Geographical unevenness in labour market and social conditions is one reason why the 'local' has been emphasised increasingly in the delivery of labour market policy in the UK. This article explores the extent to which there are local differences in labour market conditions using the characteristics and experiences of Incapacity Benefit (IB) claimants in Northern Ireland as an example. It then offers some comments on the potential for policy initiatives to cope with these spatial variations. Evidence from a survey of 803 IB claimants is used, supplemented by focus group material derived from discussions with Personal Advisers (PAs). The article shows that whilst there are important variations between areas, largely in the quantity and quality of jobs, and the perceptions that IB claimants hold of their local labour markets, there are also similarities in the general types of labour market barriers they face across areas. There is some evidence, however, to conclude that these barriers in urban areas are particularly pronounced and that some IB claimants in these places face severer obstacles to re-integration in the labour market than those in rural areas. The article also suggests that policy delivery to cope with these geographical differences faces two problems. First, capacity to respond to local differences is limited by strong systemic impulses towards centralisation. Secondly, and paradoxically, local differences erode capacity to respond to severer urban problems because social/institutional capacity within providers and policy-deliverers in these places is limited by high staff turnover and a crowded institutional landscape.
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