.  In no other area of social policy that our team looked at was there anything like such a fundamental shift in policy purposes, yet this went largely unnoticed outside the regeneration world.

Lastly, I was surprised how difficult it was to report on what Labour achieved and didn’t.  After all, there were floor targets and neighbourhood statistics galore.  However, it quickly became obvious that these only really recorded trends in individual social and economic outcomes.  When we showed our early work to people who worked in neighbourhood renewal, they said ‘yes but what about about all those derelict homes that have gone, what about parks and playgrounds and Sure Start centres and new health centres and traffic calming and neighbourhood wardens and neighbourhood management?’ to mention but a few. Largely for data availability reasons, Labour’s own targets had rendered invisible its considerable achievements in making poorer neighbourhoods better places to live.  If these things are going to be seen as ends in themselves, then we need to measure them, not least to identify where work still needs to be done.

As Labour starts to think about its policies for the next election, I wonder whether it will start from the current understandings that economic and housing markets should generally sort out neighbourhood disparities, with temporary and transformational interventions by the state to sort out cases of ‘market failure’, or whether it will look back to Blair’s version of neighbourhood renewal, based on an understanding that markets produce inequity, and that states need to intervene to protect citizens through the provision/facilitation of non-market goods, services and amenities.  This seems to me to be its fundamental question.  It can then look for evidence of what still needs to be done and where.  Whether policies are central or local, top down or bottom up, and what they specifically prescribe must all fall out from that.


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John Diamond
John Diamond
10 years ago

I think the issues and questions raised by Ruth are central to the informed critical discussion we need to have. And part of that discussion involves the ambivalence held by the New Labour leadership towards community based projects, leaders and those not included in the conventional definitions of who counts as a leader (usually elected politicians). So that as part of the neighbourhood renewal initiative locally based projects/leaders were ‘in’ because they offered an alternative set of ideas / energy to the inert professionals but they were ‘out’ when it came to defining needs and priorities. In essence it is about what Labour are comfortable with ‘giving up’ and devolving downwards. And just as the right hijacked the idea of an inclusive politics (through their appeal to the VCS) we need not let the ideas of decentralisation and devolution be hijacked by the right’s ideas of ‘localism’. So this discussion is timely as well as being important and it seems to me it is about extending the networks and alliances which do want social justice and a more progressive politics as well as recognising the need for difficult conversations too.

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