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Briefing Paper 25: Tackling Poverty in Local Areas

What are briefing papers?

Briefing papers aim to set out current thinking, discussion and debate around a specific topic or question.

This briefing paper has been published to support the Community Regeneration and Tackling Poverty Learning Network which is managed by the Scottish Government through it's Scottish Centre for Regeneration. It was written by Dr John McKendrick from Glasgow Caledonian University.

The views expressed in briefing papers are not necessarily shared by the Scottish Government.

What is this briefing paper about?

This paper represents Dr John McKendrick's reflections on the issues currently surrounding tackling poverty in local areas and its related strategies. It proposes that although we face challenges overcoming deprivation which may persist at an area level, local action can play a key role in tackling poverty and should be strengthened.

Poverty in Scotland

Poverty can be perceived as an enduring and persistent problem in Scotland. History advises us of the hardship, absence of necessities and extreme material deprivation that was the hallmark of life in Scotland's urban slums and rural countryside. More recently, ever since, what social policy analysts' describe as the 'rediscovery of poverty' in 1960s, we have been aware that poverty has been a problem in modern Scotland. Explicit local and national strategies to tackle poverty have emerged to tackle this problem. Our concerns over poverty may now be heightened as the UK - in the context of a global economy - faces the prospect of several years of fiscal adjustment. Although steps may be taken to protect the most vulnerable, loss of local service provision will have an impact on those living in areas with high levels of poverty. However, poverty is not just a problem in challenging times - it should be noted that poverty in local areas also persisted through the economic boom years of the late 1990s-early 2000s.

What are the challenges for tackling poverty in local areas?

First, we must address the question of 'should we persist with local action to tackle poverty?' It has been observed that poverty has persisted through periods of economic growth, economic slowdown and recession. Furthermore, poverty has persisted despite local and national strategies to tackle it. If poverty is such an entrenched problem, should regeneration practitioners not be diverting their energies to overcome challenges that are within their reach to address?

It is not only the existence of poverty that is enduring, its distribution among the population has also proven to be resistant to change. Thus, we must face up to the fact that Scotland's poverty has tended to affect the same groups of people in the same places through the years. In every one of Scotland's large towns and cities, there are local areas that are synonymous with poverty and deprivation, e.g. Craigneuk in Airdrie, Wester Hailes in Edinburgh and so on. These same areas have tended to be the focus for successive regeneration, social strategy and anti-poverty programmes. If sustained activity has not led to the eradication of poverty in these places, does that call into question the effectiveness of what has been undertaken to date?

Finally, local action to tackle poverty comes in many forms. This diversity is to be welcomed as it suggests that fit-for-purpose strategies are being devised to tackle a wide range of problems across Scotland. However, this array of activity may lead us to question exactly what 'local anti poverty work' means in the context of working to eradicate poverty in Scotland. Can we find an inclusive definition of local anti poverty work reaching a shared understanding of how this relates to national (or international) anti poverty activity? Local means many things to many people. Local action is often associated with local organisations and, in Scotland, has tended to be most closely associated with local authorities (and now Community Planning Partnerships). However, local action might have a more limited focus on the neighbourhood, or even the street.

What is known about tackling poverty in local areas already?

  • Local anti-poverty work has remained prominent for almost fifty years. Many major urban policy initiatives in the UK have involved local work to tackle poverty and regenerate communities. Local anti-poverty work is not new. It can be traced back to the Urban Programme of the late 1960s and has included large scale projects such as the Glasgow Eastern Area Renewal (GEAR) scheme of the 1970s, local enterprise companies of the 1980s, Social Inclusion Partnerships (SIPS) introduced in the late 1990s and the targeted local interventions that were part of the Closing the Opportunity Gap strategy of the Noughties.
  • In urban areas, poverty is concentrated. This is well established and the geography of affluence and poverty is commonly understood. The language used to describe area-types on the ground can be demeaning and often smacks of povertyism 1, e.g. places experiencing poverty tend to be known as deprived areas in the media and decision-making circles, or as 'rough estates', 'jungles', 'Beirut' and other such pejorative terms in everyday language.
  • The micro-geography of poverty, both urban and rural, has become clearer through time. Although the broad geographical patterns of affluence and poverty are common knowledge, micro-level data have improved in recent years, enabling analysts to better assess the relative standing among deprived areas and to pinpoint the scale of the problem for smaller geographical areas. The key driver for improving our understanding of the character of local deprivation has been the introduction of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2, which allows for 6505 micro-areas of between 500 and 1000 people in Scotland, to be ranked from 'best' to 'worst'. It is now possible to assess with a little manipulation, for example, whether Glasgow's deprivation is greater in Castlemilk, Pollock, Easterhouse or Drumchapel, and which small areas within these large estates are relatively more deprived.
  • Although poverty tends to be enduring and persistent, some local areas which have been synonymous with poverty have changed through time. Comprehensive regeneration strategies are transforming the built environment in areas such as the Gorbals in Glasgow. More subtle are changes in population composition that change the character of local poverty. For example, notwithstanding the lower levels of life expectancy in the Calton area of Glasgow, out-migration of family households over the years has meant that Calton's local poverty is more strongly characterised by poverty among older people. On the other hand, in-migration of migrant populations from Eastern Europe has lent a stronger ethnic character to the poverty that is now being experienced in the Govanhill area of Glasgow. Local poverty can persist, yet change in character, through time.

