Bring Back the Ronseal Test

First published in Huffington Post

I have recently come to the conclusion that nothing does what it says on the tin any more. Or at least what is written on the tin has ceased to have much to do with what’s in it. This has particularly come to mind over the past week. There was the announcement that, at last, there will be an inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan which supposedly ‘triggered’ last year’s riots. A report making the case for local authorities to raid their employees’ pension funds in order to boost housebuilding, was another prompt. And then there was the story about how Cancer Research UK was voted the most popular charity ‘brand’, with the likes of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International not far behind.

What struck me the most about the latest riots-related news was, first of all, this idea that Duggan’s death in some way caused the riots. I don’t think it did in any meaningful sense. It is perhaps better to understand what happened as akin to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. The events were connected but almost arbitrarily so. But in the absence of anything else, it seems to have become the stand-in for an explanation for something that was quite inexplicable and unexpected. While apologists for the rioters have talked up the poverty, lack of opportunities and poor relations with the police, none of these while attendant factors explain anything. While I don’t accept as some have argued that they weren’t riots at all – according to my dictionary a riot is a ‘noisy disturbance by a crowd’ – they were fundamentally lacking in any sort of content. The violent public display (what was written on the tin) rang hollow. Not that this stopped commentators, politicians and academics – no less opportunistically than the rioters themselves – hurriedly projecting their pet theories onto what were meaningless, if no less serious for that, outbursts.

The world of housing policy, not known for its outbursts of activity – as the absence of housebuilding attests – has also been failing the Ronseal test for some time now. The latest wheeze in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost ‘affordable’ housing and inject some life into an inflated yet standstill housing market, only confirms this. While all sorts of bad ideas from blaming under-occupiers and those with second homes for the housing crisis, to creating new confusing mixes of traditional tenures, are entertained by those hopelessly steeped in bricks ‘n’ mortar jargon; they seem not to notice that housing policy is no longer about housing as such. Social landlords, for instance, don’t build houses any more. They like to be known as ‘community builders’. They are providers of social services, on the one hand, ‘supporting’ their allegedly vulnerable tenants, and getting heavy on the other, policing the anti-social ones. According toDavid Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, ‘the mission is to improve people’s lives, to help them fulfil their potential, to support their aspirations and to create functioning and healthy communities’. Even if that was all all very well – which it isn’t – that’s not what it says on the tin.

The charity world, by way of contrast, has been guilty less of mission creep than of a complete absence of mission. Which is ironic when you think about it. The association of the very notion of charity with the religious orders of missionaries who sought to spread the word; or with the pious reformers of the 19th Century at home penalising and patronising as much as helping the poor, may not be entirely flattering. But it is a reminder of a time when there was no doubt as to the message. Today’s charities evidently have a great deal of difficulty articulating what it is they stand for. There are a number of reasons for this. The reliance of many, particularly the most well-known, charities on the state with regards both their funding and policy agendas, are foremost among them. But it is the absence of that desire to meet desperate need that led Dr Barnardo to create a school for the East End’s orphaned and homeless children; or of that sense of outrage at the filmic depiction of homelessness in Cathy Come Home that led to the creation of Shelter.

Its not that we lack social problems. While grinding poverty and child destitution are largely problems of the past, there are a few good causes I can think of that don’t get the attention they deserve. Whether its campaigning for real development rather than the so-called sustainable development that world’s poorest typically get, or in defence of those scientists and institutions experimenting on animals in the interests of medical science. Whatever you deem to be a good cause I urge you next time somebody rattles a tin – or in the case of a chugger, their clipboard – in your direction to enquire as to its contents. Not literally, but what is it that they are campaigning for and why should you help them with it? The same goes for Orr and the housing sector. If you are no longer about building and managing the housing stock but would rather manage tenants’ lives, then whose going to solve our housing problem? And if we are to make sense of what happened last summer then we need to get to grips with the mismatch between the rioters’ vandalism of their communities and the worthy excuses. I’m sure there are other similar wood-treatment products out there but only the Ronseal test will get us any closer to making sure that riots, housing associations and charities do what they say on the tin.

Pop-up communities: here to stay?

This is an edited version of my contribution to a debate on Saturday, part of the After the Riots strand at the Battle of Ideas festival held at the Barbican, London.

