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.

Making us Anxious and Making ‘Volunteering’ Compulsory

First published in Huffington Post

The latest Citizenship Survey found that ‘just’ 39% of people did some volunteering. While this is the lowest for a decade, I have to say it sounds rather high to me. It all depends on what you mean by volunteering I suppose. Does every act of kindness deserve the label? A more meaningful poll conducted for the Hansard Society found 90% of respondents had no intention of involving themselves in their community. According to Dr Ruth Fox, this suggests that people ‘are not very altruistic. It is self-interest that motivates them to action – when an issue affects them or their community in a personal way.’

Perhaps that’s why 250,000 people applied to volunteer at the London 2012 Olympic Games? They just wanted to be a part of it – understandable given the difficulty and expense of getting hold of a ticket. Or maybe it’s the anxieties that seem to accompany every volunteering initiative, and the associated vetting regimes, that are so off-putting. Officials at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog), were keen to reassure the parents ofYoung Games Makers of their being ‘selected appropriately and safeguarding them properly’. Little wonder there will be just 2,000 under-18s of the 70,000 volunteers showing spectators to their seats and looking after those elite competitors. They might miss out on the experience of a lifetime, but better safe than sorry eh?

While the youngest are being ‘safeguarded’ from the supposed dangers of volunteering, others are, according to John Harris in The Guardian, ‘being volunteered‘ for dead-end jobs in return for £67.50 a week Job Seekers Allowance. But what about interns working for charities? According to Tanya de Grunwald, interns are not volunteers and ‘it is unfair to expect them to work for free. Even if it is for a good cause.’ But – whatever the arguments about social mobility – surely the charity sector is the one place where you might expect to volunteer your time for the greater good, and not get paid for it?

Tessa Jowell has, quite rightly, criticised the coalition government for failing to implement its promised new culture of voluntarism. But Labour’s alternative: ‘a properly worked-out plan to implement the big society across government’ rather misses the point. It is the top-heaviness of the big society, its obsession with institution building, that has turned it into something officious, involuntary and so removed from the society that the rest of us live in. Doing a better top-down job of it can surely only make things worse?

The debate about library closures, as local authorities desperately try to make savings, is pertinent here. While authors like Zadie Smith and Philip Pullman front campaigns to save libraries, it is also an opportunity for residents to take them over. While the old-fashioned library – a place for reading books – should be defended as a public good, local libraries (the one’s being defended) are effectively community centres already. To be blunt, these hubs of distracting activity are the last place you’d go to get a bit of peace, or to study or read a book. So why not hand them over to communities to run themselves? While there have been endless discussions about the role of volunteers in public services, in the Big Society, and in the workplace, the riots have added yet another dimension.

For Cameron, the tens of thousands of teenagers taking part in the National Citizen Service pilots over the next couple of years aren’t enough. He now wants every teenager to take part. According to a recent survey, three quarters of respondents think the scheme should be made compulsory. While Cameron is right to remind those prone to riot that they ‘can make a difference in their communities and that real fulfilment comes not from trashing things or being selfish but by building things and working with others’, is compulsory ‘volunteering’ really going to make any difference?

It is reported that youth volunteering is on the decline because of cuts to government-funded programmes. But surely it is this distorting of volunteering, turning it into a plaything of political rhetoric and an object of national policy, that is really putting the kids off. The case against, posited in a poll by the New Local Government Network , puts it rather well:

By forcing people to take part, government would be working against the very principles of voluntarism and activism it wants to instil.

Apparently, young people taking part in the Hackney pilot, were quickly shepherded away as rioters threatened to take to the streets. However well-meaning this sort of thing it just isn’t cut out to address what are profound social problems. And the point of volunteering, lest we forget, is that it is voluntary. A point I will be making at Doing it for charity? next weekend.