Dave Clements | 4 November 2006
In the latest issue of Interchanges, a newsletter produced by the Centre for Creative Communities, the strapline reads ‘Community? What Community?’ It notes the media’s obsession with the ongoing ‘fragmentation of society’, and New Labour’s worries over ‘community cohesion’, that also features strongly in the Local Government White Paper published last week. But it then descends into the familiar community-babble about building ‘processes of community engagement’ and the ‘importance of wide consensus and empowerment’ as if these largely meaningless and well-worn phrases mean anything anymore, if they ever did. Likewise the White Paper makes the promotion of community and neighbourhood engagement it’s overriding theme. Indeed it imposes a new duty on local authorities to ‘ensure community participation’ and to this end ‘actively involve the third sector wherever it can’. There is a proposal for ‘encouraging the take-up of neighbourhood management schemes’ including Tenant Management Organisations, for instance. And the consensus is confirmed in the ‘community anchors’ study accompanying this conference. We are proudly told that some housing associations already ‘promote community empowerment and active citizenship and support community projects’.
I don’t want you to think me overly dismissive. But the question I always ask when so-called active citizenship, better participation, empowerment (not to mention better partnership and more ‘joined-upness’) are put forward as the automatic answers to whatever policy question is being asked, is ‘to what end’? How are your clients, be they tenants, patients or school-children, participating, and what is the nature of their status as newly empowered citizens. So often it is contingent on their co-operating with the underlying terms on which they are being engaged. That usually stumps most advocates of participation for participations sake. Only connect seems to be the mindset. But even, as is increasingly the case, when this is acknowledged, the emphasis is on making the processes more amenable to ‘really’ involving people in the decision-making process. But decisions about what? And why? My experience as a local government consultation officer was that nobody had the faintest idea why we should be consulting, only that we should. This kind of mindless consensus has troubled me ever since.
But what troubles me even more is the inflated ‘Power to the People’ rhetoric emanating from government today. Of course, they are proposing nothing of the sort. It is a cynical exercise in off-loading responsibility in the hope of gaining political as well as social capital. The real power, the political power to set the agenda and define terms, remains firmly in Whitehall, and is only intensified as the phoney power to administer state-approved programmes is devolved. This is the context in which the proposed ‘transfer of assets to the community’ in the White Paper, be they village halls, community centres or the local SureStart, must be seen. This ends up conflating ‘community groups’ with communities themselves, illegitimately aligning the interests of one with the other, and endorsing the claims to ‘leadership’, in most cases I would argue wrongly, of the former. On what grounds do they ‘speak for’ communities? For the ‘vulnerable and under-represented’? How does the government propose to empower the sector and promote the community’s ‘voice and accountability’? Which communities and on what basis? The notion that this is a new form of public ownership is also mistaken because the public is further fragmented into interest groups, be they parents, residents or groups organised around particular faiths, each scrambling for a piece of the action. This is the original problem, the splintering of our society, bizarrely dressed up as the solution.
The Cabinet Office flatters “the increasingly important role the third sector play in both society and the economy” by giving it its own office in government. This is echoed in the White Paper, not least as the basis upon which an elabourate process of public asset-stripping in the name of civil renewal might proceed. It makes much of the ‘expertise and enterprise [that] needs to be harnessed’ in partnership with local government, to facilitate the supposed devolution of power to communities. But this just confirms, for me, how distant the government, and the political elite as a whole, really is from actually existing communities. Its reluctance to engage directly with society, preferring instead to co-opt apparently willing intermediaries such as yourselves, to ‘strengthen communities’, to use the obligatory New Labour speak, is testament to this. Indeed, the more talk their is of the importance of communities on the one hand, and ‘participation’ and ‘partnership’ on the other, the further the former seem to recede from view.
But for all the hot air about community, there is a real problem. We just need to disabbuse ourselves of the notion that the government is in the business of trying to address it. A recent study, commissioned by the Norwich Union, found that 1 in 10 of us go a month without speaking to our neighbours. A third have never spoken to them. And more than half don’t know their names. And the government’s solutions bare a striking resemblance to those offered up by Norwich Union. The latter’s report says that they are in favour of a more neighbourly society because it deters unreptuable tradesmen, avoids the prospect of the people next door becoming ‘noisy neighbours’, and saves you needless worry and expense on installing a CCTV camera in the porch, by becoming ‘protective neighbours’. It also says that if everybody had good neighbours, we’d all be healthier and live longer.
This instrumental take on what community is all about pervades the policy agenda in this area. You might expect this from an Insurance Company but we shouldn’t expect it from the government. The notion that the raison detre of communities is crime-avoidance, detering anti-social behaviour and healthy living, is frankly depressing. Norwich Union even employ the advice of psychologist Aric Sigman with his five steps on how to be more neigbourly and ‘improve community spirit’. Again, the psychologisation of community relations, the notion of what the Future City Project described in a debate at our Future of Community festival earlier this year as ‘communities on the couch’, is also endorsed by the government. And, according to the ‘community anchors’ study, by a number housing associations who are already involved in anti-drugs programmes, ‘employment and training projects, advice and debt counselling and community safety intiatives’. Perhaps you think I’ve gone too far. Indeed, these kinds of projects in themselves, in as much as they are a genuine grassroots response to community need may well be all for the good, but they must be seen in the context of a shifting role being proposed both for housing associations and the voluntary sector.
