Local elections – what is local about domestic violence?

As we approach local elections in England and Wales on 2nd May 2024, local and national politicians are setting the priorities for local authorities: for the funding they receive and spend – and the services they spend it on.

Where are responses to domestic violence and abuse in these priorities?

With many local authorities struggling to cover their statutory duties, such as social care and child protection, and facing loud criticism over bin collections and potholes, where do domestic abuse services fit into their plans?

These plans matter – from advice and information services, to specialist refuges and accommodation: all these are services that national government has devolved to local decision-making.

But domestic violence and abuse isn’t local. Not only are men violent and abusive to their women partners in every local authority in the country… but, to escape that threat, many women and children cross local authority boundaries to seek help and support – as well as safety.

The maps show the domestic violence journeys in one year to services for just five cities, as women (often with children) travel to or from Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth, Southampton and Birmingham. They show women having to leave their local authority to get the help they need.

One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Manchester to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Newcastle upon Tyne to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Plymouth to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Southampton to services
One year of domestic violence journeys to and from Birmingham to services

But women and children can only make such journeys if the services exist.

Local politicians may pledge to fund – or to cut funds to – domestic violence services, as part of seeking votes in the May elections. It’s a patchwork of separate – unconnected – decisions. And decisions that do not only affect local voters – but affect the tens of thousands of women and children who end up needing services somewhere else – not in their original local area.

It’s an ongoing mismatch between the scale of need and the scale of response – further cemented in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

We need services everywhere, because perpetrators are abusive to their partners or ex-partners everywhere; but we need a network across the whole country – not at risk from hundreds of separate local cuts and local priorities.

Data boundaries – Knowledge boundaries

Data are often collected within administrative boundaries, as if those boundaries contain all the necessary knowledge.  But boundaries can be porous – with people and resources crossing through.

Women escaping domestic violence are on the move – crossing administrative boundaries if they need to: either for safety, or support, or to find services.

However, if those services – and the authorities which plan and commission those services – only look within their administrative boundaries, they will not be able to see or understand what is going on.  They won’t have the data they need to provide good evidence for their decisions.

For example, if London services – whether at the Borough-level, or across the city – only collect London data, they will only get part of the picture.  They will see London women accessing London services; and they will see women from outside London coming to London domestic violence services.

But they are missing a key part of the picture.

Many London women escape domestic violence by leaving London.  They may go elsewhere in South East England; or may go much further.

In fact, for the period of time when there were country-wide data from the Supporting People Programme, every year more London women left to elsewhere in the country, than women came to London to access services.

The full data picture needs to cover all four aspects of the journeys women make:

  Within Borough journeys 

Within London journeys 

Journeys coming to London 

Journeys leaving London 

If authorities, service providers and commissioners only look at London data they only get a partial picture of London women and domestic violence services (http://www.domesticabusemigration.co.uk/).  They do not see all the London women who go to services elsewhere – that there are more women leaving London than coming to London.  That for domestic violence services London actually needs and uses the rest of the country more than it serves it.

* all maps one year of Supporting People Programme data – women accessing accommodation services due to domestic violence. Data based on Supporting People Client Records from Communities and Local Government. ©Janet  C. Bowstead

Less of a loss on the journey

Women who have to relocate to escape domestic violence often lose personal possessions, furniture, employment, and contact with friends or family who might be at risk from an abusive partner trying to track them down.  They may lose the chance of study or specialist services that they had applied for in one locality, and now have to start again at the bottom of a waiting list.  Many also lose their housing rights when they have to give up a secure tenancy and are unable to afford, or are ineligible for, similar housing security in their new location.  In so many ways, the emotional and practical implications of the abuse and the relocation are highly disruptive for women and their children.

However, in London at least, there is now the chance of less of a loss on the journey.

The Pan-London Housing Reciprocal was launched in January and enables people with a social housing tenancy, and who relocate due to a high risk of harm, to move elsewhere in London and retain their security of tenure.  They can move somewhere where they will be safe, and not have to choose between security of themselves and security of their housing rights.  The majority of London Boroughs (27) and 17 Registered Housing Providers have signed up to the scheme so far, so for some people there should be less of a loss on the domestic violence journey.

For details of how to refer:  http://saferlondon.org.uk/pan-london-housing-reciprocal/

Escape to the city?

When women experiencing abuse from a partner, husband or ex-partner need to escape, where do they go?  They are at risk from someone who knows a lot about them: the abuser knows their family, their friends, the places they used to live, are familiar with, or always talked about visiting.  For safety, they often have to go to the least-likely place – the place that the abuser would never think of – especially as an abuser may try and track them down.  They may not have had any time to plan, so have to go wherever they can travel to and wherever they can find somewhere to stay.

So we might expect a strong flow of women to major urban areas – an ‘escape to the city’ – away from rural areas where there are limited support services and less public transport, and away from small towns where women might fear being more easily noticed as a newcomer, and easier to track down.  Public transport routes are generally cheaper and easier on the main routes into major urban areas, and more difficult, costly and infrequent in more rural areas.

However, analysis of six years’ of administrative data for England[1] shows the opposite: it is not that there are strong flows along transport routes, or to services in larger urban areas. In fact, major cities are consistently places of net leaving due to domestic violence; with more women and children leaving each year to services elsewhere in the country, than the number who arrive to access services in the city.  London has more women leaving every year due to domestic violence than the number who travel to London to access services, and the same is true of cities such as Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne.  It is not an escape to the city after all.

[1]  Bowstead JC. 2015a. Forced migration in the United Kingdom: women’s journeys to escape domestic violence. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40: 307–320 DOI: 10.1111/tran.12085

Bowstead JC. 2015b. Why women’s domestic violence refuges are not local services. Critical Social Policy 35: 327–349 DOI: 10.1177/0261018315588894