The Future of Community

Speech given at Belfast Salon, Northern Ireland launch of The Future of Community

Alastair Donald | 25 November 2008

For obvious reasons British identity has long been a contested subject in Northern Ireland. However, today national identity has become a problematic issue on a much wider scale, with society’s elite no longer able to secure support for, or even articulate an agreed set of collective values. This was confirmed last month in a determinedly low key announcement in which the Government indicated it has abandoned its plans for a “Britishness” day – the proposed national holiday which Gordon Brown intended should create a “focus on the things that bring us together”.

By contrast, for New Labour and its ever expanding army of think tanks and agencies, every day seems to be a “communities” day. From empowerment to social inclusion; from participation to cohesion; from deliberative poling to citizen juries; and whether volunteering, consulting, devolving or involving; barely a day passes without a new initiative to create, sustain or give self esteem to communities. It takes significant effort just to keep up with the deluge of new research, reports, policy, good practice guidance and local or national initiatives. In the course of one week recently, there were nine reports published on the issue of exclusion from digital communities.

In 2006 the Government set up a dedicated Department of Communities. In the period before and since, as “community” has become a central focus of policy, it is clear that a significant change has occurred in politics. Where once social and economic questions provoked political debate as part of a contest for shaping the future of society, these issues today are endowed with a sense of inevitability. Often the only question is as to the magnitude of the negative impact of events outside our control. Indeed, the more talk there is of “community”, the less sense there is of active citizens coming together to pursue a political debate and action around how to shape society.

Take one recent example – the crisis in the economy. There is little doubt that the Government has floundered around in its attempts to develop a meaningful political response to what has become increasingly apparent is a deep seated economic crisis. Yet while Chancellor Alistair Darling appeared not to know whether this is the worst crisis for 60 years, or whether the “underlying fundamentals are sound”, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wasted little time in asserting that a credit crunch would result in communities devastated by increases in crime, racism, and extremism. Given there’s no reason that this should necessarily be the case, Smith’s views suggest that the Government is projecting its own fearful outlook for society onto community life. Consequently, where “community” might once have been understood as the outcome of relatively informal interactions, current policy and legislation revolve around the idea that it is the job of those in a position of authority to construct communities – as a means of avoiding the imagined decent into chaos. Communities therefore have become not only viewed as passive recipients of change, but objects of endless community creating initiatives whereby officialdom seeks to influence behaviour and imbue communities with “values”.


It is true that not everyone shares Smith’s gloomy outlook as to the prospects for community. Some have recently expressed the view that an economic and social crisis might even be no bad thing in that it may provide a positive momentum to community action. Yet this constituency mostly tends to reveal a poverty of aspirations. Indeed the politics of community is often predicted on the idea of insulating communities from societal progress through battening down the hatches by returning to small scale action community.

So for “do tank” the new economics foundation, the Credit Crunch – and an “Energy Crunch” and “Food Crunch” – can be the springboard for a “Green New Deal”. This celebrates small scale action, where local food and energy production networks – and even local currencies – are reintroduced as a means of enhancing the resilience of what are held to be “vulnerable” communities. In similar fashion, the Transition Townsmovement – set up initially in Kinsale, but which now covers over 50 villages, towns and cities throughout the UK – aims to overcome supposed problems of oil dependency by environmentally sustainable living through self-sufficiency, eco-community, and simplicity.

In case you think such ideas are confined to a few “hairshirt” greens, in Government, planning Minister Baroness Andrews views neighbourhood allotments as the new community centres; Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell is preparing for a more austere future by learning to make jam and teaching her daughter to knit.

In this sense the debate around community is a parochial one of scaling down and self help. Community is invested with a sense that new shared commitments and moral values can be developed more easily at a local scale. The likes of neighbourhood environmental initiatives – for example in community recycling schemes – are viewed as the means to develop new moral frameworks that counter excessive individualism. As one Guardian columnist put it recently, when it comes to climate change, “it is our desire for freedom, for novelty, for comfort that lies at the heart of the crisis”. He went on to argue that new rules and laws are not enough. Instead climate change must be understood as a moral and spiritual problem requiring a new moral framework from within which to envisage life.

As well as creating new, acceptable codes of conduct, the politics of community are about creating and fixing a point of connection for elites that are no longer sure of their role, and of their connections to society. In a pertinent example of the political elite’s discomfort in its relationship with society, Harriet Harman recently announced a year long Parliamentary investigation aimed at understanding why politicians are seen as “a narrow, self serving elite who bear no relation to the population as a whole”. In recent years, whether arts initiatives, regeneration programmes or official volunteering agreements, it is not difficult to detect the desire to create a tier of intermediaries that operate as a point of connection between Government and wider society. As David Miliband explicitly recognised during his stint as Communities Minister, the voluntary or 3rd sector can reach out to communities in a way that politicians and Governments cannot.

This appears a particularly important aspect of the evolution of the new community politics of Ireland. When I last visited Belfast in the early 1990s, it was clear that the British Government’s strategy for containing the war was being pursued through cultivating a set of community organisations it could do business with, and which it hoped could isolate the Republican movement from their wider nationalist base.

It has been widely recognised that the worldwide collapse of national liberation movements was one signal of the emergence of collapse of radical politics. At the same time, the disorientation of the right and of those parties previously in favour of the market means that traditional politics has become exhausted on all sides. The politics of community has been born in this vacuum, and today, it is clear that community has become the focus across the entire spectrum of Irish politics as a brief look at the websites of Government, Loyalist and Nationalist parties will confirm. Take for example Sinn Fein’s 2007 Assembly Election campaign. According to one observer, the ideological thrust of the manifesto was based around securing “diversity, equality, and respect” through a political programme centred on “rights based governance” – an orientation that would not seem out of place in the political contexts of many western countries.

In this respect, the new political terrain of Northern Ireland exemplifies many of the problems that we set out to understand when we wrote the Future of Community. Take one example, Sinn Fein’s celebration of community identity and of ‘parity of esteem’ for diverse communities, which is arguably rooted in the municipal politics developed by the likes of the GLC in the early 1980s. In England, the mainstreaming of the politics of identity and multiculturalism has had disastrous consequences for communities in the likes of Bradford. Similarly, in the neighbourhoods beyond Belfast’s new self consciously cosmopolitan centre, the outcome has been entrenchment of social and spatial divisions. Is it surprising that the “peace wall” remains as a brutal reminder of the segregated urban space of estranged communities when the central ethos of politics is now to celebrate difference, and therefore to reinforce opposing identities?

The irony is that over recent years many long standing inequalities have been eradicated and recent research shows that the nationalist population no longer suffers the systematic discrimination of yesteryear in the spheres of, for example, housing or employment. Yet the politics of community – with resource allocation centred on pleading of differences, and even of one community’s status as more victimised than another – effectively introduces new mechanisms to reinforce divisions.

To conclude, the creation of community is a top down process that is effectively a holding operation in which politicians and officialdom seek to compensate for their own exhaustion and lack of vision for society. Yet without the freedom to determine their own priorities, communities can only ever become bureaucratic constructs – and will be constantly constrained within an officious framework of risk management set by authorities who are fearful of the public freedoms. The outcome not only differs dramatically from community as an organic, fluid, and ever evolving set of relations that derive from the social interaction within communities, but will likely undermine the informal relations that are the true basis of community. Even worse, those who chose to ‘opt out’ of official communities are likely to find themselves identified as the problem and coerced into participation by the likes of the new Duty to Involve.

Official attempts at constructing communities can only deny the possibility of a genuine sense of community. Equally, those interested in shaping society need to urgently get to grips with the politicisation of community.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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