Planners have, inevitably, a primary focus on matters geographical - or 'place' as the trendier ones like to call it these days. So I get it when the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) rolls out a slightly whining piece about place and poverty:
Trudi Elliott, RTPI chief executive, said: ‘Many of the root causes of deprivation and social inequality are bound up in the poor quality of neighbourhoods - places that have no employment and lack community amenities, are poorly connected or simply run down.
‘Good planning is the one tool in our hands that can make places increase people's opportunities and help lift them from poverty.’
The planners go on to complain that:
...national welfare policies place too much emphasis on the individual factors behind poverty—poor education, for example—and not enough on physical environment.
The problem is that the planners are wrong. Not completely - there is some small evidence linking environmental or physical environment to poverty - but almost completely. To use a famous example, people live in Easterhouse because they're poor, they aren't poor because they live in Easterhouse. And if we look up and down the country we will find similar places - in every large conurbation - where, as the last group of poor, often immigrant people move out, they're replaced by a new group of poor, often immigrant people. My wife's uncle, the son of Russian Jews, was born - in poverty - in Whitechapel but ended his life in Alwoodley a wealthy suburb of Leeds. There aren't many Jews left in Whitechapel but the place still has poor people - Bengalis, Somalis, Roma - living there.
Even where we are speaking of the 'indigenous' UK population, the truth about poor places is that they stay that way because they are places where poor people can afford to live. Whether a place has high levels of private rental property or concentrations of social housing, their poverty is sustained by people moving into those places not by those places making people poor. When Bradford Trident (based in Little Horton and West Bowling two of Bradford's poorest places) studied what happened during its ten year regeneration programme, what it found was that people who did well - finished school, got a job, were in a settled relationship - moved out of the area. They didn't go far - half a mile or so to Wibsey or Great Horton, for example - but they moved away. And the low rent, poor quality place they left behind was occupied by another generation of poverty.
So we should guard against the argument from planners that says they can somehow fix poverty by fixing places. Over the years from 1997 billions was invested in many of the poorest places - through 'decent homes' investment, through the Single Regeneration Budget and through the neighbourhood renewal programmes. And at the end of these programmes those places were still poor places - better places for sure with better schools, better access to health care and lots of community support programmes but still places where poor people go to live. The root causes of poverty, inequality and deprivation are not rooted in places or their physical environment but rather in those individual factors - health, education, lifestyle - that the planners dismiss.
The truth is that, as JRF showed a few years ago, the poorest places in England in 1968 remain, overwhelmingly, the poorest places in England today. Despite approaching fifty years of regeneration.