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Homes, Job Prospects And Horizons: How Far Is ‘Away’?

June 28, 2010

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, proposes to help people move house in order to get work. This is not a new idea; from Norman Tebbit’s ‘on your bike’ onwards it’s been variously proposed by the main political parties that those without employment need encouragement to become domestically mobile. But jobs are not necessarily to be found just around the corner, a mere bikeride – Duncan Smith’s fifteen miles – of where those unemployed currently live.

This counter-argument is probably true for many areas of the UK; though the ‘north-south divide’ is not, in this respect at least, a figment of northerners’ imaginations. But perhaps in any case it misses some more fundamental, if rather less evident, aspects of the contexts of this proposal.

Housing costs vary
Firstly, where there is work, there is also less easily available and inexpensive housing.

The transfer from one location to another can be much more costly, and long-lasting, than ‘just’ the expense of relocation, once higher rents and other continuing outgoings have been factored in.

Domestic support and care commitments
Secondly – and agreed, in an ideal and fair world where work is properly rewarded every family will benefit from having someone in employment – for many families a potential wage-earner requires support from others beyond their immediate household, to make a success of their transition into work.

Childcare is one example of support required, for instance, by numbers of women – who are often critical to family stability.

And beyond that, conversely, many adults have family care responsibilities outside their own domestic arrangements.

For some, granny (who is unlikely to relocate too) is the mainstay of childcare if parents go out to work; for others, granny’s failing health and increasing dependency is the main reason they cannot consider moving.

Migration of the mobile
Thirdly, mobility, however well-funded or not, is generally more attractive to those with the most freedom and inclination to get-up-and-go.

Unfortunately, however, this largely admirable quality is not context free. Evidence suggests that some young people think two or three blocks away is a distance too far for safety; and the view that a mile away makes the post office inaccessible is held by numbers of older people in some parts of town. Get-up-and-go is a valuable commodity, but it’s not always supported by local people’s local perspectives on the world they actually inhabit.

And that’s before we get to the question of what happens if the more active members of a community are in fact persuaded to depart for ‘better’ things.

Feasible or fairy tale?
It would be quite outrageous to suggest that in order to sustain communities active people be somehow required to stay in locations where there is little work. If an opportunity for advancement, or even just a decent wage, exists elsewhere and someone can feasibly take it, then so they should. Individual effort and initiative deserve both support and reward.

But without realism about what at least those with constraints of commitment or context in areas of high unemployment might reasonably be expected to achieve, the idea of moving away becomes more fairy tale than feasible.

It’s playing to the gallery, not actually working with the grain.

Hollowed out communities?
‘Communities’ which would comprise in even greater concentration than before those who are too old, too constrained or simply too unengaged to move away are not a desirable outcome for any sort of government policy.

Of themselves such communities (or perhaps in reality just ‘settlements’) are likely to present further challenges both to public policy and to those who live in them – which is counter-productive all round.

And such hollowed out, difficult-to-sustain communities would also take their toll on the indubitably innocent. Who wants some of the next generation to emerge from babyhood into settlements from which everyone who can has departed?

Communities are not immutable; responsibility is
The point is sometimes reached at which a ‘community’ risks becoming no more than a shell, a settlement only of those who cannot or will not move on.

Various real-life examples of this grim prospect can be found (e.g. the Croxteth / ‘Boot’ estate in Liverpool) and the answers are not obvious; mistakes are easily made but sometimes remediated only with great difficulty.

Before rushing to proclaim that there are jobs just over the hill if only everyone would make the effort to find them, we need to take a good look at which communities are being targeted with this message, and whether this is a fair and responsible proposition.

People to jobs, or jobs to people?
But the question is not only about whether the message itself is fair and responsible in any specific context.

It’s also about whether sometimes, far from resolving the issues, a policy of shifting people to jobs, not taking jobs to people, may actually make for even more problems in the longer term.

This commentary was first posted on the NewStart Blog on 28 June 2010.

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