Every year, RTPI Scotland and partners arrange an Annual Lecture to Commemorate Sir Patrick Geddes, the influential geographer, sociologist and biologist who is often cited as the founder of modern town planning.

The lecture is delivered by a prestigious figure who is selected for their ability to stimulate debate on contemporary issues in planning, with past speakers including the Danish urban design expert Jan Gehl, former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland Sir Harry Burns, and the German architect and city planner Wulf Daseking.

Naomi Eisenstadt’s lecture was introduced by RTPI Scotland Convener Stefano Smith

The 2017 lecture was delivered by Naomi Eisenstadt, Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality to Scotland’s First Minister, on the topic of ‘Poverty, Places and Equality: A Role for Place-Based Approaches?’. It was held in Glasgow’s Lighthouse on the evening of 7 June 2017.

Naomi was appointed to her current Scottish Government advisory role in June 2015. She has had a distinguished career in which she has worked across the public, third and academic sectors in exploring and responding to poverty challenges, most notably as the Director of the UK Government’s Sure Start Unit and Social Exclusion Task Force.

Naomi’s 2016 Shifting the Curve anti-poverty report for the First Minister was welcomed by SURF, especially as it shared some key recommendations with SURF’s 2016 Manifesto for Community Regeneration, including to implement a socio-economic duty on public bodies. All 15 Shifting the Curve recommendations have since become formal Scottish Government commitments, as stated in their Fairer Scotland Action Plan.

SURF’s Policy and Participation Manager, Derek Rankine, attended Naomi’s lecture. Here he provides a brief response to some of the valuable questions she raised concerning regeneration policy and practice.

Poverty and Inequality

Naomi said that: “Poverty is bad for the poor, but inequality is bad for everyone”. There is a great deal of evidence to support this argument, including that provided by former SURF event contributors Prof Kate Pickett, author of ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ (2009), and the late Sir Tony Atkinson, author of ‘Inequality – What Can Be Done?’ (2015).

Rising inequality, they argue, is bad for the whole of society, diminishing standards of living and increasing health and social problems across all social classes. This reality can be used to build stronger cross-party support for action.

Naomi highlighted how the UK fares on inequality against international comparators: “To feel better about inequality in the UK, look at the United States. To feel worse, look at any other country.” She said of poverty, “It’s not rocket science. It’s harder!”. SURF would argue that the complexity of inter-related poverty drivers is fairly well understood in regeneration fields, but this is not always true of politicians, the media and the wider public. She also said that policy-makers should do more to distinguish between poverty (lack of money), inequality (the ‘distance’ from poor to rich), and disadvantage (absence of opportunity).

Finally, Naomi said that, as in-work poverty is a growing reality in the UK, the presumption held by some that work is the route out of poverty should be challenged. This is especially true when insecure and zero-hour contracts are so prevalent.

Does Place Matter?

Many in the SURF network would agree with Naomi’s assertions that considerations of place should figure strongly in any initiative seeking to reduce poverty. There would also be wide agreement that the quality of the built environment has a big impact on mental wellbeing and social cohesion, and that areas with poor housing also tend to have poor job prospects.

Naomi made the sometimes underplayed point that rural poverty tends to be much more difficult and expensive to address than in urban neighbourhoods, where engagement and service delivery is more practical. In doing so she noted that the majority of Scotland’s 100 most deprived Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation zones are, however, in its biggest urban centre, Glasgow.

Naomi stated that, if you ask people in any community what bothers them the most about where they live, the physical environment is mentioned most frequently. This chimes with SURF’s understanding: local authorities and community groups commonly report to us that the priority issues that people raise in community gatherings are litter, graffiti, potholes, broken paving/fences and similar.

Do Area Based Initiatives Work?

Area based initiatives across the UK, Naomi said, have always failed against their key target of creating good quality jobs in socially and economically challenged places. This argument inspired a recent SURF debate on ‘Does Regeneration Work?’, where University of Stirling academic Douglas Robertson argued that regeneration efforts in Scotland have ended in failure over the past 50 years while Clyde Gateway’s Ian Manson presented the opposite case.

SURF would accept that there is an open question around the impact and value of some high-profile area based programmes, but a vote at the end of our debate indicated a narrow win for the ‘regeneration does work’ position. There is, however, a fundamental difficulty in examining the economic impact of a particular initiative, and in separating its outcomes from the ‘noise’ of other policies and the conventional functioning of the local economy.

Naomi does, however, believe we should invest in area-based initiatives in future. New approaches, she said, should have ‘whole place’ managers, stronger buy-in from the private sector, and more meaningful community engagement. SURF agrees with this position, and called for a ‘new generation’ of place-based initiatives with robust social/economic targets, and using existing delivery agencies, in our 2016 manifesto. One challenging question posed in the lecture was: what does a job description look like for a ‘whole place’ manager?

Is Inclusive Growth the Answer?

Naomi said that inclusive economic growth could provide genuine opportunities for our poorer places. She argued that the five key principles set by the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission provided a strong set of useful guidelines, although she noted that they are hard to achieve in any context. She also noted that one of them, “Be an agile investor at scale”, was unhelpfully jargon-laden.

Naomi also noted that everyone should aspire to make inclusive growth happen because the rich need the poor. She said even gated communities can’t function without low-paid staff to mow the lawns and provide security.

Levels of Power

The lecture included a comments and questions session

In Naomi’s analysis, local authorities in Scotland and the rest of the UK have been “depowered and deskilled” in recent decades. This has led to a situation in which centralised agencies are intolerant of differences between communities, seeking to avoid a “post-code lottery” in service provision. SURF agrees with her assessment that different places require distinctive regeneration approaches, and pilot projects and test sites are a welcome way of understanding what works.

City region deals and mayors, she said, could play a positive role in rebuilding the power of local government. Naomi acknowledged some contradiction between her position on local government power and control and the national “one size fits all” policy recommendations, such as a socio-economic duty, that she presents to the Scottish Government.

Naomi said that an additional challenge national governments face is that while politicians are often perceived as being “out of touch”, this criticism is instead generally true of many civil servants. Politicians are required to hold surgeries and interact regularly with the public, but civil servants aren’t, and they tend to live in middle-class bubbles. In many policy situations, Naomi stated, it is civil servants that hold more decision-making power than elected politicians.

Naomi also said that, following a recent visit to Shetland, she noted that Unst blames Lerwick for their problems; Lerwick in turn blames Edinburgh; and Edinburgh blames London. Everyone, no matter the level of power, blames the next level up. Additionally, Naomi highlighted a very common SURF network concern: that the electoral cycle demands “quick wins”, but regeneration initiatives require long-term support.

In Summary

SURF agrees with much of Naomi Eisenstadt’s analysis of the current issues and opportunities around place-based regeneration, poverty and inequality. We look forward to informing the implementation of her policy recommendations via the Scottish Government’s Fairer Scotland Action Plan commitments.

SURF will be exploring this area further in our special 25th anniversary 2017 Annual Conference, which will ask the Pythonesque question: ‘What Has Regeneration Ever Done for Us?’ It will be held on 31 August in Edinburgh’s CoSLA Centre; please sign up to our e-bulletin mailing list for booking details.