Late last year the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) released the updated Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measures. There were no surprises here: half of the most deprived Super Output Areas (SOAs) are in Belfast, a fifth are in the North West, and the rest are scattered in mostly rural communities.
There is very little movement in and out of the top 100. The absence of a steady flow of continuous and dynamic data has contributed to stagnation and stasis at policy level when it comes to addressing multiple deprivation.
Neighbourhood Renewal – the Government’s flagship strategy targeting the most deprived 10 percent of wards across Northern Ireland – ended in 2014. The strategy’s overall aim was to “help close the gap between the quality life for people in the most deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of Northern Ireland”. Over 150 community projects have been funded across 36 Neighbourhood Renewal Partnerships.
Despite some positive indicators around education, performance has been mixed in relation to economic indicators, and poor in relation to health and crime indicators. The evaluation of the strategy revealed “People and Place” did not substantially deliver on its overall aim of closing the gap in the quality of life between those in NRAs and the rest of society.
So what has happened since 2014? Back then the total Neighbourhood Renewal budget was £25m – already having been cut by 25% during 2007-2014. Following a reduction to £18.3m in 2016, the budget for 2018 faced a further 4% cut. While Stormont continues to stagnate, the future for 2019 looks even worse.
Existing contracts have simply been rolled-over and cut for the last four years – leading to budget gymnastics in the form of back-office rationalisations, merging contracts, stagnated pay, and redundancies – all while largely managing to deliver the same outcomes for funders.
Yet these projects deliver far more than Government outcomes. They are the largely unheralded “safety-net” sector for challenged neighbourhoods. They are community centres and drop-in hubs managed and run by local volunteers with maybe one or two paid staff members. When the area is hit by an emergency such as flooding or water shortages, or a community is devastated by another suicide, or an ASB crisis has residents at their wits’ end, these spaces are open and ready to offer support. They’re not new, having most likely developed through grassroots activism during the troubles. Their work isn’t new either. It’s community development – practiced by community development workers – a profession that receives terrible misrepresentation in the public square.
In addition, Neighbourhood-focussed community organisations don’t have the academic rigour of the environmental sector, or the boundless creative energy of the arts sector (both of which have experienced devastating cuts regardless), and are increasingly cut adrift from the marketing and corporate nous of the large voluntary organisations.
They know their neighbourhoods inside-out, and they know what’s needed to address the challenges they face. However Government seems to know better, without a coherent strategy that says what that is. In the absence of a new Neighbourhood Renewal strategy, Executive Office initiatives such as Urban Villages and Together: Building a United Community (to name but two) are well underway.
The irony is that these new programmes, flush with multi-annual funding, are dependent on the local knowledge and expertise of the same groups that are facing cut after cut. When quasi-private voluntary organisations receive huge amounts of funding for delivery projects, they rely on the knowledge and goodwill of these same local groups to help them identify service-users.
There’s not much local input into the strategic direction of such initiatives, and they’re not aiming to help close the gap between the quality of life for people in the most deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of Northern Ireland.
The outlook isn’t immediately promising at council level. The Belfast Agenda and Local Development Plan are predominantly city centre-focussed with no mention of community development, and little commitment to tackling poverty, exclusion, disadvantage, and supporting meaningful good relations.
Neighbourhood Renewal was far from perfect but it at least acknowledged the importance of a joined-up approach as the only way to address long-term deprivation. With no overarching framework for addressing urban renewal, more weightless strategies will float in and out of neighbourhoods with no long-term benefits for Northern Ireland’s most stressed and marginalised citizens. Window-dressing for broken windows just isn’t good enough.