Several of the challenges faced by people living in poverty or social exclusion in Wales relate to where they live. Local costs of living, affordability of good quality housing, levels of crime, adequate infrastructure, and access to services, green spaces, quality employment, education and training, all affect people’s quality of life, can entrench social exclusion and pose challenges to escaping poverty. Anti-poverty interventions need to consider how to foster enabling environments, tackling barriers to progression, and improving conditions and opportunities where people live.
The idea that place-based policies are important to tackle poverty is not new. Interventions focusing on neighbourhood environments have long been adopted in Wales and gained political priority in the 1990s. These interventions have attempted to support job creation and boost local economies, improve physical environments and, more recently, focused on revitalising town centres. However, such interventions have not always benefitted those most in need. This is the case, for instance, when they have resulted in gentrification of deprived areas and the displacement of disadvantaged residents and local businesses.
Effective place-based anti-poverty interventions require careful consideration. We reviewed international evidence of effectiveness and identified promising actions across twelve policy areas, including digital exclusion, transport disadvantage, food insecurity, fuel poverty and youth services. People living in poverty are faced with the immediate problem of not having enough money and balancing multiple, competing expenses – for instance, ‘heating’ versus ‘eating’. Their local community, including family and friends, are a vital source of both financial and non-financial support. Disrupting these networks can make people more vulnerable and exacerbate the hardships that they experience.
Fostering an ‘enabling environment’ can thus prove difficult and requires action across a range of interconnected policy areas. For instance, it means addressing the availability, affordability, and accessibility of transport. Policies need to focus on public transport and integration of different types of transport provision. For instance, a ‘whole system approach’ could address the current fragmentation of community transport in Wales and the funding challenges this produces. Housing is another key area to address as it affects people’s health and wellbeing. As the cost of housing is the single largest regular outgoing for the vast majority of households, any increase in housing costs can impact heavily on already stretched household finances. Our research has shown that there is a good case to be made in Wales for prioritising social housing provision, ensuring it is genuinely affordable, secure and high-quality. Other promising actions include promoting regulation, quality standards and tenant protection in the private rented sector.
Reflecting on this and our research on poverty interventions across different dimensions, several cross-cutting areas for action emerge:
Improving the evaluation of place-based interventions
Evaluation of individual place-based interventions is challenging because the same areas are often targeted by a range of initiatives, and there is seldom a focus on poverty and ‘distributional effects’ (who ‘wins’ and who ‘loses’ as a result of an intervention). We recommend that evaluations are planned alongside interventions, include realistic timeframes (distinguishing between short- and long-term outcomes) and focus not solely on processes and outputs, but on the actual effects on poverty. Measuring the impact of community development initiatives is also challenging, with sometimes even detrimental consequences (as has been noted in relation to Communities First in Wales). For such projects, estimating ‘social value’ is particularly important: this means focusing on residents’ subjective experiences and their wellbeing, alongside community safety, health, and the degree of participation, voice, and control afforded to residents.
Supporting inclusive, community-led solutions
Engagement of local stakeholders and community-led development can foster inclusion of local people in planning and co-designing public spaces and prevent displacement and gentrification. Authentic participation can ensure that overlapping challenges within people’s immediate environment are identified and understood. However, people who are disadvantaged are more likely to experience barriers to their participation. This means that effective engagement strategies, for instance involving multi-lateral partnerships across civil society, need to consider community composition and dynamics to avoid over-representing already powerful voices.
A co-ordinated, multi-sectoral approach
Place-based interventions should not operate in isolation from other policies implemented at a national level. Our research shows that challenges faced by people in poverty are interconnected. A co-ordinated approach that recognises the multidimensional nature of poverty and social exclusion needs to address ‘upstream drivers’, such as low income, and develop comprehensive, multi-sectoral thinking that makes use of synergies between policies. At the local level, one-stop, multi-agency services in the community can promote service coordination and provide support suited to specific, individual needs. Evidence shows that these are most effective when they are non-stigmatising and build on trusted relationships in the community.
It is clear that shaping ‘enabling environments’ is no easy task. To maximise their chances of effectiveness, place-based interventions genuinely aimed at tackling poverty and social exclusion should seek to avoid the previous pitfalls of place-based revitalisation efforts and focus on inclusive, authentic participation of community members and achieving a realistic understanding of their impact on the households and communities they aim to affect.