Recently I mentioned two examples of public services (fire and rescue, trading standards) not usually associated with community engagement. This morning I was in a discussion about similar questions, the role of local people in readiness for, and response to disasters and emergencies.
This is mainly about communication to and from the ‘resilience’ agencies which have to deal with the effects of explosions, rail accidents, flooding and so on. They are rightly looking to strengthen their contacts so that they can introduce timely voluntary and statutory support – like dealing with trauma for instance – which can be needed for months and years after a devastating event.
And this is progress. But it struck me that in some kinds of human-initiated emergency, such as marauding use of firearms typified by the currently newsworthy Anders Behring Breivik, or the Hungerford massacre or Virginia Tech - or even the urban disturbances of summer 2011 - the experience of local people may be complicated by a sense of guilt mixed with cruel deception. Whenever cases like this arise, neighbours are usually quoted as saying something like ‘he seemed just a normal bloke, kept himself to himself…’
Can we understand how it felt in retrospect to have been a neighbour of Josef Fritzl, and to have respected his privacy?’ I imagine people saying simply, We knew nothing, what should we have done? – and never really recovering. An anti-social or deranged individual determined to use privacy as a smokescreen will do so, unless as a society we were to dismantle the structures and culture of privacy. (Apparently because of privacy laws, staff at Virginia Tech were not aware that their student Seung-Hui Cho had been disagnosed with selective mutism, and a severe anxiety disorder).
Is this where we find the limit of community engagement? How close could the best of good neighbourliness have got to an Anders Breivik or a Josef Fritzl? No closer than they’d let you, through a street rep scheme perhaps, and no closer. You cannot see what he brings home from the stores in boxes or the magazines going through the letterbox, or what he views online.
So what is the community engagement offer to the agencies which have to respond and clean up? Yes, they can inform residents and raise awareness about how to be prepared and how to react. (In Olympic year here in the south east of England, the phrase ‘marauding terrorist firearms attack’ is now established in official terminology).
And they can certainly establish potentially-critical connections through voluntary agencies and neighbourhood groups. But for some kinds of spectacular events such as those envisaged and partly fulfilled by Breivik, if responsible social codes and connections are not in place at an early age, and intensive recovery and support for those who experience abuse (think Fred West. Or maybe, no, don’t) are not secured, we will know nothing until the alarm goes.
And that, surely, is the key: not just early intervention but a cultural focus on healthy, diverse social networks at an early age. One simple example: if most parents when choosing schools with or for their children, favoured schools that emphasise their socialising role more (much more) than the schools’ place on academic league tables, I suspect the broad impact on social capital and mental health would be significant. I’m beginning to see how community development is linked to community protection.