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Why David Urquhart is a man for our times

Why David Urquhart is a man for our times

🕔29.Mar 2013

The holy week of Easter is a highly appropriate time to applaud the increasingly important role being played by the Bishop of Birmingham in leading a campaign to make the fight against poverty a major issue.

David Urquhart isn’t a self-publicist media ‘personality’ along the lines of his predecessor John Sentamu. As bishops go, he has a low profile nationally, which is clearly the way he likes it.

Since arriving in Birmingham he’s proved highly capable of working productively with the city council’s political leadership of whichever colour. His relationship with former deputy council leader Paul Tilsley, a Liberal Democrat, was very comfortable, while he is on good terms with today’s Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore.

Bishop David is playing a unique role, transcending party politics and bringing together a broad coalition determined to adopt a fresh approach to tackling unemployment and social exclusion.

I strongly suspect a social inclusion process ‘white paper’ recently published by the city council and Birmingham’s strategic partnerships would have descended into the same old hand-wringing while producing no clear understanding of how to improve matters were it not for the influence of the Bishop.

Personally, I’d advise anyone remotely interested in lifting Birmingham out of its position one of the most deprived local authorities in Britain to read and digest the 45-page document Giving Hope Changing Lives.

In his introduction Bishop David makes, as you would expect, the Christian case for helping those less fortunate than ourselves although nowhere does he overtly bring religion into the equation.

He writes: “Inequality and social exclusion is something that we should not easily accept in a rich country and a city like ours. Our aim is to bridge the gap between the disadvantaged and the powerful, so that more people can participate in the economic and social opportunities at work, home and play.”

No one can be in the slightest doubt that Birmingham does face significant problems.

  • The 9th most deprived local authority in the UK, with significant pockets in the top one per cent of most deprived areas nationally.
  • 35 per cent of children are classified as living in child poverty. In some wards this is as high as 52 per cent.
  • Unemployment rates are twice the national average, with more than 50 per cent of adults out of work in some neighbourhoods.
  • A life expectancy gap of over 10 years between the worst and best wards.
  • A low proportion of highly-skilled residents when compared with the UK average.

The problems are commonly understood, or so we think. But the social inclusion process white paper manages to drill down into the city’s psyche to try to understand what’s really going on.

A steering group of academic experts was brought together, helped by Birmingham University, to focus on five key lines of inquiry – Place, People, Wellbeing, Inclusive Economic Growth and Young People.

The findings make it clear that pre-conceived ideas about what causes social exclusion and poverty are not always particularly helpful. The real issues are far more complex.

Birmingham’s village mentality came across very strongly in the research. Elderly people in Kingstanding, for example, were said to rarely, if ever, venture into the city centre.

The remoteness of the city centre and the Bullring’s smart shops, regarded as ‘not for ordinary Brummies’, was a common and disturbing theme alongside a stubborn attachment to small suburban areas. Many people living in Yardley, for example, have probably never visited other parts of Birmingham and see no need to.

Residents of council estates on the edges of the city spoke of a sense of isolation, remoteness, and lack of connection with either the surrounding neighbourhoods or with the rest of the city.

Some residents said they would not put their postcode on a CV for fear that it would lessen their chances of getting employment.

Expensive public transport making travel to work difficult was another common theme with many people identifying the prohibitive cost to families on low incomes of visiting the city centre.

The white paper notes: “The lack of connection and feeling of isolation of some outlying estates has translated into a feeling that the opportunities being developed in the city centre and other areas of Birmingham are not for them. It has led in some cases to resentment about inner city communities, manifesting itself in feelings of ‘us against the rest.”

An over-reliance on the council or government to provide solutions is highlighted: “Birmingham has created an environment that is built around structures and organisations to deliver services across the city. This has continually disempowered residents’ sense of action.

“There is a need in Birmingham to nurture and design ways to encourage the ‘power to act’ for residents who feel they have solutions to issues that affect wellbeing and inclusion. This would create a sense of citizenship and ownership across the city.”

And in a clear warning to the politicians, it seems clear that expensive regeneration schemes do not always deliver the social and economic improvements claimed by the council. The Bishop’s research uncovered a commonly held view that the wishes of local people are routinely ignored and that consultation is merely tokenistic.

The white paper concludes with seven specific commitments to social inclusion.

  1. Support families and children out of poverty by building an inclusive growth strategythat can bring jobs and prosperity across all communities.
  2. Embrace super-diversity by understanding the unprecedented variety of cultures, identities, faiths and languages that have transformed the social landscape of Birmingham
  3. Protect the most vulnerable by ensuring there is concerted and coordinated preparation to mitigate against the worst effects of the welfare reform changes.
  4. Connect people and place by reducing the cost of and increasing access to public transport.
  5. Create a city that values children and young people
  6. Empower people to shape their neighbourhood by developing a strategy for the city, encouraging greater participation and strengthening relationships between different areas through neighbourhood ‘twinning’.
  7. Address safety, isolation and loneliness by developing services that reduce isolation and loneliness of older people.

It is a list with which few could disagree. However, the shelves of Birmingham Council House are sagging under the weight of equally well-meaning recommendations from the past.

Implementing the recommendations will involve co-operation between public and private sectors and a dynamic multi-agency approach of the type never seen before in Birmingham.

I can do no better than repeat the words of the Bishop of Birmingham, who remains in no doubt about the difficulty of succeeding where so many have failed: “This task moves beyond what the city council or national government can do, not least when budgets are being reduced drastically. It will require the combined energy, resources and wisdom of everyone to address some of the fundamental economic and social issues we face, and to protect those who are most vulnerable in our communities.

“I am aware that I am taking a leap of faith that we want to promote another’s fulfilment at the same time as our own. As we seek the welfare of the whole city, may we know that we are committed to Giving Hope and Changing Lives when, in our relations with our fellow human beings, distant respect moves to deep appreciation and mere tolerance becomes full participation.”

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