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Reflections on the meaning of ‘place’.

How people perceive their locality and how they feel about where they live can deeply affect their lives. To my mind, a sense of ‘place’ and belonging to a community is based on common issues and needs. Above race and faith, common grievances about access to resources and lack of opportunities can both bind communities together and pull them apart.  For example, the move to the far right among certain British communities is not simply polarised around race and faith – many of the tensions within communities arise from perceived inequalities and poor access to services.

Devolution of power to local communities

Currently in the UK, popular political rhetoric is all about devolution of power to local communities in order to restore a sense of belonging amongst them. As power is further devolved, regional structures may disappear and powers increased in local government. My concerns with a move to ‘localism’ are two-fold. Firstly, if and when power is further devolved to the local level, it must also be passed on to local communities in an appropriate and effective manner. Local service providers and local authorities need to have the structures and mechanisms in place in order to effectively consult with and involve citizens and communities. I worry that whilst they may end up with more power to bring about change, the commitment from public bodies to effect this, through engagement and involvement, may be inconsistent from area to area, as may the skills to carry this out. We are all part of communities of some description – whether family, geographical area, or interest. I often find it amusing how people involved in this work in their professional life, don’t make the connection with their own experiences and expectations as members of their own communities. If they could self-identify then this would help improve the connection between policy development and implementation.

Secondly, for some people, their particular life chances are so challenged that they don’t know how to come forward and actively participate in power-sharing at a local level.  They don’t know what ‘being empowered’ means for them. It is argued that some ‘hard-to-reach’ people may not want to be ‘reached’, but is it a wonder if an individual has no concept of what this might mean for them?

There’s a lot of evidence that the private sector is increasingly involved in community engagement. Some bodies have clearly twigged that greater community involvement means that regeneration activity for example, is more sustainable and that resources, guided by local intelligence, can be more effectively applied. There are many interesting social enterprise models developing both here and in the US, too. In Hull, for example, the innovative Goodwin Development Trust has not only expanded its services across the city beyond the founding estate, but is working with other UK social enterprises to import established expertise in specialist areas, to plug service gaps. In the future there will be a growing moral imperative to look at not-for-private-profit models to provide locally determined and delivered services.

Public spending cuts – a greater role for the third sector?

None of us want it to take a long period of time for communities to recover from the effects of recession and public spending cuts. We have experienced devastation of this type before and we know that it takes a long time to turn a community around. Due to the current economic crisis, there is a growing likelihood that communities will move towards models of ‘self-help’, which may help stabilise communities, but this should not be expected to replace the provision of public services.

We need skills, support and training for front-line workers too, to enable them to support communities. The current crisis provides the context for the deployment of skilled community development workers and for close working with voluntary and community sector organisations to mitigate the impact of recession. Increasingly this sector is responding to local need, such as providing support for  families, re-training programmes, debt advice services, to mention a few. There will be little extra money for this work, but it will be important when public bodies are tendering for service providers in a range of areas, that this is done in a way which ensures that voluntary and community sector organisations are on a fair footing with the public and private sectors. There is a need to understand, too, that ‘big’ contracts don’t always equal ‘better’, or more efficient and cost effective. The onus is on voluntary and community sector organisations to demonstrate the added value of a local touch and connectedness to the community, particularly in areas of greater disadvantage.

There is already evidence to show an increase in volunteering, which not only provides a route for skills development where jobs are few, but also valuable social networks when people are feeling isolated by their changed circumstances. Small amounts of money can have a dramatic impact on the capacity of communities to ‘self-help’ and make the most of these opportunities. Inevitable public spending cuts mean that local public bodies will have to respond by being more innovative and collaborative across the board – across services and across geographical areas. We are already seeing shrinking public funding support for voluntary and community activities and so at CDF, we need to frame our work so that it can be easily digested by a particularly cost-conscious public sector to support the case for further investment at a local level. Community development approaches, undertaken by specialist community development workers and adopted by frontline public workers, can help deal with the tensions that arise from intensive local competition for limited resources. Community development can also help engage voluntary and community organisations in this work and how to become more involved as an equal partner in the delivery of public services.

Responding to the recession

In addition to the public, voluntary and community sector responses mentioned, the current economic crisis is already providing the context for new and innovative ways of working in the private sector. Thankfully, many bodies have learnt from previous recessions and are beginning to recognise that it can take anything up to a generation to effectively develop and train a skilled, new workforce.  Ways to keep the business afloat, whilst not making skilled workers redundant, are being actively pursued up and down the country. The collective national memory has learnt from previous experiences – work hours are being reduced, sabbaticals encouraged. For example, most recently in the UK, Bentley and Aston Martin car plants moved to a three day week. That’s the kind of creativity we need in minimising the skill gaps that can be left in the wake of a recession – provided it is done openly and across the board.

Social and demographic change

There is likely to be a differently focussed young generation if there are dramatically fewer employment opportunities. As a parent of teenagers, I am often conscious that the language we use during meetings in government is from a middle-aged perspective, without taking into account what the next generation is thinking and talking about. We need to involve young people more in developing solutions. In addition, we’re still an overworked and stressed nation, compared to our European partners. I would like to see these hours spread around more, providing job opportunities for more people and a better work-life balance across the board. The decline in employment resulting from the recession may lead to trends, for example, to pursue personal goals, to do something outside of ‘work’ in the way that previous generations haven’t. Or to have time to put something back into the community. With an ageing population and pressures on state pensions, people will be working until they are older. All of these factors will lead to a change in the working patterns and lifestyles of families.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ’The Tipping Point’ (2000) identifies where social change occurs without it being pre-planned, leading to viral community action and activism – we’ve seen this in anti-plastic bag movements, for example. We could see communities become more active, sharing and co-operative as resources are spread more thinly; or we could see greater self-interest, where people look after their ‘own’ with a reduction in social responsibility.

When I talk about resources I also mean our natural resources. All of our systems for monitoring national growth and prosperity are based on economic models. This is incredibly restricted and short-sighted. If the ways in which we farm, build, travel and so on, lead to a net impact on our environment then perceived economic growth is unsustainable. There is significant research, too, which shows that community health, well-being and resilience is linked closely to what matters most to us – our local environment and sense of place.

Reflections on the current policy agenda

It is difficult to disagree with the thrust of the current policy agenda – we all want to feel that our views are heard and that we can make a difference on the matters which mean the most to us. And yet, the devil is in the delivery detail and implementation can be a perennial problem. We are all different – our communities and families are different – and the successful devolution of power will depend on the ability of public servants to demonstrate an open mind to flexible and innovative delivery to ensure policies meet local need. And an ability to employ community development practices to enable these needs to be determined. Without this, the new localism will amount to a false dawn. It is a tall order – if you are a housing or planning officer then your skills and expertise lie in a particular field of work. Similarly for community development practitioners. However, both can learn to understand the roles of the other so that they are able to adopt practices which appreciate the strategic needs of a place, whilst working in such a way as to affect positive change, at a local and personal level.

First published by OPM (Office for Public Management)