Housing, poverty and life chances

This is a transcript of the remarks made during a discussion with Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances, at an event held on Wednesday 19 November 2014 by the think tank, Reform.

Reform comment

Successive governments have cited poverty alleviation and the improvement of children’s life chances as key goals, the Coalition Government is no exception. Rightly so when it is well known that childhood circumstances can have a defining impact on future life outcomes.

Research shows that educational attainment and growing up in a workless household are particularly strong indicators of future disadvantage. 2010 analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found the link between individual and parental earnings to be strongest in Great Britain. This research is well quoted, but its familiarity should make it no less shocking.

In recognition of the need to do more to address this, the Prime Minister commissioned Rt Hon Frank Field MP to undertake an Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances. His report, published in December 2010, called for “a broadening of the attack on child poverty” and questioned “the almost universal assumption over the last hundred years that increases in income alone will automatically lead to social progress.” Instead it argued that “a shift of focus is needed towards providing high quality, integrated services aimed at supporting parents and improving the abilities of our poorest children”.

Integrated service provision is an old concept, but as a model for meeting multiple citizen needs and reducing duplication and demand it is the right one. There have been numerous attempts to achieve this, with the current Troubled Families programme just the latest in a long line of initiatives. However, too often housing providers – the “turned to” service – are left out of this model.

In November 2014 Reform partnered with Home Group to hold a seminar exploring the contribution of good housing to tackling deep rooted social problems, with opening remarks from Rt Hon Frank Field MP.

Several key themes emerged from the discussion. Firstly, housing providers should be integral to the delivery of proven interventions, but as several attendees pointed out, too often the staff of housing providers deliver them in spite of, not alongside, other public services. This is not only wasteful, but often counterproductive for the tenant who would benefit from a single source of support. It was suggested that effective integration requires pooled budgets, “urging people to work together” isn’t sufficient to bring about fundamental change.

Secondly, the Government’s welfare reforms have increased the pressure on housing providers – who are left to manage the impact of the reforms on the frontline – to provide additional services. It was suggested that considerable “risk” had been shifted, with no corresponding budgetary “reward”. Such risk transfer is not sustainable.

Thirdly, government has a tendency to implement multiple reforms simultaneously, and with limited engagement of those on the ground. The cumulative impact of reforms, both on citizens and service providers, is ill understood and too often poor policy making leads to unintended consequences. Central government needs to get better at working with frontline providers before reforms are rolled out.

Fourthly, employment, for many households, is the best route out of poverty, but work must pay. Greater clarity is needed on how in-work conditionality will be applied under Universal Credit. More evidence is needed on what works to help people progress in work.

Finally, more and higher quality data is needed to go “beyond correlation”. Poverty data as it currently stands is inadequate, and measuring the wrong things lead to the wrong actions.

Housing providers are already delivering services which have previously been outside of their core work. If the lives of the most disadvantaged people in society are to be transformed, leading to less demand on public services and more productive citizens, then housing providers should be one of the lead organisations in a truly integrated service delivery model.

Charlotte Pickles, Senior Research Director, Reform


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