Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The future of regeneration and the politics of power Over on Living with rats, Julian Dobson has started and reflected some convened-group thinking about the future of regeneration (here and here). The debate will be featured in New Start magazine in due course. I think the focus on the relation between economic development and environmental sustainability is spot on. And there's a very welcome jab at the refusal of institutional thinking to recognise its own demise: 'There's a difference between [an] organic, assisted process and the directed, programme-driven forms of regeneration we've seen in the last three decades. The role of institutions should become one of nurturing and supporting what already exists and enabling it to grow, not one of constantly imposing grand strategies and plans.' Indeed: the main thing stopping the network society from flourishing as it takes the place of the organisation society is, gosh who'd have thought it, people in organisations. The snapshot of this is councils blocking their staff from using social media. The New Start debate brought out an emphasis on ethics and values, but that seems not to have been linked to the politics of power, as expressed through models of governance at local level. If we speak about a future for regeneration, we need to explain what is so problematic about attitudes to governance under recent and current regeneration regimes. We can't just elide it or imply that it can be smoothed over. This is a recurring theme on this blog and I won't revisit all the arguments, but I want to get at the issues from the point of view of local groups. (I use three main sources: references at the end). The first problem is the appropriation of language. The Third Way (let's dignify it with capital letters) has applied itself to transforming the meaning of 'community' into something we're all supposed to recognise, something unfailingly harmonious and positive which will deliver the state's objectives without ongoing state commitment. It relegates conflict to an issue of public management. Jeremy Brent put it like this: 'Time and again "the community" is referred to as an existing and unified structure, there to be consulted and relied on... Local communities are seen as both identifiable and good, with the certainty of their existence posing no problem, and as places where perpetrators of crime do not live. They have a unified and collective mind that identifies "needs" (a word commonly used in connection with community) that a benevolent authority (of course) can and does meet.' (Brent 2009, p245) Unfortunately it would be hard to deny that the community development field has been complicit in this, or at best docile. The second element concerns the policy determination of 'community as consensus'. Richard Sennett warned us about this decades ago when he wrote of 'destructive gemeinschaft' and pointed to the distaste for disorder. I reviewed Jackie Karn's Narratives of neglect a few months back: 'Problems arise where consensus is not apparent; or, being assumed, appears to be threatened. The idea of ‘moral community’ which characterised the...

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