What can we add to our existing knowledge and understanding?

It is widely understood that where poverty is concentrated, our understanding of these concentrations has improved through time, local change is possible and there is a role for the 'local' in tackling poverty. To this stock of knowledge, our review of local approaches to tackling poverty in Scotland adds the following points.

  • 'Local' has tended to reflect the areas for which data are available. Quantitative evidence has been an important tool in local anti poverty work, both as a means to identify problem areas and as a means to monitor whether progress is being made. As a result, local areas tend to reflect the availability of local data. With the growing availability of ever more localised data, there is now greater potential for small community-based local anti-poverty strategies. However, although smaller-scale data are available, there may be limits to how far data can be used to profile the problem and evidence change. For example, some coherent communities are described by more than one datazone 3. This is a minor inconvenience when the solution is to aggregate data for larger neighbourhoods that comprise several discrete datazones. However, for smaller communities - particularly small rural communities - community profiles can be lost within a datazone that includes their area and neighbourging areas. For example, the island of Colonsay is subsumed within a larger datazone that includes Colonsay, Jura and North Islay.
  • Local successes - SURF Annual Awards for Best Practice in Community Regeneration. Local anti-poverty and community regeneration activity is being acknowledged for the positive difference it makes to the lives of people living in Scotland's most deprived areas. A strong indicator of local success is evidenced by SURF's annual awards for best practice in regeneration activity focused on people, place and partnerships. In 2010, the SURF awards attracted over 80 entries, which is suggestive of the array of good practice in Scotland.
  • Local anti poverty strategies can have a rural focus. Local anti-poverty work is pursued in both urban and rural Scotland. Poverty tends to be most associated with urban Scotland given that more of Scotland's population live in urban areas where poverty is highly concentrated and visible. However, it is recognised that local anti-poverty work is also being pursued in rural Scotland. Indeed, Constructive Communities in Argyll and Bute was shortlisted for the 'People' SURF award in 2009 for its work in providing employability and construction skills training through a programme of repairs and redecoration in community halls across Argyll and Bute. Similarly, the Three Villages Community Campus was shortlisted for the 'Place' SURF award in 2009 to provide a community facility that would facilitate social cohesion and improve inter-generational relations among the people of Arrochar, Tarbet and Succoth. Although 'local' may cover a more expansive area in rural Scotland, it is nevertheless possible to pursue.
  • Local anti-poverty work is often initiated through national strategies. Many 'local' anti poverty strategies are funded and follow programme objectives that are set at the national level. Here, local anti-poverty work is, in effect, used as a means to achieve national level objectives. In Scotland, the 'national' dimension to local anti-poverty work sometimes pertains to the UK (e.g. the pilot scheme to reconfigure welfare in Glasgow, local implementation of the various New Deals of the New Labour). At other times, the national is 'Scotland' (e.g. the local work that was undertaken to meet the Social Justice Milestones of the first Scottish Government administration, or the local work that is being pursued through the Fairer Scotland Fund). At the current time, the National Performance Framework provides an overarching goal for local anti-poverty work and the outcomes approach (of Single Outcome Agreements) provide a means for directly articulating how the local priorities of CPPs relate to the national goals of Scotland.

