Q & A with the Bishop of Birmingham: A joined-up approach to poverty

david-urquhartHe collected hunger stories during Lent, is co-ordinating a social inclusion network across the UK, and is calling for everyone – from businesses to individuals – to take responsibility for growing levels of poverty. New Start speaks to the Bishop of Birmingham, David Urquart.

During Lent you set up books around the city for people to record their experiences of hunger and raise awareness.
Yes, we left books in communities around the city for people to record their stories as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign. There are stories of people who cannot survive on the benefits they are allocated and have to rely on foodbanks just to make sure they have something to eat every day. There are others whose low-paid work barely covers bills and rent and others who are unable to find work because of a history of offending, because of their immigration status, because of mental ill-health or the costs of childcare. Many of these people tell of a moment of crisis such as bereavement, domestic abuse, conflict with family or trauma of some kind that has led to their inability to support themselves without the help of foodbanks or other agencies. One of the main challenges is that tipping point between being able to manage and then, because of a change in the benefits system for example, finding that they can no longer manage, that their cash runs out before the end of the week. Another clear challenge is that poverty is now experienced by people in work, underlying the narrative about affordable jobs and those that turn up as jobs on national employment statistics. A very strong theme is the immoral slur on people trying to cope, who are seen as inadequate or scroungers. That needs to be turned on its head. Most people are trying to work and make ends meet. The main themes and stories from the End Hunger Fast campaign will be put forward into the food bank inquiry, led by Frank Field and the Bishop of Truro.

You set up a social inclusion process in Birmingham to tackle growing poverty in the city.
Yes, the local strategic partnership ended and we decided to keep up the relationships it produced – between the local authority, the community, business and faith groups – by launching a social inclusion process and published our findings in March 2013 in a white paper called Giving Hope Changing Lives. We identified five key lines of enquiry and then went into the city and investigated poverty. Out of that came seven commitments and each of those has a champion who is working on detailed priorities and their implementation. The local authority cabinet has endorsed the white paper, the leader’s statement has social inclusion as one of its three main priorities, and the work has now begun to implement the reduction of inequality.  Alongside that, we have a social inclusion summit, which, even with budget restrictions, has proved resilient in bringing together all interested parties. It’s a process that succeeds because of good relationships and a common interest to make Birmingham a better place.

The white paper criticises previous attempts to regenerate Birmingham. What has gone wrong in the past? We need to move from the complicated to the complex. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has said that human beings make things overcomplicated, but flourishing humanity knows how to enjoy complexity. The challenge now is for those who have tried to simplify their objectives in dealing with poverty to link up with others also trying to eliminate poverty. The DWP for example has a vast budget and my experience of them is that it’s very centrally controlled. It has high ambitions to relieve poverty and help people back to work but in a top-down and not very collaborative way. So it may look quite efficient and accountable – like it’s simplifying the complicated – but over the last 14 years the inequalities map has not changed much even though millions has been spent by central government. So what I’m aiming for is for DWP and St Basil’s homeless charity – the leading homeless charity outside London – and the local health trusts and schools to all work together at the local level to tackle poverty in all its complexity. We’ve seen the troubled families programme work across silos in the city so there is hope.

bishop at breakfast club

The Bishop of Birmingham at a school breakfast club in the Nechells area of the city

Birmingham’s social inclusion white paper says that national and local government alone are no longer able to solve the problem of poverty but that a wider sense of responsibility is needed. Can you explain?
We need that deeper sense of unselfishness that reaches out to a fellow human being in need. Poverty is not simply someone else’s problem and a recovery of that natural human instinct to care for someone who is struggling is the responsibility of us all. That requires a new confidence in our own freedom to look after each other. Part of this is about the sense that the post-second world war social settlement of Beveridge has lost its way. Its success led to an expectation that there would be provision in times of extreme need but it became so effective that people became dependent on it. As the country became richer, people’s expectations of a good life grew and grew and those who couldn’t get a good life still expected the state to provide. Now we have a renewal of effort in ordinary people standing on their own two feet. The people I meet who are in poverty are in jobs, trying to work and bring up their family, and longing to be free from dependence on benefits.

Poverty is not simply someone else’s problem

and a recovery of that natural human instinct to care

for someone who is struggling is the responsibility of us all.

