street view through a glass ball

Are we failing to focus on disadvantaged places?

12 September 2018 4 minute read

New research has revealed the scale of the problem in local government finances in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. Is it time for the social sector to come together in a coalition for change to help tackle this looming crisis—and prevent it from happening again?

The New Policy Institute (NPI) and the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales have today published A quiet crisis, research they’ve undertaken into the services that English local authorities provide to their most disadvantaged residents—and how these services have changed between 2011/12 and 2016/17. If you’ve got the time, I thoroughly recommend that you read it.

The research brings home the reality—maybe less glamourous than failure in historic shires such as Northamptonshire which even made the New York Times—that cuts are hitting the most deprived councils the hardest. Almost the entire burden of the reduction on spending on disadvantage—essentially, adult social care, children’s social care, housing services, substance misuse support and local welfare assistance schemes—has been concentrated in the most deprived fifth of all councils.

In what increasingly looks like a sinister loop of cause-and-effect, most of these services will have faced sizeable increases in the numbers of people needing support precisely at a time when budgets have shrunk, or at best stayed static. The report cites, for example, an 11 per cent increase in the number of looked-after children, and a 60 per cent increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation, over five years.

Reduced funding and greater demand in already deprived areas has led to a switch away from preventative services—the holy grail of public service reform under successive governments since the early 2000s—towards crisis services. NPI And Lloyds report that cuts of 46 per cent to services geared towards helping people stay in their homes have been counter-balanced by a whopping 58 per cent increase in spend on temporary accommodation for the homeless.

These phenomena all have serious, adverse effects on other public service providers such as the NHS, not to mention those individuals and communities already living at the sharp end of deprivation, isolation and alienation.

They also stretch the fabric of the social sector, much of which is dedicated to eliminating these problems. Localgiving’s 2017/2018 Local Charity and Community Group Sustainability Report revealed that 78 per cent of local charities endured an increase in demand for their services over the previous 12 months, with 85 per cent predicting further increases in demand. Only 14 per cent of respondents felt they had sufficient resources to meet this—and a worrying 53 per cent feared for their survival over the next five-year period.

What is to be done about all of this? NPI and Lloyds call for extra resources to be made available to the most vulnerable services in the most strained local authority areas. They also call for both a change of direction in terms of place-based funding, and for an urgent debate about the nature and ‘level of service and outcomes achievable for some of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.’

Obviously, we in the social sector have no direct say over these policy areas, though focusing resources on the most deprived areas, with the lowest social capital, is something NPC called for in our response to the Civil Society Strategy. That doesn’t mean we are powerless, but we must figure out how to deploy the resources we have most effectively in the areas that need them most.

Key to this, I think, is to understand what we know and what we don’t know about challenging places. The NPI and Lloyds paper draws on local authority data, which is good, but it points out that the data hides costs which fall elsewhere, either on the NHS, schools or families. Charities should be part of that calculation. Of course, joining this data up will be a job of work in itself, but are we as a sector even at the point where we have anything to share?

Equally as important will be our ability to work with partners from outside the social sector. Place based working is rising up the agenda at the moment not because it is a fad, but because we all know these intractable problems won’t be solved by any one organisation insolation. In a place-based setting, using local authority units as the obvious starting point, we can come together with councils, business and anyone else who is interested in achieving change. But for all the warm feeling about place, the mechanics of this collaboration are not straightforward, and a lot of work needs to be done to understand how it can be most effective.

So, starting in October, NPC will seek to build a coalition for meaningful, place based change within the social sector. We want to inspire fresh thinking about how places work; what the levers are, formal and informal, traditional and new, to achieve change in a place; and how different sectors can come together to maximise impact for people and communities they live in.

We want this to be something that individuals and organisations from across the social sector can get involved in, so please get in touch if you want to help us shape a new future for the decades ahead.