The debate will be featured in New Start magazine in due course. I think the focus on the relation between economic development and environmental sustainability is spot on. And there's a very welcome jab at the refusal of institutional thinking to recognise its own demise:
'There's a difference between [an] organic, assisted process and the directed, programme-driven forms of regeneration we've seen in the last three decades. The role of institutions should become one of nurturing and supporting what already exists and enabling it to grow, not one of constantly imposing grand strategies and plans.'
Indeed: the main thing stopping the network society from flourishing as it takes the place of the organisation society is, gosh who'd have thought it, people in organisations. The snapshot of this is councils blocking their staff from using social media.
The New Start debate brought out an emphasis on ethics and values, but that seems not to have been linked to the politics of power, as expressed through models of governance at local level.
If we speak about a future for regeneration, we need to explain what is so problematic about attitudes to governance under recent and current regeneration regimes. We can't just elide it or imply that it can be smoothed over. This is a recurring theme on this blog and I won't revisit all the arguments, but I want to get at the issues from the point of view of local groups. (I use three main sources: references at the end).
The first problem is the appropriation of language. The Third Way (let's dignify it with capital letters) has applied itself to transforming the meaning of 'community' into something we're all supposed to recognise, something unfailingly harmonious and positive which will deliver the state's objectives without ongoing state commitment. It relegates conflict to an issue of public management. Jeremy Brent put it like this:
'Time and again "the community" is referred to as an existing and unified structure, there to be consulted and relied on... Local communities are seen as both identifiable and good, with the certainty of their existence posing no problem, and as places where perpetrators of crime do not live. They have a unified and collective mind that identifies "needs" (a word commonly used in connection with community) that a benevolent authority (of course) can and does meet.' (Brent 2009, p245)
Unfortunately it would be hard to deny that the community development field has been complicit in this, or at best docile.
The second element concerns the policy determination of 'community as consensus'. Richard Sennett warned us about this decades ago when he wrote of 'destructive gemeinschaft' and pointed to the distaste for disorder. I reviewed Jackie Karn's Narratives of neglect a few months back:
'Problems arise where consensus is not apparent; or, being assumed, appears to be threatened. The idea of ‘moral community’ which characterised the Blair years requires practitioners to pursue consensus at all costs. In this context, as Karn puts it, ‘community is in essence constituted as unproblematic,’ and participatory practices constitute ‘the community’ as those who participate constructively, cooperatively and reasonably within the process.
'Those who do not adhere to the assumptions of what is best for the community are labelled as ungovernable and subject to demonising mechanisms that exclude them. Groups come to be categorised in terms of governability, which in turn legitimises coercion.'
The third aspect is managerialism, which detaches and sanitises local experience, appropriating it for out-of-reach policy objectives, with assumed consent. 'Community' has been reinvented in corporate liberal regimes, according to Ann Ingamells, as a mechanism of governance:
'it is no threat to neoliberalism if residents in specific localities push for more of a voice and better conditions. Such demands will be managed by (non-elected) professionals (public sector, housing corporations) whose performance is tied to managerial benchmarks and who... will use a variety of means to ‘manage’ such claims, including tight control of information, agendas and meetings, as well as some tightly administered concessions.' (Ingamells 2007, p243)
One might respond that 'twas ever thus; or that there have been many examples in the past decade of inclusive, just and collaborative community involvement initiatives, which I would not want to deny. But what I'm trying to understand is a significant underlying shift in the way power is converted to energy at local level. For the moment, it looks as if power remains where it was but somehow causes energy in neighbourhoods. The entropy is not yet apparent. Or perhaps there is no 'community' equivalent to the second law of thermodynamics.
Where does this leave us? A new government may come in, relishing the new economic realities to justify a debilitating malnourishment of the public sector. The extent to which public agencies can now help people to address collectively the social injustices they might identify is just as constrained, I suggest, by the subtle and nuanced disempowerment through professionalised regeneration and the systematic neutering of conflict and adversity.
In this thin light, Ingamells calls for 'a new repertoire of community development strategies and techniques' and a shared analysis of how it is that we are currently governed. Picking up where she leaves off, I'm wondering how local groups respond to this context, when it is so hard to recapture the language that is used. Here, we are at the same time within and beyond conscientisation: this is about the logic of counter-counter-insurgency.
Brent, J. (2009). Searching for community: representation, power and action on an urban estate. Bristol, Policy Press.
Ingamells, A. (2007). 'Community development and community renewal: tracing the workings of power.' Community development journal 42(2): 237-250.
Karn, J. (2007). Narratives of neglect: community, regeneration and the governance of security. Cullompton, Willan.