Blocl activism

Rethinking Community Practice: developing transformative neighbourhoods (2013)

By Gabriel Chanon and Colin Miller

Not everyone wants to be or need to be involved in local affairs, but there is plenty of appetite for involvement in most places.

Economic pressures demand that public services yield maximum cost-benefit, and the imperative of social harmony – if not simple social justice – demands that rampant inequality is overcome.

The role of community groups is fundamental to the whole question of community involvement and practice. Community activity is about people doing things together, and as soon as people do such things over a period of time, meeting repeatedly, they take on some sort of group existence. Groups with a long-term existence are the basic vehicles of community activity…Collectively they can be described as the community sector, and they form the largest part of the voluntary sector.

Social policies both local and national often invoke community involvement without appearing to understand how fundamental community groups are to the life of a community.

Radical theory holds that the state and its agencies are themselves the primary source of poverty and inequality that community work is fighting against. If this is the case then tension is not only unavoidable but irremediable. There can be no successful community practice under such conditions.

It is more realistic to see the state in a democratic society as a mechanism for decision-making, which must respond to different, often conflicting, opinions and interests, and this view will reveal more options for change.

If community work was only a movement of social protest, governments would never employ community workers. Repressive governments would stamp on it and permissive governments would tolerate it, but no government would deliberately allocate tax revenues to provide it…They realise that in order to meet citizens needs without creating dependency, and to do so with maximum economy and effectiveness, one of the components that is universally needed is a participatory ethos in which users’ voices are heard, their influence is effective and co-production is facilitated.

Most of the best things in capitalist society other than productivity itself are created in some degree of criticism of the great economic engine of the system and actually preserve it by combating its inherent excesses. Out of correctives to the present wild instability of capitalism, political regimes may arise which not only stabilise and discipline capitalism to some degree but which ise community practice in a more fundamental way, to ensure the health of civil society at the roots.

The issue that confronts us now is to discover how far the methods and lessons learnt from past generations will apply when more neighbourhoods are at risk from decline, but the national framework of support, and the resources of local public services, has been dramatically shrunk.

It should be remembered…that the third sector is in fact a yoking together of two considerably different sectors: on one hand, professionally run charities and non-profit organisations; and on the other hand self-sustaining community groups, the community sector.

There is a long way to go before there are broadly dynamic, co-operative, co-productive relationships between statutory bodies and the bulk of the local community sector.

[T]he potential for neighbourhoods to improve their conditions is reliant on policy frameworks at local, regional and national level…But the ultimate determining factor is what is done in the neighbourhood itself by the residents and the local public service workers together. This is not something that can be done by residents in isolation. Erosion of mainstream public services would make to increasingly difficult for neighbourhoods to function, let alone transform themselves.

The key roles of national governments regarding strengthening communities are: (1) to recognise that is a vital national issue which needs strategic support but cannot be closely directed from national level; and (2) to ensure that there are effective resources and frameworks available through the policy delivery chain, and in particular though policy making and resourcing in local authorities, local health agencies, police and other bodies.

The best hope of making a significant difference it the wellbeing of a local population is to mobilise the fragments of latent and quasi community practice within the area around a small specialist team which can coordinate and strengthen this aspect if their varied roles. This amounts to some from of neighbourhood partnership. To work well, such a partnership must also mobilise and embody strong leadership from residents.