Friday, 19 October 2012

We own it The tension between privatising policies and public need has been given a welcome tightening twist with the launch of We Own it, a campaign website to counter the irresponsible privatisation of the public sector. A few months ago I was wondering how much further the tension could be built. While we have plenty of evidence to contradict the ideology that the private sector is by definition more efficient than the public, we have no evidence to show that this government takes much notice of evidence. Through an article by Polly Toynbee in the summer, I learned about a few examples of ‘in-sourcing’ by which some local authorities seem to be demonstrating the logic of taking certain functions back in house in the interests of efficiency and value. Meanwhile our rail privatisation started to creak and then fell over. At least we’re having some kind of debate now. All stirred up by the demise of A4E and the bizarre example of Atos, the company which sub-contracted disability assessments back to the NHS. Public libraries are part of this mix. Not only are they symbolic of what remains of the public realm: as I wrote here, ‘Once they're gone, it's not just hard to get the library service back: it will be that much harder to reinstate the notion of publicness.’ The We Own It site notes that, through privatisation, costs go up, services get worse, they are run by people who are not accountable, staff are undermined, and the whole nonsense is difficult to reverse. We have been watching the large-scale, systematic, ideologically-justified, evidence-defying manufacture of widespread social exclusion. Time to bring it to an end.
The one reason not to bother with lists about ‘community’ Kaid Benfield has written some good stuff, but this latest Atlantic piece – ‘What Are the 7 Keys to a Strong Community?’ - is perplexing. It’s based on this previous article by Scott Doyon. Not long ago I had a little dig at the ritual of offering lists, so no more on that theme now. But there’s something more serious I want to get at here, which Kaid’s piece has helped me think about. Without wanting to seem harsh, it comes across as naïve to start talking about ‘strong communities’ without acknowledging that the concept has, shall we say, negative aspects. You don’t have to spend time in Northern Ireland to appreciate that, I believe there are plenty of places in north America where the ‘communities’ are quite strong enough thank you. That has to be accommodated. And when we talk about ‘community,’ strong or otherwise, we have to recognise that some people don’t want it, whether they are deemed to need it or not. And many more don’t want it thrust down their throats by policy makers or practitioners or neighbours. That too has to be accommodated. The list offered in the article is curious in that, with the exception of the first item, it does not appear to have much to do with people: Good governance Walkable, connected, mixed-use character Parks and gardens Partnerships Programming Neighborhood-responsive schools Tree culture. Nor does it include anything about communication and information channels. Or people’s homes. Or disorder. Or traffic levels. (The answer may be that this is a placemaking approach to ‘community’ qua neighbourhood). The idea of coming up with ‘seven keys to a strong community’ – or three, or twelve, or whatever number takes your fancy – seems charmingly nostalgic, as if we could just ignore some of the fundamentals of living in a highly networked, car-dependent, dispersed mass consuming global economy. But the trick for the 21st century is to describe and buttress an appreciation of ‘community’ that takes account of networked individualism, ethnic diversity, class fissures, high rates of mobility and increasing proportions of older people. Which reminds me, I wrote something like that towards the end of Neighbouring and older people: ‘The task is to understand how the notion of an enfolding community might be possible in an age of personal social networks with the looming challenge of living with difference, when there is less need to be neighbourly and few of us really have to be more than superficially friendly with our neighbours.’ Over the years this blog has felt like a clumsy, perhaps unconvincing exercise in groping towards that understanding, based on an unsentimental belief in the importance and value of local social interaction and the informal communication that supports it. So without resorting to off-putting journalistic devices, perhaps what I should be doing is working out how far that project’s got.

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