Public sector funding cuts and the Big Society rhetoric, taken together as they must be, seem to be about weakening local government while strengthening citizen involvement and influence in the resulting vacuum.
Is it the expectation that most of the increased involvement and co-production will happen at local authority level rather than at neighbourhood level? I’m not sure we know enough about the differences, but it’s fair to say that a huge amount of informal co-production has always gone on at neighbourhood level, overlooked by and sometimes in spite of government policy.
Once within the local authority area, it’s curious how policy doesn’t seem to have much purchase, the closer it gets to your home. I’m referring to what I tend to call the neighbourhood (in my case just fourteen units): sometimes called the micro-neighbourhood, or in the seminal Shaping neighbourhoods by Hugh Barton and colleagues, the ‘home patch’ (population 20-200).
I have no idea whether that will change in the months and years after the forthcoming Localism Bill, but don’t be surprised if this is where a lot of harsh skirmishes get fought out and where the weak will be abandoned. As public services begin to wither, localities will start to vary enormously according to the amount of self-investment they manage to mobilise. This will be a real challenge for the ways in which we address inequalities.
There are no clues in the CLG ‘structural reform plan’ as to the varied nature of ‘local’. Under the objective ‘Make localism and the Big Society part of everyday life – by increasing accountability’ (para 4.5) the government plan mentions promoting power to ‘community groups’. But unfortunately the subheadings make no further mention of such groups. [Pity the busy officials, we don’t know how many, at their desks, drafting away. Dang, what did I do with those community groups? Dunno, they were there a moment ago. Oh well]. Community groups tend to take their justification from the larger neighbourhood or district, and have impact at the most local level, so it maybe matters that they are kept in the equation.
Traditionally of course, policy works at a scale where its impact is at the wider area level – through transport, policing, planning, health services, environmental services and so on. These services are then expected to reach down into the neighbourhood, and of course some do, to great effect, or they interact with community sector agencies which do so. But often they fail to get near. Will the new localism manage to get closer?
Some of the language can be deceptive. Take ‘safer neighbourhood teams’, part of the extended happy family of policing. While the officers are active in various neighbourhoods they may not come from any of them, and have to work at establishing connections with residents. Or take the misnomer of ‘primary care’. I think it was Marilyn Waring who countered that most primary care is delivered by mothers in the home. I would argue that most primary care is delivered by individuals to themselves or their families. For sure, there is a consistently identifiable level of health care – including community nursing - which comes before the level where we travel 2.5 miles to the nearest clinic.
So the new politics of Small State requires a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes the local. We could start with a better appreciation of the levels and kinds of co-production that take place within the micro-neighbourhood, the better to be able to compensate for the partial disintegration of wider ‘neighbourhood’ services.
As an aside concerning what happens at the most local level, where residents construct much of the narrative of their everyday lives - I’ve just read an interesting paper by John Hipp (Social networks, 32, 2010) on how social distance between residents in the nearest ten units affects perceptions of disorder. His study suggests that
‘it is micro-neighborhoods with two cohesive subgroups containing minimal social distance within them and a large amount of social distance between them [that] have the lowest level of commonly perceived social disorder.’
If nothing else, this highlights the fact that not only are neighbourhoods not as cohesive as policy would like them to be, they probably function better not being too cohesive (residents being better equipped to foster weak ties with the broader neighbourhood). Policy needs to get away from the lazy equation of ‘community’ with local authority area or sub-district: the Localism Bill would seem to be a good time to do some of the necessary thinking.