CROYDON COMMENTARY: For too many impoverished families, it promises to be a cruel Christmas this year. SEAN CREIGHTON highlights the social challenges that face the borough’s newest MP
The statistic that 1 in 4 Croydon children are in the poverty trap, while the local economy’s collapse continues and business victims of last year’s riots are still left waiting for the promised action and support, makes it increasingly urgent for the development of a strategy which addresses the real needs of local people which goes well beyond establishing more food banks for the hungry and poor.
Who can do that? As an opposition MP, it would appear that there’s little that the recently elected Steve Reed might achieve. Yet he is in a strong position.
No longer leader of Lambeth Council, he can devote a substantial amount of time to the economic needs of Croydon North both in the constituency and in the House of Commons through questions and in debates on the effects of the ConDem government’s destructive economic strategy.
He could initiate an inquiry into the economic and social state of Croydon North through which to develop ideas, building a head of steam behind a set of policies and actions which do not depend on the greed of commercial developers nor the scare tactics of Town Centre employer Allianz Global Assistance about the exodus from the borough of “middle class” workers.
Poverty takes many forms. Low income is just one factor. Others include long-term health problems, as first identified by Professor Peter Townsend at the Child Poverty Action Group Executive Committee in the 1970s (“the inequalities of health”), at a time that the late Malcolm Wicks – Reed’s predecessor as MP for Croydon North – and I were members. By working on the economic and anti-poverty challenge, Reed can continue the real legacy of Malcolm Wicks, not just paying lip service to it.
Croydon’s Health and Wellbeing Board’s strategy for 2013-18 notes that people with long-term conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory problems are the most intensive users of local health services, and the numbers will grow.
The electoral wards which experience the highest child poverty are Fieldway (46 per cent), New Addington (40 per cent), Broad Green and Selhurst (36 per cent), Woodside and South Norwood (33 per cent), Waddon (31 per cent), Thornton Heath and West Thornton (29 per cent). Norbury is 24 per cent.
Should we be surprised? Back in 2004 I undertook a project for what became South London Law Centres assessing the incidence of social deprivation, including in Croydon. The Government’s 2000 analysis of deprivation measured every ward and local authority area in England. It combined a number of indicators relating to income, employment, health deprivation and disability, education skills and training, housing and geographical access to services into a single deprivation score for each area.
Croydon had eight wards in the most deprived deciles: worst 10 per cent Fieldway; worst 20 per cent New Addington and Broad Green; worst 30 per cent Whitehorse Manor, West Thornton, Thornton Heath, Upper Norwood and Bensham Manor. Significant improvements have not happened in the intervening decade.
The ConDem government’s ruthless cuts are being targeted particularly at those living in poverty and at those at the next level who will be pushed into poverty. The way the government has been building on Labour’s legacy of tarnishing people on benefits as “scroungers” has taken the heat off the real culprits for the economic crisis: the banks, the property developers and the tax-avoiding multi-nationals. Classic divide, confuse and rule.
Croydon Council seems obsessed with the grotesque plans of developers to build yet more unaffordable high-rise apartment blocks and replace perfectly adequate retail centres, concentrated in the Town Centre, none of which address the real needs of the borough.
A key issue is how can new jobs of the right kind be created, rather than low-paid and insecure ones, or ones which suck in workers from a wide catchment area and which do not benefit those wanting work near to where they live?
Retail does not have to consist of low-quality, low-paid jobs. As John Lewis and Waitrose show, it is not just being members of the partnership that is important, but also training, so that there is pride in the service and visual tidiness and cleanliness of the stores. The downside for many customers however is that both stores are in the higher price bracket and therefore unaffordable.
The Co-op is cheaper than John Lewis and Waitrose, but more expensive than its main supermarkets. It may claim to be “good with food”, but it does much promotion of booze, crisps, sweets and chocolate. Store management appears muddled and unfocused and staff lack motivation and training.
Economic activity starts with small businesses. If small businesses can survive the first 18 months, they have the potential to last and some develop into the next generation of medium-sized enterprises. The ideas for the creation of a digital hub cluster of IT buildings in Croydon town centre, as long championed by Inside Croydon, could help stimulate other businesses as well as provide a solution for empty or underused office blocks. But it is probably dependent on landlords being prepared to offer cheap rentals.
The three-year business rate relief scheme being offered by Croydon Council and the Greater London Authority may ease that element of business costs, yet it is also possible that it will encourage landlords to put up rents by the amount of the saving. Cashflow is often the problem facing the survival of businesses, made worse at the moment with banks calling in loans and overdrafts, often with little notice.
A local economic strategy that is comprehensive needs to start from a careful analysis of the economic, social and environmental needs of local people and businesses in Croydon, both for the borough as a whole but also for each neighbourhood. This is now possible with the publication of the preliminary ward data from the 2011 census available on the Croydon Observatory website.
A strategy also needs to factor in the community dimension, and look at alternative ideas suggested by organisations such as the New Economics Foundation, the Transition Towns movement, Spacemakers, the Meanwhile Project, and the experiences involved in the revitalisation of Brixton Market and the West Norwood Feast. It needs to take into account the creative elements of the former Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy of the 2000s and local authority anti-poverty strategies from earlier decades. Ideas from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies should also be looked at.
An important element is building policy and services on the assessed needs of individuals rather than shoe-horning them into generalised service provision. The importance of this was strongly highlighted in a 2001 European Commission study, the Rapid Appraisal Method of Social Exclusion and Poverty, examining the process of “impoverishment”.
It suggests that there are three types of poverty: (1) Intermittent/transitory: borders on non-poverty; (2) Overall poverty: involving serious lack of resources, use of survival strategies, and optimism, weak social ties; and (3) Extreme poverty: involves resignation so that there is less control over the environment and evidence loss of identity.
Individuals react differently to their deprivation. RAMSEP suggests that reactions involve different levels of loss of control of identify, caused by (1) intensity of material deprivation – low availability of goods enjoyed and/or basic services benefited from; (2) loss of engagement in informal social networks and with formal social networks; and (3) lack of will and capacity to act. It “is often possible to enter a vicious circle of impoverishment due to an illness, due to the lack of professional help, due to unstable housing conditions, due to a high crime rate in the areas, etc”. The ConDem assault on every group that comes under the umbrella of RAMSEP’s analysis demonstrates their failure to understand how individuals are adversely affected by their experiences and circumstances.
If Steve Reed can grasp an understanding of how these issues impact his constituents in Croydon North and articulate some of the solutions, he may demonstrate how influential even an opposition MP can be.
- Norbury resident Sean Creighton was involved in the development of ideas that led to phase two of the pioneering Labour council local economic development strategy in Wandsworth in the 1970s. Among the various projects he has been involved since have been local authority social-economic analyses for Crime Concern, and for Lady Margaret Hall Settlement (North Lambeth), information about local authority anti-poverty strategies, and work on fuel poverty issues
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
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