Monthly Archives: October 2012

Elbow room…

“All too easily the social scientist can be the unwitting servant of contemporary social values, and in the study of poverty, this can have disastrous practical consequences. He may side with the dominant or majority view of the poor. If, by contrast, he feels obliged or is encouraged from the start to make a formal distinction between scientific and conventional perspectives, he is more likely to enlarge knowledge by bringing to light information which has been neglected and create more elbow room for alternative forms of action”

Peter Townsend (1979)

Last week saw the launch of the Commission’s report exploring the approaches of the 12 North East Local Authorities in fulfilling their local duties under the Child Poverty Act. The Act requires local authorities and their partners to prepare and publish a Child Poverty Needs Assessment and a joint Child Poverty Strategy for their area.

The report can be accessed by clicking on the image below.

The report, which is primarily aimed at policy makers and practitioners, explores the priorities identified by local authority Strategies and Needs Assessments and challenges the focus of some of these documents using available evidence. The report concludes with 20 potential policy options for local authorities and regional bodies to consider when refreshing and updating their Needs Assesmments and Strategies.

The report was launched at an event at Durham University on Friday 19th October and during the presentation that I delivered, I suggested, with the aid of the Peter Townsend quote at the top of this blog, that we, in the region, had some ‘elbow room’ to develop alternative forms of action from those currentlyy being pursued. I argued that central government narratives around the causes of poverty were too narrow and focused primarily on the perceived behavioural shortcomings of a separate and distinct group of ‘poor people’. Using quotes from local authority strategies, I attempted to demonstrate that in a number of cases, local authority priorities adhered too closely to this narrative, even when the research evidence suggested they might not be the most fruitful avenues to pursue. The presentation can be accessed by clicking on the image below

I suggested that 3 small steps could be taken by local authorities when they came to update their Needs Assessments and Strategies, which would represent giant leaps from the existing position. These smalle steps were:

  1. Use – and add to – the evidence base
  2. Examine instituional behaviour – ‘do no harm’
  3. Give people living in poverty a voice

It could be argued that these steps are ‘essentially minimalist’, to use a phrase that Ruth Levitas has levied at national governmental efforts to tackle poverty, but I would also argue that they are practical steps which could result in a very different narrative around poverty being developedin the North East.

Kind regards,


If anyone has problems accessing or downloading the report or presentation, please contact me and we will send you an electronic copy of either or both. The presentation is quite large though…..


Losing control, losing services: Impact of the Cuts in the North East

Guest post by John Clayton, Catherine Donovan, Jacqui Merchant, University of Sunderland

Over the last two years we have been involved in a study looking at the impact of the comprehensive spending review (2010) and the subsequent funding cuts on our partners in the region. This year we were particularly interested to explore whether and how localism – the Coalition idea about empowering communities to take locally based decisions to address local issues – was being experienced by practitioners and service users in small third sector organisations (identified in the first year as being most vulnerable). Fifteen interviews with practitioners and six focus groups with service users were conducted. This included organisations working across education, childcare, social work, young people, disability support, with older people, health promotion, community development, self-help groups for survivors of domestic violence and a refugee and asylum seeker support group. The sample was drawn from across the region.

Our findings indicate that contrary to the rhetoric of ‘Localism’, most participants believe that local decision-making has been removed further away from local control. In particular it is becoming increasingly difficult for small community groups to get funding because of increased changes in funding criteria and consequent competition from bigger organisations including those not based in the local area (e.g. national organisations).

The lack of control over decision-making is resulting in three main impacts:

(i) The further marginalisation of already marginalised groups including older people, young people (particularly those from Black and ethnic minority groups) women, those out of employment and welfare claimants, asylum seekers and refugees, those escaping from abuse/violence and/or who are homeless. The position of these groups is worsening as projects close, ration their services, impose longer waiting lists, claimants face harsher welfare eligibility tests, as unemployment increases and as political rhetoric demonises and blames them for their own circumstances.

