Today Nesta launched the Neighbourhood Challenge to try to highlight ways of stimulating local social action.
“Community organisations across England are invited to apply to the 18-month programme. NESTA will select ten organisations and provide them with funding to trial an approach to community organising that reflects their own vision for what will work best in their area.
We will provide the practical tools and high-quality training needed for participating organisations to help people in their communities create local campaigns, innovative community projects and new social enterprises that address their passions and priorities. We will also provide micro-finance to support the development of local projects and establish local challenge prizes to incentivise community-led innovation.”
Deadline for expressions of interest is 22 November.
Some good will come of this. But the first thing that struck me at the launch is how desperately tasteless it was to be in a plush central London location with a free breakfast among a large number of affluent be-suited people talking in very general ways about 'communities' that are characterised by high levels of apathy and low aspirations; and offering residents of those distant neighbourhoods a chance, by competition, to improve their lot.
Statistically their chances of winning through in that competition are likely to be very small. They are expected to put in a bit of effort, symbolically making pleas to the powers that be, and then in all probability just knuckle down to things as they were before; or get picked off by the developers. What sport this must seem to the Haves - get the peasants to do a wee dance in their quaint custom, then show a little favouritism to a handful.
Perhaps I'm being slightly unfair, but it was all so reminiscent of the ghastly mistakes the Labour administration made in its early years with challenges and competitions - dressing the excluded in costumes and getting them to jump through hoops. As if a process of lottery is a legitimate way of reducing deadly disparities in the quality of life.
I hope the Neighbourhood Challenge will result in at least ten decent projects and lots of shared learning: I don't see why it shouldn't. While that's going on I just want to offer a few thoughts here about some of the assumptions that underpinned the speeches I heard this morning.
First, the C word was used throughout, by a succession of speakers, apparently as a synonym for neighbourhoods. What this tells us is that they hold vague assumptions about consensus and cohesion in localities, based on slight experience or poor understanding.
Secondly, much was taken for granted about how straightforward is the role of community organiser. This was revealing: it's beginning to become clear that the notion of community organising under Big Society is going to be pretty much value-free. They won't wait around for people to discuss and refine the values and principles that might guide their work, nor refer back to the previous efforts of the community development field. We want 5,000 community organisers please, using this simple template, male and female, by autumn next year, just get on with it.
Thirdly, the rhetoric of power remains seductive and uncritical. The forthcoming localism bill will bring radical new 'powers', we're told, but as soon as people start to talk about this they refer to devices like petitions, possibly the most blunt and unhygienic item in the toolbox of democracy. Surely by now, we should be able to talk about how power gets transferred and exercised at local level - and how it feels - in a more nuanced way.
Fourthly, there was much carefree talk about the power of local online, and the perceived 'need' to focus this on the problematisation of local issues. But local online is still a very imperfect democratic environment. The approach espoused was to encourage people to use online to articulate their concerns about local issues. A hall for loud voices. I humbly suggest that it would be more sensible to encourage the development of lots of digital conversations at local level about all sorts of things, from which the real concerns of a wider variety of residents would emerge.
My last point is about the nature of the localities in question, the 'communities' from which expressions of interest are sought. Behind the Neighbourhood Challenge there is talk of targeting areas defined as 'low in social capital'. Public sector funding cuts are going to have an atomising effect: how far is social exclusion, and the effects of social justice, going to be identifiable in these terms? Are those who suffer network poverty likely to be clustered into ghettoes? In some ways it might be better if they were, but my suspicion is that the toxic effect of the recession will be more distributed, far harder to track, far less amenable to our fancy mapping technologies.