Saturday, 25 June 2011

The neutering of community development? It’s fair to say that a vacuum was created by the recent abrupt ending of government funding to the likes of Community Development Foundation, Community Development Exchange, and Urban Forum. From slightly to one side (the usual angle) it appears as if the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change programme is swelling within that vacuum. People Powered Change is the over-arching theme for Big’s investments in England. It encompasses a range of approaches to support and develop community action. The banner signals an intention to stimulate and facilitate local efforts to improve the quality of life in neighbourhoods, using information and various tools to multiply the benefits of community-based initiatives. Of course, the government’s hands-off approach is unsurprising. But at a PPC event on Monday I was struck by the picture of Jim Diers and Cormac Russell from Nurture Development, at the door of No.10 Downing Street. I have no doubt that their presentation would have been inspiring and thought-provoking. Jim spoke at an event I co-organised with Shared Intelligence last year: we already know how powerfully he conveys the value and impact of community action. As I wrote in a piece for the Guardian’s voluntary sector network, Cormac and Jim promote asset based community development (ABCD). This was heavily reinforced at the PPC meeting and it seems to fit sweetly with Big’s approach. So the question is not just whether it is enough for PPC to dominate the vacuum left by the weakening of key funded community development agencies (and to be fair I'm sure Big would welcome more agencies with clout alongside them, in that space); we should also take note that the dominant ethos is a particular brand of CD. So what? Quite rightly, ABCD places great emphasis on the strengths, skills and resources - the assets - that exist at local level. But to do so, it seems to have to imply that established community development works from a deficit model – over-emphasising the negatives like crime, poor housing, poor health and anti-social behaviour, especially forces external to the neighbourhood. There is a strong sense that, for instance, community action should not be complaining about environmental injustice or the local fallout from a trashed economy and depleted public services. Echoes of ‘moaning minnies’? I would argue, first, that all decent community development is asset based, not deficit based; and secondly, that there are real dangers in appearing to dismiss those who challenge external negative influences, especially at a time when we do not have strong, influential agencies promoting other CD values like equalities and genuine empowerment. I wrote: 'Good community development practice doesn't over-emphasise disadvantage and injustice; but it isn't seduced into ignoring it, and it also has the robust courage to challenge the causes. In lieu of experienced agencies promoting these values, let's hope they get reflected in the People Powered Change programme.' I welcome the positive implications of these guys crossing the threshold of No.10 and potentially influencing thinking in there, cos that is...
Would you choose neighbourhood or housing? So at yesterday's Compass conf I was on a panel about neighbourhoods and 'the good society', and there was an interesting question from the floor: can you have a 'good neighbourhood' with poor housing? It didn't fall to me to try and answer, but the consensus seemed to be 'no'. Our mythology of course says 'yes'. But that could be because it confuses collective resilience with what it might be reasonable to call 'good neighbourhood'. I think for example of the experience of women from the tenements of Edinburgh and Glasgow retold in a super book called She was aye workin' - challenging the idea that 'We may have been poor, but we were very comfortable and cosy' - it's just not true. Their life was hell. It was a constant daily grind against dirt and disease. That reminds us is that a functioning neighbourhood is not just a set of cohesive relations where people support one another out of necessity against the odds. That kind of 'community' may seem laudable to those who know no better but it should not be wished or imposed on anyone, and it's a brutish society that is prepared to do so. In my few words to the seminar I had tried to suggest that the idea of 'community' - far from being the magic solution to a long list of social problems which governments would like to see resolved by someone else at no cost - is a minority interest. Most people are most concerned about house and family, with 'community' a distant third (Lyn Richards' excellent but seldom-cited study Nobody's home brings this out forcefully). So my own reflection on the question - can you have a 'good neighbourhood' with poor housing? - is to ask, if you could only have one, which would you choose?

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