Without any fanfare, the Department for Communities & Local Government has made available an updated (2010) version of the Index of Multiple Deprivation, produced for it by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre at Oxford University. This replaces the 2007 version.
The Index – often called the IMD – has a history of controversy amongst those with a rural policy interest. Its focus on identifying areas where deprived people and deprivation issues are concentrated speaks of inner city neighbourhoods and urban housing estates.
Rural areas, with their scattered disadvantage, typically get an average score as the rich and poor living side-by-side simply cancel each other out. To put it another way, in rural areas most deprived people live outside of deprived areas.
Some of the indicators the Index uses are also harder to interpret in a rural context. For example, employment deprivation measures claimants of Jobseekers Allowance and other benefits, plus participation in the New Deal. There is plenty of evidence that those at disadvantage in rural labour markets are as likely to be in part-time, casual or seasonal employment, as they are to be claiming benefit.
Indeed, the government first produced a deprivation index almost 30 years ago to help target its (then) Urban Programme, tackling inner city decline. Since then versions of it have become the default for targeting special initiatives and funding streams. While attempts have been made to broaden the range of deprivation issues covered by the Index, it is this widespread use that has often caused unease.
As with earlier versions, the 2010 Index combines various economic, social and housing indicators into a single deprivation score for each area. In most cases these are based on 2008 data. The methodology for the 2010 Index is essentially the same as that used for the 2004 and 2007 versions and it is said to be "acceptable" to make comparisons.
The overall Index can be divided into seven sub-indices, or "domains", which contain the indicators respectively on: income; employment; health and disability; education, skills and training; access to housing and services; crime; and the living environment.
Deprivation scores are available down to the geographic level of Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs), of which there are 32,482 across England.
So what does the new Index show? Unsurprisingly, the local authority areas with the highest proportion of deprived LSOAs are all northern cities or inner London boroughs – Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Knowsley, Hull, Hackney and Tower Hamlets.
While urban areas dominate, 2% of the most deprived LSOAs are in rural areas. The report contains a map (page 4), showing relatively high deprivation scores along the coast of Lincolnshire, around the Wash, in parts of Cornwall and in upland stretches of the Pennines, among other places.
From a rural perspective the most interesting domain may be that measuring access to housing and services. What a pity that it only counts for 9% of the overall make-up of the Index.
The services indicators measure residential distances by road from a GP surgery, a primary school, a post office and a supermarket or convenience store. Looking simply at these, it appears that the place with the worst access to services is in West Devon. Perhaps a local RSN member familiar with LSOA codes can tell us where E01020314 is! Could it be the middle of Dartmoor?
Various organisations, including the Commission for Rural Communities and some Rural Community Councils have had further analysis of the Index undertaken for them in the past. These have drilled down to even smaller spatial levels, identifying rural pockets of deprivation and so getting rural needs better recognised in some quarters.
Detailed arguments about the make-up of this Index may seem a rather technical exercise to some. But the fact is that earlier versions of the Index were widely used and not to the benefit of rural communities. It may be that in a world of more devolved decision-making this version will be less used or left to local interpretation. Even so it remains important to see that it is used with care and a clear understanding of its limitations.