Benefits Street? It’s nothing like the James Turner Street we researched

Reposted from the Guardian

I initially decided to stay out of the whole “benefit street” debate.

When colleagues were discussing it at work; I did venture to suggest it had been edited to hell and back by the latte sipping Channel 4 team, in order to provide “entertainment”, but I was very much the lone voice in the wilderness. 

After reading Peter Bakers comments in the Guardian, I decided to post them as they (I think) put the whole thing into context.

James Turner Street in the sun

‘None of us would have suggested it was a cosy neighbourhood, but it was far from the hell hole portrayed on Benefits Street.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for The Guardian

“James Turner Street? I’m sure I’ve heard of it,” I mused, when watching the trailer for the first episode of Channel 4’s Benefits Street. But it didn’t look like or seem to be the same street that I was soon to recall. Within a few seconds we had statistics quoted by a narrator – “only 5% working … almost everyone on benefits” – and residents to set the scene. Images of rubbish piled high were provided backed by a collection of dysfunctional individuals paraded in front of the cameras. And then it clicked.

I first went to James Turner Street in 2008 for my company, Vector Research. Specialising in researching what are known as “hard-to-access” groups and neighbourhoods, we had been commissioned by the city council and Urban Living, one of the government’s housing pathfinder organisations seeking to improve communities in north-west Birmingham, to produce a report on the area. The project, conducted in partnership with Ark Housing Consultancy, was a neighbourhood renewal study to look at the conditions of properties and to gather a range of data from residents to identify their priorities for future intervention.

The neighbourhood we were covering consisted of James Turner Street, Foundry Road, Perrott Street and Eva Road. Before the initial household survey I took two of our executives down for a quick recce. The three of us agreed it was quiet, non-threatening, not particularly untidy, just a bit rundown – and obviously a very low-income area. Typical “terraced melting pot”, as such streets are known in one of the key neighbourhood classifications that social researchers use. One or two houses with loud music or rubbish in front, possibly a noisy neighbour or two, but hardly an unpleasant environment.

A month later we had interviewed 321 households in the neighbourhood – more than 60 of which were in James Turner Street. We were pleased with managing to get more than 70% of households to take part in our survey. A certain amount of credit for that was due to our proactive promotion and use of multilingual field staff. But the response rate also tells us something about the neighbourhood.

And the neighbourhood told us a few hard facts, too. The respondents were a mixture of friendly, suspicious and cynical; just one or two were more difficult and had a substance problem or other issues. Not hugely different from middle-class areas from a field perspective – other than the fact that a high proportion were prepared to participate!

More important though, the results for James Turner Street showed that at the time, just under four in 10 (39%) of adults were working – more than were unemployed or on disability or sickness benefit (35%). In excess of 100 residents came to consultation event at Foundry School, in James Turner Street, and took part in an interactive exercise in which they identified priorities for the future. If only we had filmed the event: it featured a slightly different group to the characters that Channel 4 has focused on.

In 2009 we returned to the street as part of a sub-regional study that produced data for the whole of north-west Birmingham and West Bromwich/Smethwick. The 2,500 household interviews showed just how typical the James Turner Street neighbourhood was – with similar rates of unemployment and benefit claims across the area, which housed a third of a million people.

In 2011 we returned to James Turner Street for a case study on low levels of access to the city’s cultural services. Once again we found a group of obliging residents in a largely unchanged neighbourhood. None of us would have suggested that it was a cosy neighbourhood we would seek to live in, but it was far from the hell hole portrayed on Benefits Street.

Indeed, the programme misrepresents the true conditions of James Turner Street and ignores objective evidence. Claims of more than nine in 10 not working and on benefits (“based on informal door-knocking”) are ludicrous. I appreciate that my company’s data is from 2008 and 2009, but conditions locally have not changed drastically since then. Indeed the cost of an independent household survey to update our outputs would have been tiny in relation to total production costs for the documentary series. But perhaps hard data would spoil the story. Instead unsubstantiated figures are being banged out and going unchallenged. The end result is a biased and misleading picture which is damaging for a fragile community.

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