I spent the whole of yesterday afternoon in a traditional oak panelled, leather-benched council chamber in Shipley, Yorkshire, with a group of practitioners discussing their work with street reps across the district.
Symbolically, the room was dilapidated and its pomp had been subjected to un-ceremonial uses. Conceptually, the meeting served to accentuate the anachronistic surroundings, exposing many of the issues of our accelerating transition from the age of authority. If not perhaps a defining moment, certainly a moment for defining. (The pic is Blackburn Town Hall, not Shipley, which is similar but the seating is red).
The immediate cause was to review some community development work carried out by Groundwork in various neighbourhoods. But for the area neighbourhood management coordinators and street wardens sat round, it was mainly just another meeting working out how to tweak detail, and exploring the raw niceties of probable futures – fewer staff, less resources, recession-hit residents with accumulating problems. Several of those present probably do not know if they will have a job in three months’ time, and yes, emergency exit strategies were mentioned.
But still it felt like a privilege to be there, because I’ve been witnessing the ungainly, messy emergence of the new order.
Discussions about the role of street reps, as I’ve suggested before, are about adjusting the relationship between citizen and state, with an emphasis on co-production; understanding a less formal, more everyday kind of democratic action-in-place; about resisting attempts to formalise and prescribe what people do but supporting them in doing it; acknowledging that targets and performance measurement are at best unhelpful and inappropriate; that networks not organisations are the key but that you can’t make them accountable, and so on. It’s a whole sticky messy tangle of contemporary theoretical policy spaghetti…
These are the kinds of issues that exercise the minds of political theorists and people in think tanks right now - and people who, can you imagine, are not embarrassed to be called ‘thought leaders’ - who are looking at screens or reading reports but not listening to folk like these in rooms like this in towns like this. Thought leaders my arse.
So I listened and was able to appreciate that behaviour change needs local exemplars, plenty of nurturing by local practitioners, and lots of time: just like community development. What these practitioners are trying to do, in some pretty downtrodden localities, is to help networks develop which have credence and weight but do not become cliques, which are open and reflect an informal participative democracy based on local people’s interests. What these practitioners are trying to do is exactly what this government would like and what it needs to understand.
Some of the issues for practitioners are old familiar tensions of course, like whether the politics of intervention are broadly universalising (as typically under Tory councils) or targeted (as under Labour authorities). The question is as sharp as ever when it comes to resources for supporting street reps. Should street wardens be equally involved in more affluent areas? In such places, someone claimed yesterday, if people want something done they just pick up the phone. The Place Survey and Citizenship Survey data can show us, in general terms, where people feel least empowered. So if resources are targeted at the least affluent areas, how does that change perceptions of the role of street reps? In my view, we do it because it’s not healthy for society to have significant imbalances of power.
Against that, it’s worth remembering that when I asked experienced street reps, who had been attending area forum and housing committee meetings and so on, whether they felt they could influence decisions, the answer was a clear ‘no’. People felt they could influence actions, but they could see that the process of decision-making was hidden from them, because of course it doesn’t really happen in the meetings. Especially not when they’re in attendance.
Arguments like these have always run through community development practice, but I want to suggest that discussions about street reps offer a remarkable lens on the new order. And I was full of admiration for the way this mix of staff kept probing for ways to help local people support each other and improve their local quality of life, because schemes have to be made to work in the space between budget and politics, between residents’ energy and capacity, and allocated support.
Inactive democracy was always a bad idea. I wonder if we will look back in 10 years’ time over a transformed conceptual landscape of local social relations and governance, and recognise this awkward work for its nervous, principled clearing of the ground. And what will the council chamber be being used for?