(ii) The emotional toll on practitioners and service users. We found increased insecurity among practitioners and service users about what the future will hold along with an emotional toll on practitioners attempting to accommodate spending cuts without any detriment to their service users. Most participants felt funders and politicians no longer care about social need, and/or the services provided. Many practitioners spoke about feeling personally and professionally overwhelmed with the increased work resulting from covering for posts deleted, services cut and hours curtailed. Expressions of despair, bewilderment, low morale, ill-health and fears about their personal and/or their professional future and/or the future of their service and the future for their service users were articulated. Service users also talked about feeling invisible, unheard and/or not understood.

Conversely, participants also spoke of their commitment to fight for and champion their work and their dedication was evidenced in the willingness of staff to do more hours and more work with less resources. All participants were engaged in processes to develop survival strategies for their agency/group.

(iii) A level of emerging resourcefulness of participants. Whilst all participants were engaged in strategies to respond to the funding context, this did not always have positive outcomes. The following strategies were identified that may be useful at some times in some circumstances for some agencies/ user groups but which may also sometimes present counterproductive challenges:

Volunteerism, now being re-branded as ‘The Big Society’ has always existed but is now under threat. The use of volunteers is positive when it is mutually beneficial and when a realistic assessment of training, support and the nature of voluntary work is conducted. This can be negative when such an assessment is not done and volunteers are treated as free labour. There is also the risk of exploitation and of jeopardising the quality of the service provided to service users and/or their safety.

Charging for services can supplement project funds. However, there can be negative outcomes when charges result in a self-help group no longer being able to meet; or when numbers attending courses drop because of cost. Income generating can also change the focus and priorities of agencies and this can be counterproductive for partnership working as erstwhile partners are perceived as competitors.

Diversifying funding streams so that agencies are not reliant on one big funder can be a useful way of developing a survival strategy. However, following the funders’ agenda can move the work away from its original aims. This strategy also demands dedicated fund-raising time and smaller agencies and community groups are often not able to invest this kind of resource.

Developing consortium bids, co-operation and partnership building can be a useful way of building local strategies about need and the provision of services. However, there is evidence that current interpretations of procurement and commissioning procedures of local authorities result in big, national agencies being preferred over local community-embedded consortia. This also has a negative impact on a multi-agency working ethos.

Campaigning and lobbyingcan be useful ways of raising the profile of the work of the agency/group. Again, this takes time and smaller agencies/community groups may not be able to compete with larger agencies to undertake this work which exacerbates the ‘competition’ between groups for funding; and leaves it open for larger local and/or national agencies to move in.

In conclusion…

The rhetoric about ‘localism’ and ‘The Big Society’ is contradicted by our findings which suggest that among the third sector there is a sense of losing control. We recommend:

  • A regional manifesto for the ethical use of volunteers
  • Monitoring by funders to assess the impact of the localism agenda on their spending decisions
  • Strengthening of the role of umbrella organisations to represent the needs of third sector organisations
  • Strategies to promote collaborative working on consortia bids
  • Long-term/in-depth research on the impacts on marginalised service users
  • Development of skills within providers of public services to produce evidence of their worth and value to use in funding bids.

Department of Social Sciences

University of Sunderland

October 2012

Save our childhoods = save our parks and open spaces

Guest post by Harriet Menter, Scotswood Natural Community Garden

Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

“States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child”

Recent cuts in local authority spending on parks will have a detrimental effect on all children in urban areas, especially those from economically deprived backgrounds. Parks provide unique opportunities for children, young people and families to spend time outdoors, in contact with the natural environment. There is an abundance of evidence on the benefits of outdoor play and contact with nature;  and just being outdoors, for people of all ages. Research shows it has a positive impact on physical health, mental health  and self-esteem.

