Thursday, 16 September 2010

Community development and Small State 'Big Society' is an imposed brand and for me gives rise to the same sort of resistance that a commercial advertising campaign would generate. But those who claim that it is nothing more than branding are not quite right. In spite of the coalition's coyness about policy, there have been policy assertions and it's appropriate to examine them. CDF's Mel Bowles has rolled up her sleeves and done just that from a community development perspective, in a measured, questioning recent paper available (if barely discoverable) on the CDX site. She quite rightly highlights the distinction between politicised and non-politicised community work. Community organisers under Small State will not be expected to support local people in fighting to protect or gain access to existing services: ‘Neighbourhood groups will be expected to develop (additional or alternative) public services and bid to provide them... Community organisers – and others – will be expected to support them to do so. The policy context requires intermediaries... to refocus their attention on developing new community groups that are willing and able to develop and deliver public services…’ She goes on to note that: ‘none of the policy material to emerge thus far addresses the extent to which community organiser support should focus on bringing people from different backgrounds together or on supporting vulnerable citizens and groups to get involved.’ Discussing opportunities for CD, the paper concludes that social action in the context of Small State looks likely to involve 'hybrids of community groups, social entrepreneurs, public services and private contractors overseen by citizens, as well as local governments’. And among the challenges, the big one: ‘ensuring active citizens are not solely providing services, but are also able to make demands upon authority and power.’ Which reminds me, back in April before the election, I wrote: 'start from the recognition that community action is fundamentally, insecapably political, and get used to it. Attempts to depoliticise it will be self-defeating and may lead to a revival of confrontational radicalism'; and Julian Dobson wrote: 'If we want community activity that won't frighten the horses and will leave most of society pretty much as it is, and will give you social action without having to worry about social justice, this kind of set-up may be a good bet. Those who want more substantial change may well find themselves suffocated in such a network.' Which in turn invites the familiar point that much of the debate about Small State has taken place in the blogosphere, none of it included in Mel's cited sources. We continue to see two literatures on public policy, the traditional one ignoring the upstart.
It's the poverty, stupid Now, a word about the received wisdom that ethnic diversity at neighbourhood level gives rise to lack of cohesion and weakens social relations. There seems to be an assumption that directly relates diversity to perceptions of antisocial behaviour and disorder. It matters because I suspect the assumption influences many actions and decisions in a hidden way, in policy, practice and everyday behaviour. I recently mentioned a paper by John Hipp (Social networks, 32(2), 2010, subscription required) which hints at a little more complexity: perceptions of disorder are explained by general social distance between individuals, not simply social distance based on ethnicity. And last week the ESRC published some research on neighbourhood social heterogeneity. The researchers found 'little evidence' of a significant effect of ethnic diversity on people’s perceptions of a neighbourhood. Among the findings: Population turnover does not influence perceptions of antisocial behaviour but is associated with lower levels of social cohesion and trust. Living in a low density area is strongly associated with more trusting, supportive and cohesive communities. Deprivation has a negative impact on levels of cohesion, trust and informal social control. It also increases the chances of perceiving high levels of antisocial behaviour. While there was some evidence to suggest that ethnic diversity is associated with reduced levels of community cohesion, trust and informal social control, the impact is much smaller than that of neighbourhood deprivation. The ethnic make-up of an area, either in terms of mixing or dominance, was not significant in explaining perceptions of antisocial behaviour. Those living in the most ethnically diverse areas were the least pessimistic about the national crime trend. Ethnic diversity does not influence the significant associations between deprivation and negative perceptions of a local area. However the effect of ethnic diversity on levels of social cohesion and trust is dependent on the level of deprivation in the area. So, it's the poverty, stupid. And attitudes towards people who are poor. There have been people working their backsides off in the field of poverty alleviation and wealth equalities, ready to voice this message to those who would hear it. So one of my next posts I hope, Clegg inspired, will be about the nastiness of povertyism: I want to ask why there isn't any debate about disrimination against poor people?

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