6 December 2016

Why place?

Prevention, performance, participation, partnership; the four pillars of the Christie Commission are now well-known. But what about ‘place’? 

Here What Works Scotland Research Associate Claire Bynner examines the role of place-based approaches, what ‘place’ offers to public service development and delivery, and also what it doesn’t. 

Place is a physical setting and social context. Place is rich in meaning although what a place means, and to whom, and for what reason, is highly contested and frequently challenged.

In recent years there has been a 'return to place' in Scottish policy. After a period when the focus of attention was on 'strategic' partnership working, attention is now back on neighbourhoods, community assets and place-based approaches.

The Community Empowerment Act 2015 has embedded this approach with the statutory requirement that each community planning partnership (CPP) divides the area of the local authority into smaller areas described as 'localities' underpinned by a commitment to reducing inequality and taking greater account of the needs of those localities experiencing poorer outcomes. The Act has been described as a potential 'game changer' in the ambition to improve outcomes and tackle inequalities between communities in Scotland, but as yet I am not aware of any radical change in the way CPPs work with communities. Local Outcome Improvement Plans are very much like their predecessor  - Single Outcome Agreements and many authorities already produce locality plans in their priority areas.

Place is everywhere!

Neddy Seagoon: What are you doing here?
Eccles: Everybody's gotta be somewhere.

In this quote from The Goon Show, Eccles reminds Neddy Seagoon that place is everywhere. Just as 'everybody's gotta be somewhere', so everything has to happen somewhere!

It is therefore not that surprising that place is a popular policy concept. It offers a holistic or 'whole place' approach that crosses policy sectors and silos. Its added attraction for policy-makers is that it sounds tangible, immediate and local. It's something an individual can identify with – a place to live, a place of work, and a place to care about and protect.

At the same time, place can easily become a catchall for a range of potentially inconsistent policy agendas. The downside of a place-based approach is the risk that it becomes weakly-specified, poorly-evidenced and 'a receptacle for odds and ends'.

This agenda is not new. The timeline below from the Institute of Government traces place-based working in England back to 1997. I would argue that place-based working stretches even further back to the Community Development Projects of the 1960s and '70s. But even if we look back to 1997 and New Labour there have been 59 national programmes in England alone.  The picture for Scotland looks very similar and this doesn’t even begin to capture the huge number of local initiatives.

Timeline of key national atttempts to join up public services at a local level in England
Created by the Institute for Government. See a larger version, a services map and a briefing paper on the IfG website www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/joining-up-local-services 

It is possible to identify at least four explanations for why, over time, place-based approaches have been so popular:

  1. The civic rationale: Neighbourhoods can be sites of identification and have meaning in people’s lives, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods. Civic activity can mobilise local assets and increase the participation of individuals in civic life. Local assets include social networks and relationships, as well as physical resources such as land and buildings. This rationale underpins most asset based approaches to community development  
  2. The joined-up rationale: The neighbourhood provides a site for innovation in developing joined-up local actions from a range of stakeholders and agencies to provide more integrated service provision. This rationale underpins the driver for more partnership working at a locality level 
  3. The political rationale: At the neighbourhood level there is the potential for improvement in accessibility, accountability and responsiveness in decision-making.  The development of a more participatory democracy, in which local people have a tangible impact on decisions about their local area, is manifest in programmes such as Scotland’s participatory budgeting programme
  4. The socio-economic rationale: The assumption underpinning this rationale is that local interventions can improve individual outcomes and reduce spatial inequalities. The evidence to support this driver for place-based working is mixed. Individuals whose lives improve often leave the neighbourhood and the benefits 'leak out' of the area. This intrinsic openness is why inclusive growth is less straightforward at more local levels. The causes of neighbourhood deprivation are less to do with who lives there and are more to do with the role and function of the neighbourhood within wider housing and labour markets. A recent review of community-led approaches to reducing poverty showed that neighbourhood-based enterprise works best when it is supported or delivered though large-scale regeneration programmes. Key to the potential for place-based working to tackle poverty is their link to wider processes of economic change. 

Poverty and Inequality 

In Scotland, the Community Empowerment Act places an explicit emphasis on tackling disadvantage and inequality. With reduced public funding there is a fundamental question over how and where to channel scarce resources. Despite the potential, it must said that place-based approaches are not a silver bullet and are not sufficient responses in themselves to the scale and depth of the problem of poverty, especially with the unequal and localised effects of welfare reform.

Our What Works Scotland research shows there is a risk that too many policy agendas are focused at a local authority and neighbourhood level, leading to overload for staff and deflecting attention away from wider causes of poverty. It is important to be realistic about what can be achieved at this scale of intervention. Place-based approaches have the potential to support community-led initiatives but they need to be linked to wider investment and poverty reduction strategies if they are to make a significant contribution.

Find out more 

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