The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit has published guidance on ‘Indicators of strong communities,’ as one side of the ‘safer and stronger communities’ agenda. The notion of strength of community is less clear and hence less immediately susceptible to measures perhaps, than the notion of safety. One can question even the desirability of talking about ‘strong’ communities, and believe me I have, but this is the language with which we are expected to work, and this attempt to pin things down conceptually and in relation to practice is very much to be welcomed.
There are five core indicators, which are presented as if carrying equal weight (although personally I favour the first two and am less concerned to see weight given to the last) –
§ Governance - percentage of residents who feel that they can influence decisions affecting their local area
§ Cohesion and inclusion - percentage of residents who feel that their local area is a place where people from different backgrounds can get on well together
§ Volunteering - percentage of residents who affirm that they carried out voluntary work in an organisation once a month or more in the past year
§ Voluntary and community sector - percentage of VCS groups and organisations affirming growth in activity over the past year in terms of (i) financial turnover and (ii) volunteering
§ Services - Proportion of services in selected public service areas delivered by VCS organisations on behalf of the local authority.
Each has additional recommended indicators, an explanation, example, and actions associated with them. Quite a lot of work has also been done on methods and questions for collecting the data, with a case study included.
The section on cohesion and inclusion has an additional suggested indicator on ‘percentage of residents who feel involved in the local community.’ I’d like to see some re-wording along the lines of 'able to participate in local community life if they wish to.' This section highlights the need to cover both 'feeling involved in local community' and 'not feeling alienated'. A ‘strong’ community should not be just an active one, but one that is hospitable to incomers and visitors, and to all residents at different points in the lifecycle, so that for example when someone drops out of local activity for several years, perhaps in busy working life and parenthood, it ought to be easy to get back into it subsequently. And as we know, lots of folk live in 'strong communities' and suffer massive stress and mental disorder as a consequence.
And does it have to be 'volunteering' and 'voluntary work'? What about ‘community activity’ (or even community involvement)? Turning up on a cold wet evening and sitting in a committee meeting, maybe without saying anything to anyone, is probably community activity to most people but not voluntary work.
As for ‘growth of the sector,’ I think I’d be more concerned about its stability and sustainability. Increasingly I’m finding that the refreshment of community activity, the passing of the baton, is an important issue that many of us keep having to revisit with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The talk in this guidance about growth in activity, financial turnover, number of contracts secured, value of grants received etc is all a bit unnerving, it doesn’t feel to me as if that’s what’s needed at all. We're not trying to build commercial empires here, we should be trying to develop sustainable community life.
Maybe I'm being too picky - this is important stuff in policy terms because it moves us towards being able to answer the challenge, 'But how can you measure the strength of a community?' But we need to try to move on from the present preoccupation with formal organisations as if they wholly represent community life. What I’d like to see is progress towards measuring the strength of social networks associated with community activity.