This is not about the ‘effective management’ of your housing stock, as the ‘community anchors’ study would have it, but the micro-management of your tenant’s lives. When I hear that a housing association in Blackpool is involved in an initiative to reduce teenage pregnancy, I despair at their complicity with the intrusive and frankly pointless teenage pregnancy strategy. What business is it of yours to tell teenage girls they mustn’t have kids? The vast majority of them, if you look at the figures, are adults anyway. It’s up to them if and when they choose to procreate. It just goes to show that the choice agenda is a misnomer – the only choice admissable is the right one, or the ‘informed’ one.
The ‘community anchors’ study talks about creating ‘neighbourhoods where people want to live’. Again, I suspect the element of choice here isn’t quite what it seems. There is a slippage in this discussion from the onus being on housing authorities and associations to provide people with ‘decent homes’ to the onus being on the community in partnership (yes, that dreaded word) with those same organisations, to police its behavoiur and create ‘decent neighbourhoods’. At a time when we need more and better homes, the discussion about the quality and quantity of the housing stock is put to one side. Instead housing associations, and every other support group imaginable, is stepping over the threshold and letting itself into the private lives of tenants. Consulting with them is little more than wiping your feet on the way in. This is not to deny that you might knock first, and are even sometimes invited in, to extend the metaphor. There is a mood in society at the moment that is amenable to the notion that we can’t manage our own lives, be it our finances, our emotional state, our relationships or the way we bring up our kids. But endorsing it can only further undermine the independence of individuals and communities, and the likelihood of their finding solutions of their own.
According to its website, the Department for Communities and Local Government, thinks that “social exclusion is the term used to describe what happens when people or areas are excluded from essential services or every day aspects of life that most of us take for granted.” It seems to me that it is actually a term that best describes what happens when a political elite faced with an indifferent and declining electorate, and the realisation that it hasn’t the first idea how to deal with the problems that society faces, other than to find ever more elaborate way of enticing likely ‘partners’ to manage them on their behalf, projects this feeling of isolation and inadequacy onto communities themselves. Why else would the “overall aim” of the Charities Bill be to “promote a dynamic and vibrant sector that continues to enjoy high levels of public confidence.” Politicians evidently don’t command anything approaching what might be described as the public’s confidence. And like GPs, at least before the Harold Shipman saga, voluntary and community groups routinely reach parts of society, including those infamous ‘hard-to-reach’ bits that most trouble New Labour, that government no longer can.
Again, you may think I have gone too far. But just last week Hazel Blears gave a talk in Birmingham entitled ‘Re-buidling our communities, revitalising our politics’. You don’t even have to read between the lines anymore. The pretence that the community agenda is anything but self-serving is barely-concealed. Their desperation is palpable. Going back to that piece in the Centre for Creative Communities Newsletter, the question ‘Community? What Community?’ clearly stumps Blears. Her search for ‘shared values, common interests, [and] understood rules of behaviour’ only reflects back at her and her colleagues, what is singularly lacking in the contemporary political culture that they have so re-defined. The ‘chaos’ that apparently reins in some of our communities according to Blears, is as much a reflection of the absence of conviction, vision and a sense of purpose in Westminster, as on the ‘mean streets’ of her beloved Salford.
Her speech is also a reminder of what community means for New Labour. It is not something that just exists, that merely is. It is something that needs to be managed. It is something that needs official sanction and protection if it is not to become extinct. Blears, for example, tells us that ‘government creates the framework for communities to come out from behind the locked doors of fear and trepidation and to step out into the street’. The White Paper says that government will ‘develop a support network dedicated to empowering local people and communities’. But this notion of communities under siege from hooded hoodlums or in need of self-appointed facilitators, exagerrates people’s vulnerability to circumstance, and underestimates their capacity to deal with and potentially transcend it on their own.
Strong communities in the past were borne out of and thrived upon their common experience of adversity, and were defined more often than not in their hostility to the powers that be, not a willingness to work in partnership with them. Re-discovering the Blitz spirit might sound attractive but you’d have to re-enact the Blitz for it to re-emerge. The ever-elusive ‘community spirit’, that Blears yearns for cannot be re-created by ‘V’, the government’s new volunteering programme for young people; by the new ‘Citizen Participation Agency’; by blaming citizens for not being ‘active’ enough; or by blaming teachers for not teaching our kids properly how to be ‘tomorrow’s active citzens’.
The notion that the problem of community might be solved if the state and it’s itermediaries intervene in the minutae of people’s lives, only confirms that we don’t know what the problem is and trivialises any attempts to find out. It also allows interested parties to exploit the new agenda, quite opportunistically (or as the ‘community anchors’ study has it ‘an opportunity waiting to happen’) to solve it’s own existential crisis. Admittedly, for housing associations, this has been brought to a head by a squeeze on resources as public money for new homes is projected to fall yet further, and in anticipation of next year’s comprehensive spending review. And a crisis of legitimacy on the part of government. But still I urge you not to go down this route.The likely outcome is unwarranted intervention in the lives of tenants and community life as a whole. And an undermining of your relationship with those tenants and communities as a result. The ‘community anchors’ study also says that a ‘bad landlord cannot be a good neighbour’. The danger is that in becoming the landlord from hell you will undermine any informal notions of neigbourliness that might otherwise flourish.
I’d be delighted to hear about tenants demanding more and better housing and getting it, rather than simply learning that they’ve turfed out another anti-social neighbour, in ‘partnership’ with the no doubt obliging local police force. And the more that housing associations take on this ‘wider role’ as it is mysteriously referred to in the ‘community anchors’ study, the more they end up policing communities themselves. Stick to what you know. You should be content with remaining ‘builders in communities’ not least because that is what society needs. By becoming ‘community builders’ you will in reality be doing a demolition job on the very foundations of community.
This is a speech delivered to the Smaller Housing Associations Conference, 31 October 2006