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Neighbourhoods matter

John-HoughtonThis is the first of a number of blogs from John P. Houghton on IPPR North’s new report ‘Love thy neighbourhood – people and place in social reform’.

A few months ago, on this blog, we discussed the value of talking about our emotions when discussing the places where we live and work. Inspired by the audience questioning at a Glass-house debate in Liverpool, I argued that we should talk more about love, about how places make us feel, to avoid regurgitating the lifeless register of place-making jargon.

So I was pleasantly surprised by the title of IPPR North’s latest publication: ‘Love thy neighbourhood – people and place in social reform’. I was on the advisory group for the report and chipped in a few ideas, so I was familiar with the overall thrust of the conclusions, but I didn’t anticipate the name.

The report is the latest in the IPPR’s ‘Condition of Britain’ series – an attempt to do what the commission on social justice (CSJ) did in the 1990s for left-of-centre social policy thinking. With one crucial exception.

For all its modernising proposals about investing in twentieth century skills and turning the welfare system into a springboard, rather than a safety net, the CSJ was virtually silent on the importance of place to people’s welfare and life chances. Like so much previous Labour thinking and policy, it was spatially blind.

In contrast, ‘Love thy neighbourhood’ is a clear and persuasive reminder that neighbourhoods matter. It comes at a particularly important time as neighbourhoods policy is now largely out of vogue and attention has shifted to the sub-regional scale at which local enterprise partnerships operate, and which is seen to be the key to macro-economic revival.

This may be the case but, as the report reminds us, the neighbourhood is the most effective place to ‘facilitate public service reform aimed at tackling complex problems’, like troubled families, long-term unemployment and anti-social behaviour. It’s only at this granular level that complex and knotty problems can be worked through and resolved.

The report also reminds us that neighbourhood-level interventions can and do have an impact. Undoubtedly helped by general economic growth, the Blair government’s multi-billion pound battery of programmes and interventions aimed at the poorest areas did deliver meaningful improvements and started to narrow the gap between them and the rest of the country.

Ed Cox, the report’s main author, can speak with great authority on these issues. He was a member of the national community forum, a group of neighbourhood activists invited to inform and challenge government thinking about neighbourhood renewal, and after that a special adviser to Hazel Blears at DCLG.

While Ed led the research it’s important to recognise the crucial contributions of Anna Turley, Bill Davies and Mark Harrison, all of whom brought their own rooted and well-informed perspectives and proposals.

‘Love thy neighbourhood’ makes a series of recommendations which I think many most of you would broadly support. It also makes some suggestions which you might be less enthusiastic about (like the importance of local councillors and the idea of ‘community budgeting plus’, to give two examples).

Either way, I urge you to read it, respond to it and use it as a conversation starter. We sometimes complain that neighbourhoods policy gets ignored or downgraded – IPPR North have created an opportunity to put it back on the agenda.

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