The other day I attended the launch of the Church Urban Fund’s new programme called Near Neighbours. The programme will disburse central government money in small grants through local parishes. There are strong themes of cohesion and working with faith groups:
‘This fund will help local initiatives that build cross-community relationships i.e. people of different faith groups and those of no faith, working together through social action in their community to form closer relationships.’
The scheme is focused in the north of England (Bradford, Burnley and Oldham); Leicester; areas of London, and areas of Birmingham ‘which are diverse and multi-faith.’
There are already impressive stories of collective endeavour in Near Neighbours projects. Judging from conversations about the kind of project that is being funded, it’s apparent that the work that will be supported is community development work or community action. As is the fashion, the language is dominated more by the N words ‘neighbourhoods’ and ‘neighbours’ than by the C word, which is taking a breather after a really hard decade.
There is no attempt to anchor this initiative in the principles and experience of established community development. Indeed, the programme fits the emerging pattern of new community-development-that-is-not-quite-community-development –
- National funding with a local orientation, that conveniently ignores local democratic structures and roots itself in traditional philanthropic soil. People in positions of power don’t want ordinary people to be political, but stuff needs doing in society. So it’s obvious - invent and fund a de-politicised form of CD.
- A high expectation of voluntary involvement that stimulates other local voluntary involvement, which won’t (in Julian Dobson’s words) ‘frighten the horses,’ and which arguably ‘will leave most of society pretty much as it is’.
- No allegiance to or even recognition paid to a tradition of such work, known as community development, that also acknowledges inequalities and power structures as part of the problem.
So in its humble way, the Near Neighbours programme fits tidily alongside Nesta’s Neighbourhood Challenge and the Big Lottery’s People Powered Change in the contemporary cleansing of community development.
Much good will come from this strange form of air conditioning, but you gotta wonder about what gets shut out. What happens to people who only breathe filtered air? I guess they get ill if they have to go outside.
Get used to plenty of branding but not much about process or values – and yet a form of community development will have taken place. Get used to a diet of neat success stories, and bright shiny case studies, and people in positions of power queuing up to take the credit while blessing the peasants. And yet a form of community development will have taken place.
It needs to be pointed out that any substantial CD programme with a very weak grasp of the principles and values of CD is rather vulnerable to capture, distortion and misrepresentation.
In spite of these reservations, there are several reasons why I think these programmes will be beneficial. For a start, on a superficial level, CD really did need brightening up: how did any set of practitioners who work with human beings come to be so characterised by humourlessness and dour ruggedness? Like the stereotype under which librarians suffer, it may be exaggerated but it’s there and is counter-productive.
More importantly, I don’t think any attempt to suppress the politics in CD is likely to be successful for long. I think of Marx’s well-known remark, referring to the final emergence of revolution: ‘well-burrowed old mole!’ (OK, perhaps it’s best not to dwell too closely on that analogy).
And most interestingly, what these programmes may do best is to shake up the power structures at the micro-level, more effectively than has happened before. If all the blather about ‘innovation’ can be made to mean anything, it should be about this: developing recognisably-effective relationships at local level that are independent of pre-existing power relationships. (Incidentally, if someone from the coalition government tries to tell you that that’s why they bypass local government, take a moment to examine their motives). That’s where the social media comes in, to help make processes and actions transparent: it could serve to transform the power relations between the people who get things done and the people who stop things being done.