“If you watch a child playing outside they’re just doing so many physical tasks – they run for hours, dig, climb. If you told them to do it they wouldn’t, but they want to because they’re playing. You won’t get that level of physical activity with anything else”. Penny Wilson, head of play at Play Association Tower Hamlets quoted here

The health benefits and positive lifestyle choices developed are also shown to carry through into children’s adult lives.

Parks also provide a fantastic environment for children to learn through play providing huge developmental and educational benefits for children. The opportunities for different types of self-led learning are endless, and the enthusiasm children have for nature, adventure, and outdoor play creates the kind of self- motivated learners teachers and policymakers dream of. A group of children involved in making a den, will be developing their communication skills as they share their ideas and divvy up tasks, doing maths as they measure and estimate the amount of sticks/leaves/mud they may need, science as they experiment with how much weight those roof beams can hold,  storytelling as they invent a narrative of pirates/soldiers/superheroes around their den, art as they decorate their den with mud, flowers etc. They are also developing traits that will make them more effective learners in the school environment: resilience when the first idea fails or the roof beams break and they move on to the second, third or fourth design, problem solving skills, perseverance and confidence in using their own initiative. They are also having huge amounts of fun.

Sadly, children nowadays have much less contact with nature and all its benefits than previous generations. A recent survey by Natural England found that “fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local “patch of nature”, compared to over half of all adults when they were children, and fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild spaces; compared to almost half a generation ago.

A recent report by the National Trust entitled Natural Childhood discusses the benefits of outdoor play for children and the disconnection between children and nature and aims to start a national debate on how to re-engage children with nature.

For my money the answer is urban parks, city farms and community gardens. National Trust properties, English Heritage sites and the like tend to be difficult to reach on public transport, too expensive for many families, and definitely, albeit unintentionally, seem to make people from less socio-economically privileged backgrounds feel out of place. Parks on the other hand are free, often on people’s doorsteps or easily accessible by public transport. Importantly, people from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds feel comfortable accessing these opportunities. If we want to make sure all the benefits of outdoor play that we have mentioned above, don’t become yet another advantage that poorer children miss out on, we have to continue to support our urban parks.

We know that parks and green spaces are hugely important to children from poorer backgrounds. In a recent photography project by Children North East, children identified how important the physical and natural environment is to their lives, and highlighted with their photography the dereliction of these play spaces. After housing, the environemnt and ‘places to go’ were the most important issues for the young people who took part in the project. One young person commented ‘you can’t play in the park cos it’s full of rubbish then you play in the streets and adults get annoyed.’ The report also notes that

‘the majority of photographs (in the places to go theme) were of parks, both play parks and open green spaces. This was clearly where most children and young people spend their free time. They were free to access and most often within walking distance.’ (my emphasis)

During focus group discussions in Gateshead, young people said that the parks were one of the best things about living in Gateshead.  However given the pressures to cut spending on the park’s teams and environmental services, I wonder if the answer would be the same in ten years’ time? Even if the reduced maintainence teams manage to maintain the parks to a decent level, the loss of the whole education teams in some areas means that for those children whose parents do not have the time, resources or confidence to support them in making full use of the parks, these health and developmental opportunities are reduced. Having rangers, education officers and other council officers working in the parks is essential to ensure all children have access to the benefits parks can offer.

The scale of cuts to parks, especially in terms of park rangers who provide a presence in the parks, mean we face a return to the 80’s when parks were unloved, underused, and perceived by many as unsafe places to go. Those with the means can still get their children a  fix of nature by driving out to one of the beautiful National Trust properties in the region. But what about others?

For me, the most important thing about parks is that they are one of the few democratic spaces we have left in our cities. Where else can you find people of all ages and backgrounds sharing space? As the rest of our cities become more segregated, with school choice leading to an increase in class based segregation in schools, parks become even more important as true democratic spaces, where old and young, rich and poor, black and white share space and time. Watching my kids play in Saltwell Park recently, I wondered where else you would find such as mix of people from different ethnic, demographic and socio-economic backgrounds sharing space. For communities to get on well together, to develop trust and understanding, we must have these opportunities to spend time together.

