Stick to what you know

Smaller Housing Associations’ Conference, Inmarsat, London

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. It then descends into babble about building “processes of community engagement” and the “importance of wide consensus and empowerment”.

Likewise the white paper makes the promotion of community and neighbourhood engagement its 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. This consensus is reflected in the [Housing Associations as] Community Anchors study. 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 and empowerment are put forward as answers to whatever policy question is being asked, is: “To what end?” How are your clients – be they tenants, patients or schoolchildren – participating? The emphasis is on making the processes more amenable to 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. 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. On what grounds do they speak for communities? For the vulnerable and under-represented?

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.

Distant government

The Cabinet Office flatters “the increasingly important role the third sector plays 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 elaborate process of public asset-stripping in the name of civil renewal might proceed. But this just confirms, for me, how distant the government is from communities. Its reluctance to engage directly with society, preferring instead to co-opt apparently willing intermediaries, is testament to this.

For all the hot air about community, there is a real problem. A recent study, commissioned by the Norwich Union, found that one in 10 of us go a month without speaking to our neighbours. And the government’s solutions bear 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, for instance, it saves you installing a CCTV camera by becoming protective neighbours.

The notion that the raison d’etre of communities is crime avoidance, detering antisocial behaviour and healthy living is depressing. 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 tenants’ lives. When I hear that a housing association in Blackpool is involved in an initiative to reduce teenage pregnancy, I despair. What business is it of yours to tell teenage girls they mustn’t have kids? The vast majority of them are adults anyway. It just goes to show that the choice agenda is a misnomer – the only choice admissible is the right one.

The Community Anchors study talks about creating “neighbourhoods where people want to live”‘. There is a slippage from the onus being on housing authorities and associations to provide people with decent homes to the onus being on the community, in partnership with those organisations, to police its behaviour.

Last week Hazel Blears gave a talk in Birmingham entitled, Rebuidling our Communities, Revitalising our Politics. The pretence that the community agenda is anything but self-serving is barely-concealed. Her search for “shared values, common interests, [and] understood rules of behaviour” only reflects what is lacking in contemporary political culture. 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 Salford.

Community spirit

Her speech is also a reminder of what community means for New Labour. It is not something that just exists. 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”. But this notion of communities under siege from hooded hoodlums, or in need of self- appointed facilitators, exaggerates people’s vulnerability and underestimates their capacity to deal with it on their own.

Strong communities in the past were born 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. Rediscovering the Blitz spirit might sound attractive but you’d have to re-enact the Blitz for it to re-emerge. The community spirit that Blears yearns for cannot be re-created by the government’s new volunteering programme for young people; or by blaming teachers for not teaching kids how to be “tomorrow’s active citizens”.

The notion that the problem of community might be solved if the state and its intermediaries 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 to solve their 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.

But still I urge you not to go down this route. The likely outcome is unwarranted intervention in the lives of tenants and an undermining of your relationship with those tenants and communities as a result. The danger is that in becoming the landlord from hell you will undermine any informal notions of neighbourliness 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 antisocial neighbour. 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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2006/nov/13/comment.publicservices

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