Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Neighbourliness and social networks: a little welcome attention? In a new RSA paper Nicola Bacon argues that ‘we need to find fresh approaches that can be delivered in an age of low public spending and a shrinking state... we need to find new ways to put the lived experience of residents at the centre of regeneration policy and practice. We need to build on local assets and boost resilience in a way that both supports mobility for those who wish to leave, and stability for people who choose to stay in the areas that they call home.’ Plenty of ‘we needs’ – this is think-tank language - but not much to disagree with there. I have an open mind about whether or not ‘new ways’ or ‘fresh approaches’ are required. This is an essay about community development and I’d say there is nothing much wrong with the values, principles and processes of CD - maybe it’s the political context in which it is expected to perform magic, and the forces working in the opposite direction, that need attention. Having said that, new tools – for local digital spaces for example, or tools like the Young Foundation’s well being and resilience measure which exploit the power of statistics - can surely help to bring a compelling persuasiveness to the local case. So what we have is the RSA keen to keep building its presence and credibility around the practice of local social development; together with a welcome determination that the importance of local social networks should be recognised in policy, especially in times of severe financial constraint. Emphasising the value of local social networks is here packaged as ‘turning strangers into neighbours’ - translating from the language of sociology into that of local newspapers without shaking off the questions of the kind of neighbouring and the kind of privacy that is assumed to be desirable, in policy or by 'strangers'. Anyway, the opportunity as presented is to ‘explore the viable ways of “turning strangers into neighbours”’. The point is made strongly that ‘neighbourliness and social networks are a critical protective factors against many neighbourhood problems’ (the unedited grammar being symptomatic of the paper as a whole, I’m afraid) - but we scarcely get beyond that assertion, and I couldn’t see any ‘new ways’ of encouraging the wholesale conversion of strangers into local network connections. Just when you think something special might be coming up, the paper ends, quite abruptly. So as with the Res Publica paper, that I reviewed six months ago, I’ve approached with a sense of optimistic anticipation and been disappointed, the redeeming factor being that important topics are being aired by influential agencies. Maybe we’re not supposed to be bothered too much about papers like these? Are they just territory markers? It’s like we’ve got think tanks going round the policy townscape cocking their legs and spraying the conceptual lamp-posts. Guaranteed to make me go sniffy. In this case, most people are going to find the relentless reference to the Young Foundation at best tiresome, particularly...

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