Thursday, 07 December 2006

'Soft renewal' and transformative change A few days ago I was muttering about the way that policy attention has begun to shift focus from physical regeneration to behaviour and relationships. Now here's a new JRF report, Respect and renewal, on the Partnership Initiative for Communities (PICs) programme written by David Page which says it upfront: Professionals underestimated the importance of social issues and were more focused on physical regeneration. Residents perceived social factors – crime and fear of crime, poor life chances for their children, and the consequences of poverty – as the main ones affecting their quality of life, not physical degeneration. The Findings summary doesn't mention community development, but it's clear from a scan of the report that CD along with various other professional interventions such as youth work (if you're lucky) and neighbourhood wardens can together make a significant difference when it comes to 'soft renewal techniques'. Much of the rationale behind the renewal work studied here relates to the work of William Julius Wilson and to broken windows theory. The report doesn't really deal with the notion of respect, but it does relate the findings to the government's theme of that name. And it accords success to some initiatives such as neighbourhood wardens, reassurance policing, neighbourhood management and minor architectural adjustments. Page argues that the projects demonstrated that all of the issues affecting residents on the estates could be tackled. 'The challenge lies in tackling them all at the same time, and in sustaining that effort for long enough to make a real difference to the life chances of residents and their children.' So are we taking the wrong approach to transformation? Are our expectations based on the wrong model of 'fixing problems'? Upgrading of the physical environment only needs to be done once in a while: once the roofs, or windows, are ‘fixed’ they stay fixed for a good many years. But social regeneration is a different kind of problem. A key concern of current regeneration policy is why, in social terms, some of the same estates and neighbourhoods that were supposed to have been fixed in previous rounds of regeneration projects, turn out to need fixing time and time again. There is no sign of transformative change yet on any of the PICs estates. The evidence from the PICs research suggests instead that the relationship between effort and achievement is not geometric but linear: that larger changes require bigger inputs, and that estates in which there is a high concentration of workless households and households living on low incomes will need consistent, long lasting attention and higher levels of investment to make a real difference to the quality of life of their residents... It may be more realistic to think of incremental, rather than transformative, change in our most deprived neighbourhoods, and to expect this to take place over a longer time.
Post offices and social value Today we have the news that between "about 2,500 and 3,000 post offices - most in rural areas - face phased closure." Royal Mail hints at a whopping 10,000 possible closures. The government, for its part, "recognises the wider social role of the Post Office in communities" according to the Guardian and other sources. The public subsidy is apparently already substantial - well, probably, if we knew how to measure 'substantial'. Some millions of pounds sterling are in one side of the balance: what's in the other scale? Sorry, the scale only measures pounds, not social experience. It depends on how as a society we value social interaction, especially the value of purpose and contact for those who may feel themselves to be on the periphery. I think that locally-applicable policies affecting the availability of amenities and resources like this should be risk-assessed for the extent to which they might damage informal social networks. (What do you mean we can't do that? Has it been tried? No, because the language - 'gossip,' community,' 'contact' - is not regarded as legitimate. So can we change the language, please.) It also depends on what other (formally measurable) contributions to the local economy might be made by post offices. And here's a report published by the New Economics Foundation just the other day, on the economic contribution of post offices in urban areas based on a study in Manchester. For every £10 earned in income, the post office generates £16.20 for its local economy – including £6.20 in direct spending on local goods and services. Based on in-depth analysis of Manchester post offices, this means that each post office contributes in the region of £310,000 to the local economy each year, of which £120,000 is direct spending on local goods and services. In addition, nef’s analysis reveals that each post office saves small businesses in their direct vicinity in the region of £270,000 each year. Social capital is unfortunately unpopular at the moment, but this may become a bit of a social policy crisis because the voice of economic management seems to be saying, 'the level of public subsidy is unsustainable'. So we need some creative reinvention of the role of individual post offices within the network, some recognition of their wider economic impact, and more than just stamp-licking lip-service for the value of the social role. Qualitative evidence from nef’s survey emphasises the vital and overlooked social services role played by Post Offices. This evidence supports previous research which found that half of the subpostmasters in disadvantaged areas keep an eye out for between 20 and 50 vulnerable customers. And here's a comment from the BBC news forum to illustrate the impact of a closure: We lost our local post office which was within walking distance two years ago... It has definitely impacted on our community here - at the old post office we used to go there to do other things and catch up on the local gossip. We can't do...

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