Digging Behind the Facade of #BenefitsStreet 2 #GE2015! #RaceForNumber10

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I read Zoe William’s perceptive piece about this subject with interest and it got me musing about how I (and others) would approach an analysis of  Kingston Road in Stockton-on-Tees and flesh out some possible proposals to improve the life chances of the residents.  I am, of course, assuming that they need such help, but for the sake of the following, I will make that assumption.

Firstly, I would look up the data in the public domain on the area.  I stress in the public domain as such data is usually beyond contention and gathered in a consistent way.  These are some of the data sets which I would look up:

LLSOA data is the lowest level to which one may go for data of this type without recourse to a house to house survey.  The over-riding concern with small data areas is to avoid identifying individuals and their families.  Where such a risk exists either that geographical level is not published or the data is modified.  Of course, survey data should be anonymised and handled extremely carefully to avoid any breach of the Data Protection Act.

The various data sets (including Mosaic) create a picture of the area, mostly in figures and provide a baseline against which to measure future interventions.  I am going to employ some jargon, so if there is anything that does need clarifying then please leave me a comment and I will get back to you.

At this point, I must stress that we are now data rich, but information poor.  We are like GCHQ, overwhelmed with the results of our eavesdropping and unsure what is significant and what is not.  However, unlike GCHQ, we are not having to make decisions about significance in real time and as more data continuously comes in.  We may take our time and use the Census data and other sources to formulate some tentative theories and possibly identify areas in which to build on existing activities and/or initiate new areas of activity.

We now need to test the data, any theories and possible solutions against the situation on the ground.  We need to talk with all the stakeholders, public, private, the voluntary and community sector, elected representatives, community activists and, of course, the residents.  We need to adopt a Chatham House Rules approach.  We want to hear the unvarnished truth.  We do not want to hear the official line or people telling us what they think we want to hear.  Public meetings, focus groups, surveys and questionnaires all have their value.  However, when it comes to talking with and listening to the residents then interviewing a representative sample of the people of the area is essential.  A White Dee would have something to contribute, but not as a cuckoo.

We now match objective data with subjective data to create a picture of how an area stands at the moment.  Going forward, we will need to routinely revisit this approach to see how interventions are working.  Ideally, we need to get direct input, if not management from those whom the interventions are designed to help.  A mixture of buy in, inclusion, community cohesion and capacity building.  Ideally, once the focus on the area has ended we want sustainable improvements managed as much as possible by the local community.

Were one putting together a television programme one could follow this process and, arguably, present a more balanced picture than currently seems to be happening.  One’s representative sample could become case studies for the programme.  But we are not looking to make Cathy Come Home these days, are we?

I think it appropriate now to turn to this extract from Ms William’s article:

Kieran Smith, the series producer, spoke to me before I visited: “Generally speaking, there might be one or two people who would rather we weren’t there. But we haven’t faced massive opposition. Alex Cunningham [the local MP] has very publicly pronounced against us from a position of no knowledge. Politicians who they’ve never seen on Kingston Road. To put it bluntly, what MPs want is for you to tell a story about the amazing investment that’s happened in their city. Which is fine, but don’t try and stop people who haven’t seen that investment … Don’t try to silence them because they don’t fit your picture.”

I would like to unpack this fascinating set of comments uttered by a parachutist after a commando raid on Kingston Road.  “Generally speaking”, I have no hard evidence, but as I have a vested interest in the making of this programme, I will put a positive spin on how welcome we are.  “But we haven’t faced massive opposition”, we have faced opposition, but Mr Smith has no idea how to measure it.  For the record, I suspect that a few people may have spoken on behalf of a larger group.  Also, if you are facing intrusions of this nature, you might sensibly keep your head down until the media circus has gone away.

Alex Cunningham [the local MP] has very publicly pronounced against us from a position of no knowledge.”  This is the second set of programmes in this occasional series, is it not?  Heaven forfend that the MP might be standing up for his constituents, given the mainly negative reactions to the first series?

“Politicians who they’ve never seen on Kingston Road.”  Who is they?  Evidence, please, for this very specific accusation?  Alex Cunningham holds regular surgeries in his constituency.  In addition, his constituents may contact him by telephone or by posting a message on his website.  He is also on Twitter and Facebook.  One wonders how many residents of Kingston Road have contacted him about housing issues, Social Security problems, noisy neighbours, delayed passport applications and so on.  Mr Cunningham is not an untypical MP with regard to this level of accessibility.

Mr Smith referred to politicians, though, did he not?  There are two Councillors representing the Ward of Stockton Town Centre, Paul Kirton and David Coleman.  Both Cllr Kirton and Cllr Coleman hold surgeries.

“To put it bluntly, what MPs want is for you to tell a story about the amazing investment that’s happened in their city.”  Again, representing the interests of their constituents?  Not running them down and reducing their opportunities to better themselves?  You would be a very poor MP (and possibly a one term one) if you did otherwise!

“Which is fine, but don’t try and stop people who haven’t seen that investment … Don’t try to silence them because they don’t fit your picture” or your programme?  I am afraid I do not know Stockton on Tees very well, but going by the Local Authority data snapshot it is mostly a little below the comparative regional and Great Britain data.  I think people will have seen any investment in Stockton on Tees.  It is usually capital, particularly shiny new buildings and refurbished old ones, rather than revenue investment.

The questions that usually require addressing in areas like Kingston Road are:

  • Have the residents seen any personal benefit from the investment?
  • Have there been no positive changes resulting from it as far as the residents are concerned?
  • Do they link any beneficial developments in their lives with the investment and so on?

There is a strong case for arguing that economic regeneration has not benefited the least well off and has overshadowed the necessary social regeneration that should have accompanied it.  In short, investment in Stockton on Tees may have created vacancies, but not necessarily for the residents of places like Kingston Road, because they were not given the support to make it possible to apply, let alone secure, the new jobs being created.  Some of that support is not directly connected with moving closer to the labour market.  Of course, these are assumptions and need testing against the the situation on Kingston Road, both perceived and real.  As one of my colleagues used to say, perception is so often reality.

Mr Smith might reflect on the fact that programmes like his, conveying the opinions of cuckoos do nothing for most of the residents of places like Kingston Road.  How many people are worse off on James Turner Street as a result of the first series of Benefits Street?  There is such a thing as negative post code discrimination, particularly when residents of that area are applying for jobs.

White Dee has seemingly done nicely out of her involvement with the programme, but at whose (ongoing) expense?  Her neighbours and many others across the country barely surviving on low incomes?  Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.  Perhaps he should have said an average of 15 minutes?

White Dee has had more than her fair share of fame and now epitomises a variation on the American Dream.  Hard work, keeping your nose clean and your self respect no longer matter, because next year, Rodders, we may be celebrities!  We should, though, feel a little concern for Ms Dee, the media build you up, then you get boring and so to cure that, they tear you down.  They have done it to quite a few people from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and show no signs of refraining from doing so any time soon.

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