I’ve muttered often enough about use of the word ‘community’ as if it implies consensus or something tangible. The Young Foundation with CDF and Bassac organised a seminar on neighbourhood governance the other day and, slightly unfortunately, gave it the title “Where should the community be in neighbourhood governance?”
But I wasn’t expecting the event to raise for me what I now think of as a key question: “Do we need unity of voice – consensus – for neighbourhood governance?” I got into a fascinating discussion with Susan Spencer of Bassac, Naseem Akhtar from the Saheli Women’s Group and one or two others, about trying to change the paradigm of local democracy.
My old buddy at CDF, Gabriel Chanan, had started us off by asking “How self-governing can a neighbourhood be?” I think this tack could have seen us veering into government rather than governance, but anyway some people were uncomfortable with the requirement to have neighbourhood boundaries defined in order to ensure representation and therefore accountability. Gabriel suggested that ‘neighbourhoods’ (ie residents in a given locality) have to be able “to intervene at levels other than their own.” This seems to make sense: if you want to change transport patterns across your patch, for instance, you may have to get into dealing with your county highways department.
But maybe the word ‘intervene’ indicates we’re asking the wrong questions. In our little group discussion we were resisting forms of neighbourhood governance that replicate local government structures. Doing that, we felt, might do no more than bring more command-oriented and silo-constrained management difficulties closer to people’s homes, rather than bring local people’s experience into the governance process. The ODPM’s approach to neighbourhood governance is unambiguously about service delivery, but maybe people are looking for something else: maybe people are looking for new forms of relationship with authorities.
As Susan Spencer tellingly put it, “Often we achieve consensus by people dropping out.” That very feature contributes hugely to the contemporary meaning and meaninglessness of local democracy. I think that many people don’t want decision-making powers. They’d like more knowledge of what’s going on; plus the potential to have, and feel they have, more influence. Neighbourhood governance should be about influencing within and beyond the neighbourhood. One of the questions that arises then is, can we find a new paradigm for relationships with the people who take decisions on our behalf?
This stuff is hugely difficult: there are people like Susan around with decades of community development experience, tussling with the issues and not – by her own admission – knowing the answers. In such a situation, it usually makes a difference to get the questions right.
I also wonder how far the ODPM and the Home Office can push their expectations of voluntary activity. Rose Ardron, from Sheffield NDC, said:
“I do two days a week on this and I get tired. My colleagues who are also volunteers, get tired. People aren’t breaking down the doors to get involved in local forums.”
A colleague was telling me recently about a local activist who does 76 hours of volunteering per week: he’s seriously ill. Of another it was noted recently, that to be an activist in your own street is exhausting. I just don’t get the impression that this factor has featured much in what has been thus far an overwhelmingly top-down debate.