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Future of Britain's poorest families still relies on urgent social investment finds new book

Some of Britain's poorest neighbourhoods are at risk of decaying into ghetto-like enclaves if budget cuts halt society's efforts to pull them 'back from the cliff edge', a new book warns. 

Even small improvements to deprived areas, from replacement of old window frames to the retention of local swimming pools, have dramatic effects on the well-being and ambition of the families who live there, reveals the book, Family Futures.  

The authors warn that unpicking these improvements because of financial pressure may cause severe damage to disadvantaged communities which are sustained in part by constant social and public investment. 

Family Future cover imageIn Family Futures, a highly ambitious and detailed study of disadvantaged Britain, authors interviewed 200 families every year over eight years to discover which parts of their lives involved the biggest struggle and which actions improved things. The families, from Hackney and Newham in East London and from parts of Leeds and Sheffield, gave authors from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) their insights on schools, policing, health, community, jobs, local environments and housing.  

The book shows how their lives are shaped by this interconnected web of services in which problems in one area often hold them back in others.  It also analyses their experience of how things changed between 1998 and 2008 and which policies introduced by central or local government made a positive difference. 

The book concludes that constant effort is needed to stop deprived neighbourhoods from disintegrating. It says: "One message is clear – without a wider social, physical and governance infrastructure to support families, disadvantaged neighbourhoods would over time fall apart." 

Families interviewed by the authors felt that many areas of life improved over the 10-year period examined by the study. For instance, three-quarters of parents said they had noticed a reduction in crime, often because of extra support from community police officers. One mother noted: "We don't have kids kicking doors. Our security door has lasted a year rather than two months because the Community Police are everywhere, on bikes." 

Yet the lack of space and facilities for sport and exercise was a common problem for families, many of whom have no access to gardens. Cycling, football and especially swimming are especially useful at improving health, behaviour and learning. Local swimming pools help communities much more than large, exclusive leisure centres. 

Attitudes to work were extremely positive. Although most parents did relatively low-skilled jobs they valued the income and confidence the work added to their lives. Unlike more professional people, they almost never used terms like "crap jobs" to refer to work in cleaning, support services, security or retail and were keen to advance through further training and experience. One woman working as a cleaner told the authors: "I like the job but personally I think I'm capable of doing more, something better." 

Families saw schools as powerful social magnets, helping create a sense of community and they valued highly social activities and clubs run by school outside their normal teaching remit. While behavioural problems and cultural integration were common problems, the more support schools were able to offer families, the more likely children were to learn.  

Health was another area where services could provide valuable support to the community through child support, parenting advice and action for the elderly, as well as mainstream treatment. All four areas suffered very high levels of both physical and mental illness, made worse by the environmental and social pressures on the neighbourhoods. 

Some of these pressures could be alleviated by relatively modest improvements to the physical environment such as maintenance of parks, rapid repairs, regular cleaning and better security. A focus on neighbourhood management of this kind helped residents feel more confident about their futures and less powerless to change difficult conditions. It was both cheaper and more effective than large-scale regeneration projects which often created a "nightmare of uncertainty and upheaval." As one woman put it: "I'm sure there's some connection between all the changes that are happening, all the building and development and people not being listened to…not feeling part of what's going on." 

LSE professor of social policy Anne Power, who co-wrote the book with Helen Willmot and Rosemary Davidson, said: "Family Futures shows that for people who have little choice about where they live their community is even more important to them. Like all of us, they worry about schools, play spaces, the need for children to let off steam, crime, health, housing and their environment. Yet they have little control over most of these things and rely on government and the wider society to help them improve their lives. 

"This can only be done by keeping a framework of support in place but that is what's threatened as public spending is slashed. Families told us how much they rely on this help for their neighbourhoods to work - society needs to keep up this support." 

Family futures: Childhood and poverty in urban neighbourhoods by Anne Power, Helen Willmot and Rosemary Davidson  is published by The Policy Press on 6th July 2011 price £24.99. It can be ordered at 20% discount from their website: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429704

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Nuffield and Esmée Fairburn Foundations, Sport England, Defra and by an anonymous donor. 

Posted 4 July 2011