Mapping a new way to the society we want – Peter Hetherington on Rethinking Poverty
Peter Hetherington finds compelling arguments in a recent book challenging preconceived ideas about the role and responsibility of government and the assumptions of both the political right and left.
For baby-boomers, the post-1945 settlement was a given as we entered the world of work. It delivered the NHS, social security without the pejorative undertones of ‘welfare’, town and country planning (after a brief flirtation with the public ownership of land), national parks, an assured path to higher education free at the point of exam success, and a right to good-quality affordable housing.
And full employment? Well almost. For those lucky enough to progress from job to job, city to city (six in my case) – and hence join the asset appreciation society – this proved a golden age to expand a financial base of bricks and mortar. A combination of the state and decent employers did me (and millions more) proud. Others weren’t so lucky, but the country, at least, had a vision and a plan. It was committed to helping everyone; the state had a positive role. How times change.
But will a re-creation of that settlement, 72 years on (back to the future?), provide the bedrock for delivering that elusive ‘good society’ dear to the heart of progressives? After all, many are losing faith in a market seemingly unable, or unwilling, to provide secure jobs rather than insecure work offering poverty pay.
In a thoughtful recent book,1 challenging the assumptions of both the political left and right, Barry Knight questions whether the old remedies of economic progress allied to state intervention and improved welfare policies are any longer fit for purpose. Ending poverty, he argues, cannot be achieved by a series of ‘technological fixes’ delivered from on high by ‘gentlemen in Whitehall’ who know best. Rather, organic change, through transformational processes, is needed, with people sharing responsibility in communities, both renewed and new.
It is a compelling argument, if contestable by some. Drawing a link between the 19th-century social thinker John Ruskin, the translation of his work by Gandhi and its subsequent influence on the campaign for Indian independence, the civil rights movement in the USA and the broad-based campaigning of the Citizens UK organisation (which fought successfully for a ‘living wage’), he argues that participation by wider society is key to providing what people want most: ‘security’.
So while the state must ensure basic levels of security for all – presumably an adequate supply of housing, health and social care, and welfare benefits – it has a second duty to empower citizens to develop the society that they want, says Knight. He is sure of one thing: the welfare state narrative that underpinned social policy in the earlier post-war years has lost its power.
This is a book to challenge preconceived ideas about the role and the responsibility of government, as well as the ideologies of the small-state political right and the ‘state knows best’ obsession of the traditional left. Knight argues for a new model – from the community upwards, rather than from the state downwards – and floats a new language. Scores of listening and learning sessions, with a broad range of interests, supported by extensive market research and opinion polling, reveal that many are turned off by the term ‘poverty’ itself. For instance, replacing ‘inequality’ with ‘security’ and substituting ‘fairness’ and ‘wellbeing in the workplace’ for ‘poverty’ – underpinned by a ‘living wage’, currently set at £8.45 an hour and paid only by 3,500 employers – might be a start. After all, the book’s title, Rethinking Poverty,1 implies a profound directional change.
Charting the regression from the optimism of the early post-1945 years and then re-imagining the new beginnings of a ‘good society’ in this timely book, Knight – a social scientist, statistician, global adviser to a string of foundations, and good friend of the TCPA as Director of the Webb Memorial Trust – notes that the model of full employment supporting a welfare state could not be sustained as unemployment eventually broke the link between work and benefits. The 1981 recession saw the Thatcher government abandon full employment as a goal.
Soon critics of big government and radical right-wing pressure groups long opposed to state welfare (in both the UK and the USA) began a concerted global campaign for tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and hence deep cuts in government spending. The once-ascendant Keynesian philosophy, which drove the UK’s post-war settlement, buckled under the weight of inflation, unemployment, and the small-state ideology of the hard right.
The accumulation of personal wealth, through deregulation and privatisation – whether cut-price council housing offered for sale with big discounts, or share offers as part of de-nationalising utilities – became a state-endorsed virtue. Individualism, through stirrings of what Knight calls the ‘me society’, thus became a Thatcherite credo.
If an incoming Labour government in 1997 fell short of rolling back the Thatcherite revolution economically, it did make substantial, if understated progress socially: most ambitious of all, a pledge from Tony Blair to end child poverty over a generation. Now, with state provision often reduced to barely a rump, Labour’s achievements seem forgotten. Anyone remember the national Social Inclusion Unit, several thousand ‘Sure Start’ centres to give all children a decent start in life (with many since closed), billions pumped into improving social housing stock, New Deal programmes, and a national minimum wage, alongside working tax credits?
Much has since been consigned to history – first, by a Conservative-Liberal government bent on ‘austerity’ from 2010 to 2015, and currently by what often appears to be a dysfunctional minority Conservative administration, seemingly committed to Brexit, yet bitterly divided on how Britain should leave the EU, and in what form it might emerge.
What better time, amidst disarray, to propose a new way, when the neo-liberal model that has guided successive governments is so discredited? Even Theresa May, progressive voices in the City, the IMF and others on the centre-right acknowledge that while the largely deregulated market economy is serving the rich extremely well, the vast majority are cast adrift. Over half the welfare bill goes to support those on low wages.
It gets worse. According to the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, the number of UK children in poverty will soar to a record 5.2million over the next five years as government welfare cuts bite deepest on households with young families. The fall-out from the alarming shortage of social housing can be seen on our streets: rough-sleeping has risen for the sixth successive year.
Knight adroitly weaves through social and welfare policy with an eye on the future, rather than hand-wringing over the deconstruction of the post-1945 settlement. Through commissioning reports by the Webb Memorial Trust from a variety of organisations (and the TCPA played its part with a ‘Planning Out Poverty’ project and a subsequent ‘#Planning4People’ exercise), opinion polling with large samples and the use of focus groups, Knight and his team have drilled down into wider society. The results are fascinating. What do most want? Security, that’s all. While they might aspire to modest prosperity, Knight notes: ‘There is no evidence they want to be rich or value a society where wealth is the emblem of success.’
Yet, more broadly, there is plenty of evidence that the traditional anti-poverty lobby, which sees only the government as the agent of change, has achieved little in changing the mindset of the state – because the state is at a loss over what to do. Therefore, if national appeals to government achieve little, Knight points to a new model of power. It will be more inclusive, with a wider range of players to ensure that everyone has a decent basic standard of living with the prospect of a fair and sustainable future for the next generation – underpinned by the TCPA #Planning4People project, supported by the Webb Memorial Trust. This encourages the re-birth of ‘creative social town planning’, with people at the heart of the process guided by social justice.
Knight notes that some encouraging beginnings:
‘The TCPA is building an entirely new relationship with a wide range of stakeholders… there is more to be done, but the principle behind their work is that unless we come up with an inclusive plan for our society we will continue to drift into the society we don’t want.’
And that is a challenge to us all, from the state to local government, charities and campaigning organisations like the TCPA, and communities themselves. But let’s be clear: the state must still have a highly focused role in both sustaining and expanding the services we hold dear – our NHS, social security, the caring services, housing delivery – while acknowledging the untapped potential of civil society to mobilise communities for the common good.
Peter Hetherington is a Trustee and previous Chair of the TCPA. The views expressed are personal.
- B Knight: Rethinking Poverty – What makes a Good Society? Policy Press, 2017 (PB, ISBN 978-1447340607, 184pp., £7.99 from https://policypress.co.uk/rethinking-poverty)
This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Town & Country Planning.