A FLURRY of deprivation statistics once again struggles to measure rural needs adequately, says Brian Wilson.
The way that deprivation is measured – and particularly how deprived areas get measured – has long been a matter of debate (and some frustration) among rural policy practitioners because of the way it appears to favour urban issues and urban geographies.
December saw the release of a further attempt to measure and track deprivation. The Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) published a statistical release under the not-so-snappy title of Tracking Economic and Child Income Deprivation at Neighbourhood Level in England 1999 – 2009. This reports research for it by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre at Oxford University.
Many readers will be familiar with the DCLG Indices of Deprivation, which combines data about a range of issues – such as employment, housing, health and education – to give a single deprivation score for an area. This has been widely used over many years by Government departments to target programmes such as the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, Working Neighbourhoods Fund and, more recently, Community First.
A key feature of the Indices of Deprivation is that it measures relative deprivation. Each area is given a deprivation score showing how much better or worse it is than the (England) average. This approach has one obvious weakness: with a relative measure it is impossible to say whether conditions have improved or deteriorated over time.
This latest research for DCLG, on economic and income deprivation, avoids that particular pitfall. It makes use of absolute statistical measures to give meaningful information about change between 1999 and 2009. On the down side, it measures a much narrower set of issues.
There are three measures. An Employment Deprivation Domain counts the proportion of working age people involuntarily out of work and claiming benefit. The Income Deprivation Domain is the proportion of those aged under 60 in households which receive certain means tested benefits. Then a Children in Income Deprived Households Index measures the proportion of under-16s living in households where an adult receives certain means tested benefits.
All three of these measures have been analysed and mapped at the local authority area level and at the finer-grained Census output area level (LSOA).
The results from this work can be characterised as, unsurprisingly, rather urban. It is east end of London boroughs and certain metropolitan districts or post-industrial towns that score worst on these measures. Scattered rural deprivation is not to the fore.
Moreover, various commentators have shown that rural areas have more households where someone is in work, yet is on low wages or in unpredictable employment.
That said, the work for DCLG finds that in 2009 East Lindsey ranked 60th, Fenland 61st and Boston 74th on the list of 326 local authority areas, when measured for economic and income deprivation. It is notable that a decade earlier they all ranked rather better at 84th, 114th and 135th respectively.
The usual suspects around the South East commuter belt are typically found to have the lowest scores for income and employment deprivation.
According to the DCLG statistical release the overall (or England-wide) pattern on change is that income deprivation decreased from 1999 to 2008, then increased again by 2009. No surprise there, given the financial tsunami that hit in 2007 and the resulting recession.
Just to confuse matters further, the Departments for Education and Work & Pensions are currently consulting on developing a Child Poverty Measure, which they intend to use to inform Government strategy and monitoring. This proposes moving away from the last Government's use of children in households where income was below 60% of the average – that, again, being a relative measure. It further proposes moving to a wider definition of poverty which goes well beyond the measurement of income.
If any RSN member wishes to respond to the DfE and DWP consultation they can do so at this link. Responses are sought by 15th February. It would seem well worth letting these departments know that any indicators they select must give a fair account of rural child poverty. What you measure is what you find!
Alternatively, if you have any great ideas for rural-friendly measures of child poverty do let me know, so we can consider them for the RSN's consultation response.