The responsibility is first of all to change the narrative which sees those have succeeded in achieving a good lifestyle look on those who haven’t as failures or scroungers. It’s a responsibility of us all to understand that most people in poverty are trying desperately to get out of poverty. We’ve recently started a programme in Birmingham called Near Neighbours – funded by DCLG – to help people to make friends and make a difference in their community. It has revealed the resources of local areas to do things. It’s an asset-based approach to community development, built on the basic insight that human beings are gregarious and curious and have a great capacity for the creative development of solutions to challenges.
So what we need is a holistic and multi-departmental approach to problems, to tease out what is essential and help people move on. Neighbourliness is a proactive natural human activity that can’t be done by a government department but by all of us.

Do you see business as part of the solution to poverty?
I was in oil industry for ten years and have a huge passion for business as an essential driver for prosperity for all. Birmingham’s business community did that when we were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, when capital was developed and owned locally. One of the big changes is impersonal decision-making about the use of resources. It’s why I work hard with global banks in Birmingham who are willing and able to engage with the idea of providing good banking that affects ordinary peoples’ lives. They are very powerful but the idea and perception of all-powerful global capitalism was shattered in the financial crash. Now they need to change from being all-powerful to being an effective part of the local economy. It’s very demanding but there is a willingness to improve.

The white paper talks about the need to work at the level of ‘locales’, or neighbourhoods.
Yes. Birmingham is very big. It has the largest local authority in Europe and is not regionalised. I think that co-ordinating Birmingham in a new way is a very important topic for us. We have all sorts of ideas around this but the council should take the lead in a new model of co-ordination across the city that is in partnership with all the other people making a difference in the city.
Decisions need to be made at the appropriate level. So you have what I like to describe as an engine room that is responsible for co-ordination, data collection and dissemination and policy development. But decision-making should happen at a different level. So a proper coordination strategy should allow for three levels of operation – policy at the highest level, practical at the project level and pastoral at the personal level. This removes barriers to mobilization and gives permission for action at the grassroots level. We know that the most dramatic changes happen through passionate volunteers and no command and control system or amazing theory will change that.
These ‘locales’ are where the energy, insight and solution-finding is. The trick in Birmingham is to join up the good practice from one community to another so that these communities benefit from each other’s ideas and those who aren’t active need to see what’s possible. The tragedy of recent times is the rapid rise of neighbourhood management and then its decline through budget cuts. A combination of good professionals and all the different interested service bodies and the community means that you get directed policies that listen to what people actually want and it’s a great formula. Birmingham is well placed for this: we are a city of a 1000 villages.

You’ve set up a National Social Inclusion Network to co-ordinate action on poverty across the UK.
Yes. In September last year we convened a conference of all those cities and boroughs that had set up fairness commissions or social inclusion processes. The result has been a declaration that has now been signed by 15 boroughs and cities, saying to national government that we have insights that overlap and that we are better together but we’d like the permission and resources to tackle some of these issues.
So the plan is that certain cities will work on different issues related to poverty. They will bring people together locally around child poverty for example and at same time try to speak to national policy as a whole.


Local rugby team the Worcester Warriors is joined by the Bishop of Birmingham at SIFA Fireside homeless charity

Birmingham’s social inclusion white paper talks about inclusive growth. What is it and how can it be achieved?
It starts with jobs and livelihoods, which includes health, housing and education. It’s also about local responsibility, and about businesses being fully involved in the whole of their local society. It’s about the available resources in any economy being shared justly and so it’s trying to tackle unacceptable inequality as well as promote effective well-resourced jobs. The dilemma of capitalism is particularly acute when national budgets in a global capitalist system don’t balance. A capitalism based on a weak basis of wealth and productivity is unlikely to deliver prosperity for all. This is the huge debate about the inadequacy of how the national budget operates and why people are deeply skeptical of growth figures that don’t turn into change at the bottom and trickle down doesn’t work even though new economists still talk about it. That’s why we need mutual responsibility and redistribution. This country is still a redistributive economy and still has the roots of welfare justice in its policies. There’s a big debate needed about where to spend scarce resources. This is a profoundly moral issue about how much a person needs to flourish.


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