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November 30, 2011

Where the cuts hurt most

We know that the recession and cuts to public services will impact on some communities much more severely than others but the precise nature of that impact is not always clear. SURF and JRF have joined forces to explore how various recession related polices are being experienced on a daily basis at a very local level. Initial findings from two case studies suggest five key messages are emerging

Where the cuts hurt most

The initial phase of work has comprised two case studies that focus on experiences in two different communities – east Govan in Glasgow and the Gallatown neighbourhood of Kirkcaldy. The aim has been to learn more about specific circumstances and to deepen understanding of the effects of public spending reductions. 

The main focus has been on the lived experience and perspectives of residents, businesses, voluntary sector support bodies and public sector service organisations.

Five key messages to come out of the two case studies :

1. False economies – the reverse of preventative spend

There is a disproportionately negative impact on disadvantaged communities from the effect of relatively minor centralised ‘savings’ in basic physical maintenance regimes. Examples given included reductions in arrangements for grass cutting, litter and refuse collection, fence and road mending, lighting and landscaping. There was a perception of negative impacts on performance from the ‘contracting out’ of such services.

The resultant decline in physical appearance was seen to have damaged internal and external perceptions of place and people. It was noted that such decline repels the prospect of new external investments and undermines existing ones. It also erodes community resilience and residents personal investment at a time of increased local social land economic pressures.

2. Blocked systems – stymied aspirations

Despite initial media speculation on a ‘white collar recession’, the reality is that residents of disadvantaged areas have been particularly affected by stagnation in the employment market. This has had the effect of blocking off opportunities for young people and others seeking employment, training and further education. In addition to the thwarting of individual hopes and ambitions, the stagnation has also built up pressure on local employment support organisations; threatening their business plans, future sustainability and therefore their ability to deliver an increasingly important local service. Within this blocked system there was evidence of the continuing additional difficulties faced by minority groups and people with particular needs who continue to suffer from negative discrimination in accessing what limited opportunities still exist.

The same blockage phenomenon is evident with regard to local housing where those who have bought find they can’t sell. The lack of lending and capital means that there is little new house building for rent or sale. The resultant stagnation has halted plans for supporting the greater local economic diversification intended to support wider regeneration agendas. It also locks young people out and confines growing children and families into inadequate accommodation with obvious wider negative effects.

There was evidence that some householders who cannot sell go on to rent out their properties to individuals with no long-term commitment to the area or understanding of their community responsibilities. This was said to be a significant factor in local decline of the community. It was noted that this tended to be an especially rapid process in blocks of flats and one which can instigate a highly damaging ‘domino’ effect over the surrounding streets and then the wider community.

3. Fractured plans – lost investments

Regeneration partners have long been urged to work together for a ‘joined up approach’ to plans and investments. The prolonged stalling of private sector physical development investment is seen to be resulting in the fracturing and failure of previously agreed regeneration strategies and master-plans. This is especially the case in disadvantaged areas which are most vulnerable in the current recession to the ‘flight to prime’ of both private and public investments.

The effect is to leave existing regeneration related investments isolated and therefore economically unsustainable. Long term derelict land and empty or underused buildings produce further erosion of local image and investment confidence as referred to in point 4.1 above. There is also evidence of postponed or abandon private sector investment resulting in the loss of anticipated community benefits in terms of facilities and resources previously negotiated via formal and informal planning consultation processes.

4  Small cuts – Reverse empowerment

Disadvantaged communities often have responsive internal support networks based on social connections, projects and services developed over time in response to local needs and conditions. The Scottish Government is increasingly interested in the possibility of building on this network of activity to deliver greater community empowerment. This is currently being promoted as a potentially vital alternative source of community regeneration in the face of reduced external investment.

Evidence from the case studies indicates that cuts in relatively small scale grants and contracts provided to local services and social enterprises are undermining the basis for community empowerment as a way out of the currently accelerated cycle of decline in disadvantaged areas. The loss of capacity in local support organisations cuts off two-way partnership activity pipelines at the local level. It also damages prospects for services, opportunities, vitality, and social cohesion at a time of higher stresses within disadvantaged communities, homes and individuals. This is seen as the opposite of the ‘preventative spend’ approach, which was recently vaunted by the Scottish Government in its September 2011 Spending Review.

5.  Sense of abandonment – or all boats falling?

Beyond the issue of adequately resourcing and delivering basic public services, there is perceived to have been a general shift away from investment in broad-based support for long-standing economically disadvantaged communities. There was some evidence of communities feeling somewhat abandoned as the focus, and dedicated support resources, for disadvantaged areas is seen to diminish in the recession while national economic pressures on jobs and services increase local difficulties and demands.

It was noted that, for reasons of cost efficiency, locally developed and valued services are being spread increasingly thinly across wider geographies, resulting in loss of local service impact and ownership. In this context, there was some concern that what is seen as continuing and necessary limited and targeted investment in specific thematic groups – who still suffer discrimination and disadvantage on a wider and more dispersed geography – could appear divisive to some in contrast to the draining away of broader support for the more general local population.