Back to Blog

Place, poverty, inequality and possibility on the high street

Posted on 26 July 2019

Written by:

Myra Stuart

By Myra Stuart

The interplay between place, social networks and life chances is a crucial, and one that is frequently underplayed in strategies to tackle poverty. Places, their connections and services can have a huge impact on the life chances of the people who live there, and high streets can be a crucial ‘make or break’ for local neighbourhoods.

As our Chief Executive Sophia de Sousa has just been appointed a judge for The Great British High Street 2019, we ask whether the frequently proclaimed death of the high street is accurate, what failing high streets can mean for increasing place poverty, and how new interventions can boost the quality of local areas.

Accessible local amenities make a big difference to people’s need to travel out of area and can help to create opportunities and to build a community that thrives. Supporting local high streets can be a vital means of enabling this. Income inequality in the UK is among the highest in the developed world, but poverty is often concentrated in particular areas. The poorest people are often pushed to live in environments with fewer amenities, poor access to public transport, educational opportunities and jobs, a lack of green spaces, lower air quality and higher rates of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Access to services varies considerably between areas and can reinforce poverty and inequality. For example, there is significantly unequal access to GPs between areas of high and low deprivation. Each year 1.4 million people miss, turn down or choose not to seek medical help because of transport problems.[i]If people live in isolated places, fuel costs can weigh heavily on a household’s budget. In the UK 1.5 million are deemed at high risk of suffering from ‘transport poverty’, where a significant part of disposable wages is spent on fuel.[ii]

Bishopthorpe Road York 22 March 2014, Matt Cornock
Monopoly board made of Bishy Road.

Thriving high streets can contain the shops and services people need within easy walking distance of their homes, and help to alleviate some of these issues. Whilst wise investment and policy changes would be welcome, smaller interventions can and are making a big difference in local communities. Examples such as Bishy Road, a now thriving high street in York which one the Great British High Street award in 2015, illustrate what can happen when community members come together to protect and champion their local areas.

Local efforts to improve high streets, alongside other factors which can contribute to place poverty, need to be part of broader national and regional approaches to tackling poverty and inequality. Place’s role in poverty and inequality should lead us to reconsider the vital role place-based initiatives at all scales can play in increasing people’s opportunities and helping them reach their potential. When we enable communities to work with other stakeholders to make the changes they know are needed in their own local areas, new ways can be found of enabling high streets and other local amenities to thrive.

[i]NHS Health Development Agency, (2005) Making the Case: Improving Health through Transport.

[ii]  Sustrans (2012), Locked Out: Transport Poverty in England (London: Sustrans).