I didn’t see the previous debates in this strand. My wife is expecting our first child so I have been in Antenatal class all day. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except that being a parent – or being a ‘good’ parent – seems to have more than a personal significance these days. Especially after the riots. Bad parents, problem families, or the ‘troubled families’ discussed this morning, were quickly blamed. Or else patronised by those claiming to want to ‘support’ them.

I don’t know what he had to say this morning, but I was pleased, shortly after the riots, to hear David Lammy say what a number of us had been banging on about for a while. Parents feel undermined by a political class that tells them how to bring up their kids; or in the case of smacking, how not to. Sadly he went and spoilt it all a few weeks ago when he blamed knife crime on absent fathers. Or was it absent fathers on knife crime? It doesn’t make much sense either way.

The tendency to indulge young adults’ very violent tantrums no doubt came up this morning too. But it is this notion that grown-ups just aren’t very grown up any more – that the previous debate focused on – that is a good way into this debate on communities. Adults don’t seem to have the authority they once had: whether it’s bringing up their children or holding the line against riotous youth. It is this crisis of authority that in my view created the conditions for last year’s riots, and continues to make an effective community response so very difficult.

I’m no localist but I was none too pleased to discover that my adopted neighbourhood of Walthamstow had been destroyed. Not by the riots – there was a bit of looting, but nothing too serious – but by the Boundary Commission. While the places we live – they are hardly communities really – tend to be anonymous and disengaging, especially in London, most of us still don’t like unwanted interventions and impositions from outsiders. So, while we barely talk to each other, I still resent the prospect of me and my fellow Stowians being divided up between neighbouring Leyton and Chingford as is proposed. On the non-parochial plus-side I also get a kick out of people sticking up for their communities.

So when around 1,000 residents of Clapham Junction arrived on their riot-hit streets armed with their brooms this was rightly celebrated after the events of the previous nights. It made a nice change to see communities taking the initiative where the authorities had failed. They were out there all big society-style and without the usual complaint about the impact of cuts that we’re used to hearing from the so-called community sector. The organised chaos of the rioters was shocking, but it was heart-warming to hear how those residents organised their own response quite literally overnight. Where the rioters used their blackberries, these residents used Twitter via #riotcleanup.

But there was still something not quite right. This ‘sense of community’ lasted only as long as the riots were deemed to be a threat. Once the police had regained what was left of their badly diminished authority on the streets of Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon and elsewhere; everybody went back home and got back to their socially detached lives. Still it was nice while it lasted and it wasn’t another consultant-led initiative claiming to be community-centred and bottom-up, when it is nothing of the sort.

I have in mind, for instance, the response to the burning down of the House of Reeves in Croydon. A family-run furniture store that had stood there for 140 years became one of the iconic burnt-out images of the riots. A year later the Reverse Riots campaign – run by the state-sponsored youth volunteering outfit vInspired – decided to plaster the remaining building with what The Guardian describes as ‘more than 4,000 images of young people holding positive statements’. That’s it. I have no idea what those positive statements were, because even The Guardian (a newspaper that tends to like this sort of thing) couldn’t be bothered to read out any of those messages. It was just another vacuous and uninspired ‘lets say nice things about young people’ initiative.

But there are good examples too. Personally I like pop-ups that don’t over-claim or take themselves too seriously. The likes of Sing London and Ping! England. Pianos and table-tennis tables just popping-up for no particular reason in public places. Really fun ideas that trust people not to nick the table tennis bats or the pianos for that matter. Table-tennis tables popped-up in Walthamstow during the Olympics; and last time I looked they were still there and being used. But the connection with The Games meant that they also became associated with the desperation for a ‘legacy’. Not just an East London legacy, but a feel-good legacy. In a way, the Games themselves were treated as one massive ‘pop-up’ response to the riots. According to The Independent they were an opportunity to regroup around a ‘common purpose’. But as Zoe Williams, who also spoke earlier today, put it: ‘We can’t hold an Olympics every year’.

The world of the pop-up community is very different to the cloth-capped communities of old. In the absence of a sturdier or more deep-rooted solidarity, we seem to be scrambling around to capture what are manifestations of a very impermanent sense of community. From the riots of 2011 to London 2012, every event becomes a pop-up vehicle. Every genuine sentiment, whether it’s that of the clean-up volunteers or of the Games Makers, is deadened by officialdom’s desperation to capture it.

