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Modern Bazalgettes: using data to tackle UK poverty through infrastructure

17 October 2023

On the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Peter Radford explores how data can deliver benefits for deprived communities.

Modern Bazalgettes: using data to tackle UK poverty through infrastructure
Infrastructure can help us address deeply embedded inequalities in the UK.

Civil engineers who are inspired by the heroic exploits of their 19th century forebears may be familiar with Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewerage system for London.

However, Bazalgette’s overall scheme was about so much more than modernising sewers.

It had many integrated features and benefits, such as the Thames embankment, where muddy strands of land were freed for much needed development.

Ugly and dangerous waterfronts were transformed into iconic landmarks.

It was an approach copied the world over.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, 24th President of the ICE. Image credit: ICE Library
Sir Joseph Bazalgette, 24th President of the ICE. Image credit: ICE Library

Putting the ‘civil’ in civil engineering

What perhaps is less known is that Bazalgette was a civil engineer who took the ‘civil’ part of his job title very seriously.

He was informed and guided by new and revolutionary insights and data that enabled him to do a better job for the public.

Perhaps the most significant influence on Bazalgette’s thinking was Dr John Snow.

The doctor’s work on the 1854 cholera epidemic in Soho mapped cholera deaths. It pinpointed that the epicentre of the outbreak was a match to a communal water pump in Broad Street.

Snow prompted an ‘infrastructure intervention’ when he had the pump handle removed.

Therefore, deaths quickly subsided, and Snow had established the principle of waterborne diseases. The brilliant Dr Snow is now referred to as the Father of Modern Epidemiology.

Later, Bazalgette was to deliver much larger and long-term, integrated infrastructure interventions to transform the public health in the capital and benefit many of the poorest in society.

Fast forward to 2023...

However, fast forward nearly 170 years to 2023, and infrastructure for public good is becoming increasingly divided in the UK.

Government infrastructure initiatives aimed at tackling profound deprivation and inequality can be slowed or stopped by time-consuming, subjective, and resource-intensive bid processes, impacting the cost-effectiveness of these programmes.

But the need has never been greater.

What is deprivation?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, deprivation is "a situation in which you do not have things or conditions that are usually considered necessary for a pleasant life."

The toll of the pandemic, followed by the cost-of-living crisis, is expected to significantly increase place-based deprivation and poverty impacts in many parts of the UK.

These challenges can be defined regionally and nationally, but it’s important to recognise that they also exist at very localised levels.

How data can help track place-based deprivation

So, how can we track place-based deprivation in an objective way?

And how do we provide all stakeholders with a coherent view on deprivation and inequality, together with other place base insights, to enable public services to ensure well-targeted infrastructure interventions?

These questions have prompted an initiative by Turner and Townsend called IBIS: the Infrastructure Benefits Insights System.

The project seeks to provide intelligence on place-based circumstances across the UK through mapped views of local socio-economic circumstances.

The idea is that by improving the quality and accessibility of deprivation data insights, we can target the delivery of positive infrastructure outcomes and measure them more systematically.

What is deprivation data?

UK deprivation data has been gathered in various local forms since the 1970s to provide information on the relative deprivation of geographic areas.

In 2007, the government issued national indices of deprivation (IoD) and the index of multiple deprivation (IMD) datasets.

These have been published periodically by the government since, with the next data set due in 2025.

Whilst the current IoD and IMD datasets include measures for deprivation they are reported as ‘rankings’ for places because the methodology has been ‘tweaked’ over those years.

The rankings can be viewed down to what is known as a ‘Lower Super Output Area’ (LSOA), which is an area or community with an average population of around 1,500 people or 650 households.

In 2019, there were more than 32,800 of these LSOAs in England, and 61% of English local authority districts contain at least one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

What does IBIS do?

IBIS provides people with the ability to look at the ranking trends across all the IoD and IMD datasets.

It does this via heat maps for the years the ranking data has been issued which gives a birds-eye, qualitative view of how deprivation rankings of places have changed over time.

In the featured example, the employment IoD domain ranking for part of a city in south-west England is compared from 2007 to 2019.

Employment IoD domain ranking for part of a city in south-west England. Image credit: Turner and Townsend
Employment IoD domain ranking for part of a city in south-west England. Image credit: Turner and Townsend

The map shows that areas with a lower deprivation ranking in 2007 seem to have consolidated by 2019.

Meanwhile, places ranked as more deprived in 2007 have increased in number by 2019.

Deprivation appears to be more deep-set.

How can infrastructure help deliver benefits for poor communities?

Infrastructure professionals are already skilled at planning, designing, and delivering infrastructure against objectives and norms.

By understanding wider and long-term deprivation insights for places and communities, professionals can broaden the ambitions and better integrate their efforts, increasing the benefits of infrastructure interventions.

Beside the deprivation rankings, IBIS will seek to provide easy access to many other ‘place based’ socio-economic data under numerous categories (e.g. health, education, transport, etc) to help identify opportunities to drive wider benefits.

Through maintaining and repeating these long-term measures, we can all better understand what ‘good’ looks like and how to do more of it.

Data is key to levelling up the UK

It’s clear that data-led intelligence offers the opportunity to build a library of benefits and outcomes that can inform future infrastructure development and help us address deeply embedded inequalities in the UK.

Indeed, to make the UN Sustainable Development Goals a reality, we’ll need to harness the power of data to shine a light on disparities.

Bazalgette-style integrated interventions may well beckon as we better understand just what it takes to truly level up our society.

Find out more about the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

  • Peter Radford, associate director and IBIS initiative lead at Turner & Townsend