Monday, 30 July 2012

The hidden wealth of informal activities Instinctively I flinch at the phrase ‘hidden wealth of communities’ because I just think, here they come, the Haves want to take that as well. Well it’s been tough for the rich and powerful lately and they’ve started to get a little uneasy about the rate of return on their enormous investments. And really, one can’t help thinking that poor people just have to work harder, it’s not good enough, let’s see what else we can plunder from them. What’s this social capital they have, couldn’t we make something out of that? The model’s straightforward: if only poor people would do more with their social capital – all those network connections made in clubs and pubs and community centres, my dear fellow, places where they laugh at stuff one simply wouldn’t comprehend – public services would become obsolete or cost less to run and profit would be easier to make at the top. Yes, it could be deemed offensive for people with lots of money to describe the social capital of people on low incomes as ‘wealth’, and then to try to exploit it. Having said that, semantic niceties aside, it does matter how local social connections give rise to informal and formal participation; and how they in turn relate to formal governance. I’d subscribe to the view put forward back in 2005 by Paul Skidmore and John Craig in Start with people (an unacknowledged precursor of some elements in current policy thinking): ‘we need to create greater value from the connections popular participation creates between public services, civil society and our structures of democratic representation.’ But it’s taking so long to get policy recognition for the value of those interactions, while all the time the third places we need for this associational life are increasingly threatened. Even the stoutest defender of the current government, and they do exist, stout ones anyway, could hardly deny the assertiveness (some might call it wanton vandalism) of its deconstruction of the public realm. It doesn’t help. Start with people explored the connections within and beyond civil society that are forged in community organisations. So, more broadly, does this recent report from ResPublica, Clubbing together, by Keith Cooper and Caroline Macfarland, sub-titled unfortunately ‘the hidden wealth of communities’. It explores the potential for a greater ‘club-culture’ in the UK. It offers a review and a very welcome discussion of the largely forsaken place of local clubs and community centres in associational life, mostly well-written, if clearly rushed. Will this report push the pace among policy makers, to help protect and promote local civil associations? There’s a crucial section on page 31 which refers to social impact statements and cites a Public Administration Select Committee report, ending – you might almost think inspirationally - with these points: ‘A better recognition of the hidden wealth of informal activities [that’s more like it] requires this more sophisticated understanding of how casual connections contribute to our national social capital stocks… Leisure pursuits, as ‘crucibles of casual connections’ that...

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