Welfare reform & communities

Today’s second speech was at Respublica’s event to launch Julian Dobson’s excellent report “Responsible Recovery: A social contract for local growth”.

Welfare reform and communities

Jess Steele, Locality Innovation Director & Chair of CREATE Consortium

I’ve worked for the past 12 years to get welfare and communities into the same sentence, onto the same platform. It’s hard to imagine now, but in 2001 there was so little talk about benefits in politics, in the news, on TV, in the public discourse, that if you mentioned it you were seen as some kind of policy nerd. People’s eyes really did glaze over.

Among the few people who did talk about it, benefits was seen as entirely about individuals. In fact this was a deliberate policy. The idea of a unified group called ‘claimants’ is so scary to the powerful that they run divide and rule even when they don’t realise they’re doing it – why do you think the system got so complicated, so many different benefits?

I joined the National Community Forum in 2001 – a group of 24 people who lived and worked in deprived neighbourhoods throughout England and were recruited to speak up for those kind of areas, to be a sounding board for ministers trying to get policy right. At our very first meeting we knew that the thing that mattered most in our communities was the benefits trap and the argument we needed to make was that welfare is a neighbourhood issue and we will never transform poor neighbourhoods without transforming the benefits system.

I hoped that the day would come when we could get the people who designed benefits and the people who designed neighbourhood regeneration into the same room – so we could do something truly positive, something that would be a win-win-win for individuals and their families, for neighbourhoods, and for the taxpayer.

I never imagined that when people finally realised the interconnections, finally saw that welfare is a community issue, it would be because of welfare policies that degrade whole communities and evict people from their neighbourhoods.

A lot of my efforts went into revealing the hatefulness hiding behind New Labour’s weasel words about ‘tackling social exclusion’. The Victorian doctrine of less eligibility – the old trope of making it as horrific as possible to be on benefits – the language was there but hidden. Now that hatred has leapt into the open and brazenly knocks lumps out of our compassion with the toxic public discourse of ‘strivers and shirkers’.

There is no more Orwellian word than ‘reform’, with its positive connotations that can be attached to such viciousness. I have never been in any doubt that the system needs to change or that there would be people who lose out financially from those changes. But reform would make a system that was both more effective and more civilised. That means reflecting people’s real lives and the world as it is that they live in.

It would be flexible as lives change, it would be responsive to wide-ranging needs.

It would encourage and reward effort rather than punishing initiative.

(Muhummed Yunis quote: if a man on welfare earns a dollar, give him another dollar, don’t take the first one away)

It would be not an on-off switch with dangerously exposed wiring but a safe bridge towards greater independence and contribution.

A reformed system would use the £200 billion welfare spend as an investment (mind you since we seem incapable of using even the banks we almost wholly own as investment vehicles, why would I expect the capacity to grasp the idea that spending that much money could be transformational rather than transactional?). It should be an investment because it can provide the baseline income that gives people a chance to make change in their own lives through making a difference in their neighbourhood.

Let me tell you what I would do and you can judge….

The Community Allowance would allow community groups to pay local people to do work that is good for the neighbourhood for up to a year without losing their benefit status. We never asked the state to pay the wages, just to let people keep them. ‘Allowance’ as in permission rather than pocket money.

I believe that in neighbourhood regeneration, if local people aren’t doing the job then the job is not getting done. I want to see neighbourhoods where everyone is working on the neighbourhood to-do list and that process is planned and strategic because it actively prepares people for economic contribution – not least by expanding their social networks

Welfare has never only been about the giro. That was our point when we talked about not risking benefit status. All the passported benefits – free prescriptions, free school meals, help with school uniform and of course the most important of all – secure shelter, the home.

In May 2006 we presented the Community Allowance to Margaret Hodge (the 8th of the 12 ministers I presented it to). She was very supportive but said “I’m sure you can do this within the rules” and asked her officials to work with us on it. That was the Friday, by Monday she’d been reshuffled! The civil servants did look into it and their initial response was positive, at least for people on Incapacity Benefit who were permitted to earn up to £92 a week. But with a bit more digging their claim that the permission to earn was “not relevant to Housing Benefit” turned out to mean not that HB would be protected but in fact the opposite, that the permission was not relevant to HB which would be removed pound for pound.

The fact is that 12 years on it is still not possible to pay people to do work that is good for the neighbourhood. We have been through the ‘boom’ times in which some neighbourhoods have received concentrated regen worth up to £12k per household, where a place like Deptford (a third of a London borough) saw over 20 regeneration programmes, spending over £200 million, yet relative deprivation hardly shifted at all and local people didn’t get to make the difference. Those days are gone; the old regeneration (dependent on government funny money and housebuilders’ bribes) is dead. Yet even in the bleak midwinter of austerity there is still some money, wages are cheap compared to infrastructure, and it is more important than ever that we use all the resources we can muster because what we need now is self-renovating neighbourhoods.

So what are the impacts of welfare reform on communities? What should have been transformative has become destructive, a policy not only of punishing the poor, this is a clearance policy – ruining the balance of all kinds of places, impacting on neighbourhoods everywhere, and nowhere for the better.

Welfare is a community issue.

The benefits trap has community solutions.

But communities will have to wake up if they want to survive. Doing this differently is no longer an interesting public investment proposition for nerds. It’s an urgent response to a very real and present danger, not just for individuals but for communities and neighbourhoods.

We will never achieve

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5 Responses to Welfare reform & communities

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking article Jess, thanks for posting. The welfare-neighbourhoods link is clearly there but the publicdialogue is till the negative one about punishing shirkers. That needs to change. Reform, by all means, but that should include all of us doing things a different way (including bankers) not just those worst off.

  2. kim says:

    very interesting. For all the initial good intentions the coercion of the unemployed and also the sick into working for their benefits is the result. Isn’t it the Gvt that needs to wake up though, rather than the communities?

    • jesssteele says:

      This is really NOT about coercion but an opportunity for people on benefits to earn a little bit of extra money doing work that is good for the neighbourhood (and good for their own independence, skills and social networks) without losing their benefit status.

  3. Nice blog. You should check out the work being done around ‘community currencies’ as i think it offers a solution to the problem you describe.

    Best, Mike.

    • jesssteele says:

      Thanks Mike. Last thing I heard, though, DWP were being very difficult about local currencies – treating them in the same way as payments in sterling. Is that not true?

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