Harriet Menter

Education Manager

Scotswood Natural Community Garden

All of the photographs used in the post were taken by young people as part of the Children NE project.

An excellent post from Kayleigh Garthwaite on the Inequalities blog. The research highlighted was carried out in the North East and the blog is well worth reading in full, especially the response from a GP to her appearance on Radio 4!
Thanks, as ever, the the Inequalities blog for allowing us to re-blog it here.


In a guest post, Kayleigh Garthwaite talks about her recent research with sickness benefit claimants.  Prompted by a hostile email from a GP after speaking about her research recently on national radio, Kayleigh reflects on the real barriers that sickness benefit claimants face, and the challenges of living in a climate of institutionalised suspicion.

What does it mean for sickness benefit claimants to live in a climate of suspicion?

For the past three years, I have been studying the lives of long-term sickness benefits recipients in North East England as part of my PhD research. Recently, I was asked to appear on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ to discuss welfare reform, following a symposium organised by Ben Baumberg and Ruth Patrick in Leeds.

On the programme, I spoke about how a deep-seated fear of welfare reform pervaded the daily lives of people in the study. Some people were afraid of…

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We’ve been framed….

It has been suggested that we need to ‘re-frame the debate’ around child poverty and I came across an interesting article a couple of weeks ago in Evidence & Policy by Frank Mols called ‘What makes a frame persuasive? Lessons from social identity theory’. In the article, Mols argues that ‘politicians and other influential leaders appeal to our social identity by emphasising common in-group membership (‘us’)’ and that they ‘harness social identity by exagerrating intra-group homogeneity and intergroup differences’. Mols goes on to suggest that:

such exaggerations have the potential to shape public perceptions, especially if there are prejudices about the group being targeted, and it is in this way that leaders can create a public opinion wave, and subsequently surf the wave they themselves created. (my emphasis)

I thought about this article when I read a couple of commentsmade by David Cameron on the Andrew Marr show yesterday and when I heard George Osborne’s speech today at the Conservative conference. The comments are below.

Cameron – “We have to find these spending reductions and if we want to avoid cuts in things like hospitals and schools, services that we all rely on, we have to look at things like the welfare budget,”

Osborne – “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”

“We modern Conservatives represent all those who aspire, all who work, save and hope, all who feel a responsibility to put in, not just take out.”

“How can we justify a system where people in work have to consider the full financial costs of having another child, whilst those who are out of work don’t?”

Cameron thus manages to cleverly frame the welfare budget as very separate from health and education and something that not all of us rely on. People who rely on the welfare state are thus ‘othered’ and portrayed as being different from the rest of ‘us’, the ‘non-poor’. This frame is achieved by talking about universal benefits for pensioners as though they are something completely separate from the rest of the welfare state.

Osborne manages to frame benefits as generous and a lifestyle choice of those who ‘just take out’, carefully closing off the truth that many working families rely on benefits and tax credits to make ends meet. The next door neighbour ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’ and the carefree, promiscuous out of work families who have children ‘knowing’ the state is there to write a blank cheque for them (prejudices perhaps?) are contrasted with ‘us’, ‘those who aspire, work, save and hope.’ The potential to move between the two categories of ’employed’ and ‘unemployed’ doesn’t appear to be an option, with both categories being ‘framed’ as static and absolute.

Returning to Mols, he suggests that a ‘frame is expected to be strong when it (a) successfully evokes an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ categorisation’, (b) explicitly portrays the issue as a choice for or against ‘our values’, and (c) implicitly portrays those who disagree as hostile to their own group.

Still, it’s reassuring to know that the government do use ‘evidence’ of some sort when designing their policies, especially, as Professor Alex Stevens has suggested, if it fits with the story already being told



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