Tuesday, 30 March 2010

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Jim Diers on citizen action Yesterday Jim Diers, author of Neighbor power, spoke at a meeting that I co-organised in London with Ben Lee at Shared Intelligence. We'd managed to gather a select band of interested and interesting people to hear Jim's inspiring presentation about citizen action and democratic involvement, based on his experience running Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. What Jim has helped local people in Seattle to achieve, and what he's helping others around the world to grasp, is a sustainable and appropriate contribution by local people in the processes and actions that make a difference to their neighbourhoods. The key points that I take away from the discussion for reflection are these: Collective citizen empowerment is not so much an idea whose time has come - it was always an obvious option: rather we should say, time's up for some of the barriers that have been in the way for too long. One reason Seattle's Neighborhood Matching Fund worked was because the Department of Neighborhoods imputed a value to residents' voluntary time. This is a topic we've been talking about off and on in the UK for far too long. Another reason for the Seattle success was that they chose to encourage and accept bids from unconstituted groups of residents. They found other solutions to the problem of where to bank the grant. Again, this is something we've failed to work-through properly in this country, largely because of the centre's control-obsession. We also had input yesterday from Hugh Flouch about Harringay Online, which stimulated a lot of discussion about how neighbourhood networks can contribute to collective action and how people can use them to interact with the structures of governance. More when Hugh and I have finished our London study. Special thanks to Steven Clift for the heads-up on Jim's visit, and thanks to Shared Intelligence for the venue and catering. If you missed this opportunity, watch this space because Jim expects to be back in a year or so, and we're confident we can find a larger room. **Postscript** David Wilcox has offered a characteristically imaginative and thorough account.
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Let's hear it for neighbourhood groups: Conservative party launch of the Big Society In the 1980s if UK politicians talked about community action at all it was defensively, because the notion was subversive, anti-establishment, tainted with radicalism and, typically, intensely confrontational. Today eleven members of the Conservative party shadow cabinet (yes, eleven, including the party leader David Cameron) presented their ideas for 'the Big Society' which are dominated by plans to stimulate involvement in neighbourhood groups. Given the party's realistic aspirations to be in government within a few weeks, these policies constitute a justification for neighbourhood action at the highest political level. It was genuinely peculiar to sit and hear the emphasis placed on the role of local residents in social policy. The single phrase most repeated through more than three hours of speechifying (shame about the talking-heads format, they still have a bit to learn in that respect) was 'neighbourhood groups'. They are, we were told, 'the essential building blocks' of the policy. The three key promises are: strengthen and support social enterprises (I'm sure I wasn't the only person surprised at how little emphasis was placed on social enterprises) stimulate the creation and development of neighbourhood groups in every area encourage mass engagement in neighbourhood groups and social action projects. Financial incentives are promised 'for people to come together to form neighbourhood groups in the poorest areas', and funding for 5,000 independent community organisers (note: 'will have the skills needed to raise funds to pay for their own salaries'). On page 5 of the document you can read the powers and rights that will be assigned to neighbourhood groups. The list begins: 'Neighbourhoods will be able to bid to take over the running of community amenities, such as parks and libraries that are under threat'. Threat from where? Understandably, this will be widely read as 'funding for parks and libraries is not gonna be great, but we'll support voluntary action to run them: and if it runs into the sand after a while, that's the community's decision.' So this, boys and girls, is what localism means - local people being given support to run facilities like schools and parks, or taking over ownership of closed down shops. In his introductory remarks, Oliver Letwin equated the Big Society squarely with social capital, and part of the assumption is that in controlling their own resources local people will also generate much-needed social capital. Empowerment featured frequently in the speeches: local government hardly at all. Most of the nine points in the neighbourhood powers list imply local consensus, using the N word where so often in the past the C word would have been used. This cheerily-assumed consensus is one of the areas where som elearning might be needed, but for now, the onus is on the community sector to respond to this extraordinary challenge. If people react saying 'they don't understand the messiness of neighbourhood life - or the inertia, the separation and exclusion...' that won't get us far. Neighbourhood politics can be very intense, but you wouldn't have guessed that from today's...

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