In the 1980s if UK politicians talked about community action at all it was defensively, because the notion was subversive, anti-establishment, tainted with radicalism and, typically, intensely confrontational.
Today eleven members of the Conservative party shadow cabinet (yes, eleven, including the party leader David Cameron) presented their ideas for 'the Big Society' which are dominated by plans to stimulate involvement in neighbourhood groups. Given the party's realistic aspirations to be in government within a few weeks, these policies constitute a justification for neighbourhood action at the highest political level.
It was genuinely peculiar to sit and hear the emphasis placed on the role of local residents in social policy. The single phrase most repeated through more than three hours of speechifying (shame about the talking-heads format, they still have a bit to learn in that respect) was 'neighbourhood groups'. They are, we were told, 'the essential building blocks' of the policy.
The three key promises are:
- strengthen and support social enterprises (I'm sure I wasn't the only person surprised at how little emphasis was placed on social enterprises)
- stimulate the creation and development of neighbourhood groups in every area
- encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects.
Financial incentives are promised 'for people to come together to form neighbourhood groups in the poorest areas', and funding for 5,000 independent community organisers (note: 'will have the skills needed to raise funds to pay for their own salaries').
On page 5 of the document you can read the powers and rights that will be assigned to neighbourhood groups. The list begins:
'Neighbourhoods will be able to bid to take over the running of community amenities, such as parks and libraries that are under threat'.
Threat from where? Understandably, this will be widely read as 'funding for parks and libraries is not gonna be great, but we'll support voluntary action to run them: and if it runs into the sand after a while, that's the community's decision.'
So this, boys and girls, is what localism means - local people being given support to run facilities like schools and parks, or taking over ownership of closed down shops. In his introductory remarks, Oliver Letwin equated the Big Society squarely with social capital, and part of the assumption is that in controlling their own resources local people will also generate much-needed social capital. Empowerment featured frequently in the speeches: local government hardly at all.
Most of the nine points in the neighbourhood powers list imply local consensus, using the N word where so often in the past the C word would have been used. This cheerily-assumed consensus is one of the areas where som elearning might be needed, but for now, the onus is on the community sector to respond to this extraordinary challenge.
If people react saying 'they don't understand the messiness of neighbourhood life - or the inertia, the separation and exclusion...' that won't get us far. Neighbourhood politics can be very intense, but you wouldn't have guessed that from today's speeches. Nor do we know whether grants will be available to unconstituted groups. All that reality-checking is yet to come.
Scepticism about individual choice being packaged as neighbourhood action won't help either, because great stress was placed on membership of neighbourhood groups. Make no mistake, there is, radically, a collective dimension to this policy: it's not just promoting individual civic behaviour (although the sop to the party traditionalists is to call it 'collaborative individualism').
So there I sat, listening to a potential Conservative prime minister say that the role of the state is to agitate for community engagement (speech here). And I remembered the day in 1997 when I heard a representative of the brand-new exciting-new socially-dynamic Labour government say 'we know things can't all be done quickly, we're planning for ten years'. I rushed back to my colleagues at Community Development Foundation with the message - c'mon, c'mon, we've got ten years to prove community development works.
Well, we didn't. Now I reread the phrase in today's document: 'We will encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects' and it seems to me this is another chance; because the welfare state and a society of institutions are things of the past, and you can't do without support for local involvement.