Monday, 03 April 2006

A crisis of community presence I organised a visit of some Treasury officials to a local estate this afternoon. Usually when policy-makers get to local level they wind up somewhere special, where the four star local authority's won awards or the community project is blazing with invention or had some breakthrough, and the only problem is how can it be replicated. Not this time, deliberately. We were on the Havelock estate in west London and piecing together the lessons was like trying to sew rags into costumes. Like, what can you do about some appalling lack of accountability or responsibility on the part of services? What are local people supposed to do about dampness in their housing, filth on their stairways, prostitution, rats, over-crowding and - perceived to be the biggest menace - drugs? What came across in our discussions with residents in the family centre, on a walkabout and in the community shop, was the remarkable sense of resilience of residents in a context with very little hope or support. Local people are trying to compensate for the shortfall in services, and not even these efforts are enough to stimulate a matching input from the authorities. And what struck me was that local people seem to sense the danger of the tipping point of disorder, although they might not articulate it in terms of 'broken window theory' or collective efficacy or whatever. Listening to several residents talking about the prevalence of drugs, it was apparent that they understood that there is a menace here which is strengthened by other forces of disorder - when the police fail to show up when called, when people fear to go out because their appallingly-designed alleyways are unlit, when turnover is high and you don't stand a chance of recognising many of your neighbours, when condensation and damp grime and mice in the flat are a fact of life and the decent homes standard is just a fancy idea. People sense that there is a crisis of community presence. Failure to be visible as residents, as occupiers of this territory, favours those who thrive on disorder, and it could be disastrous. The drugs problem is perceived as a wave ready to swamp their lives. So why are they left so abandoned, so unsupported by the services, when the most basic provision would make a huge difference? I'm afraid we couldn't see any easy solutions and the purpose wasn't to invite the officials to come up with any, necessarily. The idea was to explore informally together a context which exposed the complexity of neighbourhood life with no frills, no laudable award-winning projects, no spectacular crisis or heart-swelling response. The community commitment is there, but untended it will bleed away.

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