Tuesday, 16 November 2010

'Local solutions to local problems'? Weather's turning cold, time for a precautionary draught of Kev's Traditional Grumpy Old Cynicism. Among the happy-clappy mantras trotted out so readily in the present policy context is this one: 'local solutions to local problems'. As with 'there is no money' and 'we're all in this together', all a politician has to do is regurgitate this and shake a few hands, and apparently-intelligent beings fold away like reeds before the prow. I observe that a lot of poverty that can be witnessed today is experienced as a local problem, well it would be wouldn't it, to which people are not able to find a local solution. Cos there's this thing called the economy, and it doesn't simply operate at the local level. Or you might not like to think about poverty, so let's take transport. Major roads affect traffic flows indirectly causing damage in local areas, which sometimes local people are powerless to do much about. There may be a regional solution, but often not a local one. And so on. It's not a new observation, even on this blog. Five years ago I posted some thoughts on neighbourhood governance after a meeting at which the point was made that residents in a given locality have to be able to intervene at levels other than their own. And I noted that people were uncomfortable with the requirement to have neighbourhood boundaries defined in order to ensure representation and therefore accountability. Well well, plus ca change. The recent Local growth white paper includes the idea for 'neighbourhood plans' - around boundaries that the government doesn't want to have the responsibility for deciding. Here at para 3.9 is the stated intention of giving every neighbourhood the chance to shape its own development through the creation of neighbourhood plans, which will give local communities greater flexibility and the freedom to bring forward more development than set out in the local authority plan. 'The freedom to bring forward more development'? Who are these people comprising 'neighbourhoods' who are so determined to surround themselves with more development? Could there be a connection with this point made by Domenic Donatantonio on the Planning blog? - in a bid to scythe through red tape, the government has said it will provide incentives to ensure that local communities benefit from development, raising the dangerous spectre of cash payments to buy off frustrated neighbours. And here's Huw Morris on Planning daily in the second of two provocative articles (the previous one is here): For planners, the big number from the big society will come with the onset of neighbourhood plans. The final bill for these as yet unproven tools depends on the size and shape of each authority. However, the cost of producing each neighbourhood plan is likely to be at least £30,000, while some commentators put it at closer to £80,000. Another estimate puts the number of rural and urban neighbourhoods affected by the localism bill at 18,000. Even on the most conservative estimates, this suggests £540 million...
A crisis of volunteer management? Yesterday I was at a conference in which representatives from the voluntary sector in south London were seeking understanding about big society. Today I was at something quite different - the launch of a substantial paper on poverty and social exclusion in later life by the Centre for Social Justice. On both occasions I was struck by a clear common sub-theme in the discussion: people involved in the management and support of volunteers are getting very agitated as their work is getting hacked away and its validity seems not even to be debated. What seems to be happening is that public sector funding cuts are eroding systematic management of the volunteer force rapidly. This is consistent which what some people see as the big society ethos: process hardly seems to matter any more. Big society isn't bothered how stuff happens, as long as people get out there and do it. Against that, volunteer managers speak from experience when they insist that volunteers need management, support, regulation, training and so on. I think it's fair to say that a significant proportion of the volunteer force comes from the traditional conservative philanthropic base, not from community action so there's an interesting new political take on this. But having railed against the over-formalisation of human and social systems for years, even I am starting to feel a little queasy about the wild ride we're all going to have as the free-for-all involvement culture takes over.

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