The other day I was running some workshops with street reps in Shipley with my daughter, three years since the first set of workshops I ran with them.
On the surface, the initiative has gone well, with a good sprinkling of residents taking up the role and ready to talk about it. And their contribution seems to have had an impact. For example, the proportion of people in East Shipley who say that rubbish and litter lying around is a problem has decreased from 50% to 36% in three years. Anecdotally, the drugs presence has diminished significantly as people have at last felt supported in raising concerns.
But there is disquiet. This is a predominantly white low income area, part of which comes within the 2% most deprived in the country. One report notes that a lot of people feel that all the ‘big’ regeneration money goes into areas of central Bradford dominated by black and minority ethnic groups, and that ‘white Shipley’ misses out. Well, I don't know the central areas of the city, but there's no evidence of any kind of regeneration money going into the two neighbourhoods of Shipley where I've been working. So it doesn't feel wrong to sympathise if these people feel a sense of marginalisation and abandonment.
What do we expect from the community cohesion indicator? The percentage of residents who believe that people from different backgrounds get on well together declined a disconcerting 10% (from 66% to 56%) between 2007 and 2009. The national average is 76%. So it was not totally unsurprising, if unnerving, to overhear one of the street reps delighting in the prospect that a BNP candidate is likely to get voted in to a local ward. This could be a nasty, dingy corner of local politics.
The second group we spoke to insisted that their role is not political, by which they mean, it's not characterised by party politics. But it's profoundly, inescapably political: these are unpaid volunteers living among people whose neighbourhood they 'represent' - often anonymously because of fears of reprisals - without democratic process or accountability but with the essential task of standing at the interface of citizen-as-subject and state-as-provider.
Every call they make to environment or housing services, every conversation they are having with the police support officer, perhaps every time they step outside and have a word with a neighbour, they're trying to reassert the citizen's influence over what happens, and juggling the fizzing firesticks of responsibility, responsiveness, interference, surveillance, vigilantism, identity, collective interest and so on. They do this from a base of controlled influence and minimal power.
We'll be going back for several more sessions, but (partly because they've not had much press for a long time) I'm already concerned that the street reps movement may not be in blooming good health.
I see it as an important experiment, as much about new forms of engaged democracy as about making services locally responsive; as much about co-delivery as about efficiency. But it's apparent that, as with Neighbourhood Watch before it, the whole initiative can be weakened by lack of trust.
Neighbourhood Watch empowers its representatives, but is based unavoidably on a foundation of distrust. Street reps take their place on a basis of pro-social action, but (sometimes for very good reasons) may have neither the power nor the necessary level of generalised trust to have the influence that justifies the effort.
Maybe too little has been tried. The potential of neighbourhood websites is certainly one area that cries out to be developed alongside support for street reps. We're not done yet.