In an interview with BBC News, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, talked about the importance of the response to the riots, of the Jubilee and London 2012. With remarkably frank cynicism he said the government wants to ‘tap-in’ to these events. He was being interviewed about the recently launched We will gather website. Built by the people who brought us #riotcleanup, and paid for with £100,000 of government money; it is only the latest attempt to bottle that community spirit. While I wish them well I think this is an impossible task, especially when officialdom gets so eagerly involved.

But we needn’t be so cynical ourselves; there is still life in the pop-up community. I’ll leave you with an example. Last week I read about the Battle of Barnet. (This has nothing to do with the Battle of Ideas, by the way.) In contrast with the vInspired House of Reeves pop-up, this Guardian story featuring a ‘hotchpotch alliance of squatters, retired booksellers, local bloggers and international anti-capitalist activists’, is genuinely inspiring. Not the sort of people that I would ordinarily have much time for admittedly. But this was different. They had just succeeded in preventing Barnet Council from closing a library. They had turned the big society tables on the infamous no-frills ‘Easy Jet’ Council. It is now being run, reportedly, by a ‘volunteer staff of guerilla librarians’ and supported by residents who have ‘donated 5,000 books to restock the shelves’. Now that’s my kind of pop-up community. And the volunteers even run ‘children’s story sessions’. Maybe I’ll move to Barnet.

Riot-hit communities need more than this lazy policy

First published in Independent Voices

Too often government tries to “fix” communities whose problems can only truly be solved from within.

I was speaking at the Asian Fire Service Association Conference last week alongside Dara Singh, member of the Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel. According to the Panel’s website it was “set up to examine and understand why the August 2011 riots took place”. Its final report was published in March of this year. Plenty of time for deliberation you might think. An opportunity to go beyond some of those easy projections of left liberal angst about poverty, austerity and the cuts, and the other familiar and wholly inadequate excuses rolled out to explain the quite unprecedented mass vandalism of what came to be called the riots.

You’d think so. But you’d be disappointed. As with the the Guardian/LSEReading the Riots report – that might have been excused for being published so much earlier – we learned that young people lack a stake in society, and there aren’t any opportunities for them; there needs to be more respect, agencies need to work together and intervene earlier, as do parents and schools, the police and the general public. In short, the report had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said: not just by previous reports on the riots, but by every administration going back to the New Labour government.

Instead of putting all of those policy prejudices to one side, and taking a fresh look at what happened in order to “examine and understand” what was really going on, the riots were treated as just another hook on which to hang them. Trotting out another well-worn and contradictory notion, the report sought to explore ways of responding that might “build social and economic resilience in communities”. The contradiction lies in the notion that resilience is something that resides or can be built from without. In fact such interventions can only undermine communities’ resilience by the very fact of being an official intervention in something that can only be worked out by communities themselves.

The same goes for the recommendation that all schools run programmes designed to instill character and confidence in young people. This was not something the young rioters seemed to be lacking. Nor will this do anything to tackle the other problems mentioned, such as disruptions in the classroom, or make young people anymore ‘work ready’. The report makes an uneducated leap from the fact that half of the crimes committed were ‘acquisitive in nature’, to suggesting that a more responsible capitalism and a less ‘aggressive advertising’ by the big brands, will address the problem. Now I have a low view of the rioters – and I’m not one to make excuses for them – but even I wouldn’t attribute their actions to corporate nudging, far less regard it as a solution. To be fair, the report departs from the government’s blaming of 120,000 troubled families; but only to recommend that public services instead “engage” with 500,000 “forgotten” families.

In the one area where more forceful and effective intervention was seen to fail, and with disastrous results – policing – the report has no insights to offer. If anything it only contributes to the undermining of that authority by recommending “police forces proactively engage with communities about issues that impact on the perceptions of their integrity”. It seems likely to me that communities expect a very different sort of engagement from the police. And I don’t mean tea and cakes with residents in community halls or the Panel’s call for “social media capability” (what, better than the rioters’ Blackberries?).

That residents complained of a “lack of involvement” and regarded their neighbourhoods as far from idyllic or ‘tight-knit’ is hardly surprising. But more of the same old interventions is only going to make things worse. The notion that riot-hit communities need to be “put back on their feet” and that the authorities “accept accountability for turning around the lives of individuals, families and, in turn, communities” is both wrong and incredibly patronising. I’d go as far as to say that communities could do with a lot less engagement if this is the best that policy wonks can come up with.