One of the difficulties faced by old-timers in the field of social policy – and I have reluctantly to admit that that description applies to me – is that the same ideas, good or bad, will always come round again. I was mildly intrigued then, rather than deeply excited, to see a report from LSE about local anti-poverty strategies. It’s nearly 25 years since I prepared an anti-poverty strategy for Dundee Council, their first. Some of the lessons that the LSE report draws were evident in that exercise: the importance of ensuring that local actors buy in to the strategy, the need for an action plan, and the necessity of having some means of monitoring implementation and outcomes.
There are, however, some other lessons that it’s important not to lose sight of. The first was to produce a plan for everyone in poverty, not just those living in deprived areas. The second was the need to be inclusive – to let people with different ideas about needs and priorities have their say – and not to impose my own definitions or understandings on people. The third was to allow people in poverty to identify their own priorities. Before I did this work, for example, I hadn’t understood how important pets were to people’s lives. That’s the great advantage of open-ended, qualitative research – it gives people scope to say what matters most to them.
I also found, in three successive focus group interviews, although I’d come to talk about poverty, they all wanted (quite independently of each other!) to talk about deafness. It wasn’t right for me to tell them that they were off the subject – far too many people in poverty have their concerns overridden by well-meaning academics. Poverty is a much broader topic than managing on low incomes. The first thing any researcher or planner needs to do is to listen.