What makes a neighbourhood network? How do local connections between residents get fused into an effective communicative network that comes in time to underpin everything else that happens? I got into an interesting discussion yesterday at Balsall Heath in Birmingham, where I was lucky enough to be picking up wisdom from people like Paul Slatter and Hannah Worth from Chamberlain Forum, Ben Lee from NANM, Elke Loeffler from Governance International, plus Dick Atkinson and the folk from the famous Balsall Heath Forum. I'd heard and read plenty about Dick and about what had been achieved at Balsall Heath, and this was my first visit. It's a hugely reasuring place, unpretensiously displaying the commonsense of ordinary people getting stuff done locally. But I wanted to know, how come? There are active street 'stewards' (with or without the title) in 15 sets of 3-4 streets. I liked Dick's remark that 'With a bit of support and encouragement people do more than they think they can.' This gives the forum a firm foundation of local people who are continually ferreting away at issues. OK let's be clear: we're talking about unpaid, unelected active local citizens, who 'have emerged out of street life' (Dick's words) in numbers that are sufficient to cover an area with a population of 14,000, loosely linked through neighbourhood management and an elected forum. According to the website There are 22 residents groups, and 70 Street Stewards. So the whole neighbourhood is covered. Everyone knows someone and the sense of mutual self-help is fostered. So I'm slightly enviously think about why this hasn't quite happened in Shipley, where I've tried to help out every so often over the years. Having a resident-employed resident, Abdullah, who supports the street stewards and takes some of the pressure off them, must make a difference. He tells us about the advantages of living in the neighbourhood where you work - you get a better response, people don't think you have a hidden agenda: 'they don't see me as a threat'. And this can be very proactive work. We heard a story of two residents doorknocking because of an eyesore front garden, to discover a man on his own who badly needed, and was given, support. But none of this, nor the recorded history of Balsall Heath Forum, quite explains how local networks grow and strengthen in some places and not in others. Informality is obviously crucial. But how come the initial connections, presumably between a few willing, motivated, slightly uncertain folk, have ramified and come to underpin a significant amount of what can be done now without the clumsy machinery of the city's formal services? We didn't come up with an explanation, but I certainly came away with a clearer sense of the fundamental significance of an informal communication network in driving social change at neighbourhood level. For sure, if I'd been shown a unique ingredient I wouldn't have trusted it anyway.
Is Big Society hiding behind civil society? I understand that tomorrow's Sunday Times will publish a letter signed by 'social entrepreneurs and others from the voluntary and community sector in supporting the role of civil society', by which they mean, the Big Society version of it. After a bit of rumouring during the week, the letter was published yesterday by Social Enterprise (quickly picked up by David Wilcox). It's pretty disappointing. It deals with some objections to which the authors (I don't mean the signatories necessarily; it's not hard to see where the text originated) feel they can respond, which are well within the comfort zone. SE says: The letter states that campaigners have been taken aback by the opposition in the press and elsewhere to the role citizens can play in our country, partly generated by pre-election discussions on such areas as the ‘Big Society’. How could anyone disagree with the need for a healthy civil society? But some less straightforward questions have been raised here and there, which don't get any kind of recognition or response in the letter. We're invited to vote for motherhood and apple pie. Having got it slightly wrong first go (eg unashamedly top-down, too closely associated with a political party, too detached from the political reality of community action) the folk behind BS needed to take a step back. There are (or at least there were, up until now) plenty of people ready to help them with their thinking, out of goodwill or perhaps self-interest. But with this letter they may just be compounding their problems. There's no need to defend civil society guys, it's not under attack: it's the Big Society that people wanted to ask about. Come on out. Publishing this a few days before the election will simply confirm people in their distrust of the close association with the Conservative party. Leaking the letter to test the reaction, gosh there's a new trick, compounds the sense that it's not quite sincere. And it doesn't take a major effort of recollection to reflect on the very serious and painful struggles that many people in the community sector (not civil society volunteers nor social entrepreneurs in their own terms, but local people with dirt under their fingernails) went through under the last tory administration. Previously: Big Society is being watched Let's hear it for neighbourhood groups: Conservative party launch of the Big Society