On reflection, local anti-poverty work can relate to national anti-poverty strategy in three ways:

  • Local strategies are used to achieve national goals. As discussed in the previous paragraph and working on the assumption that the sum of the parts (local interventions) equals the whole (national target). In turn, these local strategies are of two sub-types:
  • Where the programme goals are established centrallyFor example, Closing the Opportunity Gap where local work was carefully targeted as part of a (Scottish) national strategy. Here, there is more central control over 'local' anti-poverty work.
  • Where the programme goals are established locally. For example, Single Outcome Agreements afford local Community Planning Partnerships the scope to set their own local priorities on the understanding that these will contribute to achieving National targets. Here, there is more local control over strategy.
  • Local strategies are used to complement and extend the goals of national strategies.There is scope for local anti-poverty work to tackle aspects of poverty that are not prioritised or even acknowledged in national strategy. This may arise from a problem that is particularly local (e.g. environmental degradation) or a policy area which is the responsibility of local authorities (e.g. public service provision)
  • Local strategies are implemented in the absence of a national strategy. Strathclyde Regional Council's Social Strategy for the Eighties (and then Nineties) was an innovative approach to tackling multiple deprivation based on the identification of Areas for Priority Treatment (APTs). The strategy largely grew in response to the lack of UK national government support to tackle social problems in the west of Scotland's most deprived areas. In effect, this local strategy was 'oppositional' to the national approach at the time.
  • Poverty is everybody's business. The possibility of local area change emphasises that tackling poverty and regenerating communities are not just matters for the Exchequer and central government - local interventions can make positive differences too. Indeed, the idea that poverty 'is everyone's business' has been to the fore in two recent high profile anti-poverty strategies in the UK - Ending Child Poverty - Everybody's Business 4 was the title of the joint report and blueprint of HM Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008. More recently, Poverty - It's Everyone's Business has been adopted as the key message and theme of the UK campaign, as part of the European Year of Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion 2010 (EY2010). Therefore, UK national strategies to tackle poverty have a clear understanding that tackling poverty must be progressed at many levels - including the local.

The way ahead

This paper has attempted to address the challenges outlined above. It has been argued that we should be undertaking local action to tackle poverty - at the very least, so as to ensure that matters are not made worse in Scotland's most vulnerable communities - and that it is important to understand 'local action' in the wider national context. The challenge that lies ahead is how to maximise the effectiveness of 'local action'.

  • Strengthening the community scale. Although much work is being undertaken in communities, this tends either to take the form of an isolated community-led project or a community intervention that is part of a wider local authority led programme. There is scope for a more integrated and overarching local anti poverty strategies that are conceived, designed, implemented and managed at the community scale.
  • Setting achievable goals for successful local anti-poverty work. Many of the levers for tackling poverty rest outwith the control of local areas, e.g. taxation and welfare are the responsibility of UK Government. Furthermore, restrictions on local government spending may limit what can be achieved locally. However, this should not be used as an argument against local anti-poverty work. Rather, it presents a challenge - the task of articulating what can be achieved by local anti-poverty work. As initiatives such as the SURF awards demonstrate, local anti-poverty activity should be valued for its work in reducing the negative effects of poverty and enabling people to prepare themselves to live a life free of poverty. These are realistic goals for a local anti-poverty strategy. To seek to eradicate local poverty is completely is laudable, but unrealistic for a local strategy and would only serve to demoralise in the longer term.
  • Funding local intervention. It is not realistic to expect that additional funding streams will become available to finance a raft of new local anti-poverty schemes. However, some people would argue that it may be a prudent use of the funds that area available to use them to empower communities to determine their own priority spends and to challenge them to articulate these priorities within a comprehensive local anti-poverty strategy that energizes them by giving them responsibility for making changes that are within their reach.


1 Like ageism (for age) and sexism (for gender) povertyism refers to when individuals, families or communities are discriminated against on the basis of being poor. Challenging Povertyism was the theme for a TUC conference in October 2008.

2 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Statistics/SIMD

3 Datazones are the smallest geographical areas in Scotland for which data are published.

4 http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/bud_bud08_child.htm

Scottish Centre for Regeneration

This document is published by the Scottish Centre for Regeneration, which is part of the Scottish Government. We support our public, private and voluntary sector delivery partners to become more effective at:

  • regenerating communities and tackling poverty
  • developing more successful town centres and local high streets
  • creating and managing mixed and sustainable communities
  • making housing more energy efficient
  • managing housing more efficiently and effectively

We do this through:

  • coordinating learning networks which bring people together to identify the challenges they face and to support them to tackle these through events, networking and capacity building programmes
  • identifying and sharing innovation and practice through publishing documents detailing examples of projects and programmes and highlighting lessons learned
  • developing partnerships with key players in the housing and regeneration sector to ensure that our activities meet their needs and support their work

Scottish Centre for Regeneration
Scottish Government
Highlander House
58 Waterloo Street
G2 7DA
Tel: 0141 271 3736
Email: contactscr@scotland.gsi.gov.uk

The views expressed in briefing papers are those of participants at various events and are not necessarily shared by their employers, the Scottish Centre for Regeneration or the Scottish Government.

December 2010