Part 1 of this 2004 pamphlet was posted here yesterday.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
The Liberal Democrat approach to community cohesion means not just developing attitudes and policies that might be capable of rebuilding it, but also tackling those forces that are undermining it in the first place.
Tackling the forces undermining communities
Neighbourhoods traditionally worked together, pooling time and resources, when they were threatened in some way, and often when they were extremely poor. Folk memories of these places and periods are warm and nostalgic, despite the poverty, although they are also remembered sometimes as intolerant and intrusive. But the ability of neighbourhoods to work together to improve their lives – and stand up to government or officials if necessary – has been severely compromised in recent generations, and that leaves them increasingly prey to rising crime, isolation, loneliness and ill-health, all of which research has shown to be linked to a lack of community cohesion.
It would be impossible to turn the clock back to the communities of the past, even if it were desirable. But achieving Liberal Democrat aims in government rely partly on reviving people’s ability to work together locally – building a new kind of inclusive and caring communities – and that means confronting the forces that make this difficult.
Whether it is embedded in institutions or just confined to individual attitudes, racism is one of the most important blocks to community cohesion. Tackling this scourge, which undermines communities and individuals and prevents them from achieving their potential in any sphere of life, is an urgent priority for Liberal Democrats at every level.
But it is important also to tackle some of its causes – local authorities that seriously underfund public housing, and provide little or no resources to move as family circumstances change, for example, can easily inflame feelings against refugee families among those who wrongly regard themselves as bypassed. Providing the resources for proper health, education, housing and police services is absolutely critical. Liberal Democrats will also:
- Encourage exchanges between public and private schools and between church schools of different denominations.
- Make sure all local racial groups are represented among local authority staff, especially in roles that involve direct contact with the public.
- Set up a Single Equality Commission to investigate and tackle racism, backed up by a Single Equality Act.
Crime and the fear of crime are probably more destructive of cohesive communities than anything else. Even the sense of dislocation caused by the constant experience of quite mild disorder and vandalism can confine older people increasingly at home and add to the sense of hopelessness among people who live locally – and this can be a problem in predominantly owner-occupied neighbourhoods as much as public housing.
But research, notably by the Harvard School of Public Health in Chicago, demonstrates that a sense of local trust – and a preparedness to intervene when young people are misbehaving – is more important than income or class to whether a neighbourhood has a high crime rate. The most important factor in driving down local crime is an active community that can work alongside the police, and set joint goals with them to tackle jointly the issues they believe are important.
That is the cornerstone of the Liberal Democrat approach. We will also:
- Make sure there is no community without a local community police officer who is committed to it.
- Use Community Support Officers and Neighbourhood Wardens to reduce anti-social behaviour, co-ordinate the removal of graffiti and litter, and provide more visible uniformed community safety staff on buses and trains.
- Use tough and intensive community sentences, with offenders doing work that is genuinely useful to pay their debt to the community, rather than entrenching criminality with automatic prison sentences.
Poor and unresponsive public services force local people into increasingly dependent lives – unable to find employment because of a lack of public transport, or unable to get the treatment they need. But the government’s culture of centralisation and target-setting has often made the situation worse, making services even less responsive than before as they chase numerical targets that may be irrelevant to local people and the service they receive.
Centralisation and under-funding are both driven by an attitude, prevailing under Labour and Conservative alike, that neither staff nor ordinary people can be trusted to decide on priorities and make them work.
Liberal Democrats will:
- Make assisting people to become independent a central aim of all public service professionals – from adequate public transport to appropriate schooling. People who cannot drive for medical reasons and those who have not yet passed their driving test are particularly dependent on a public transport system that does not address their needs.
- Emphasise the prevention of ill-health rather than simply detecting and curing it. This means tackling poverty and poor housing conditions as well as smoking, alcohol misuse and obesity.
- Implement a national programme of Home Zones for residential areas to make communities safer from traffic, and provide more independence for children.
- Increase the basic state pension, with more for the over-75s, to make sure older people stay independent for as long as possible.
- Create the new designation of Protected Site for green areas of particular value to the community. Nor should we forget the importance of informal open spaces in urban areas.
- Make sure that affordable housing is available so that people can stay living near their families if they want to, using innovative new methods of financing like community land trusts.
There is no doubt that the ability of communities to work together, and the sense that individuals have that they are capable of making a difference locally, has been consistently undermined in recent decades by the drift of public services and other institutions into increasingly large, increasingly distant units – gigantic schools where individuals feel no sense of ownership, enormous hospitals where patients never see the same doctor twice.
The problem of distant and impersonal institutions is a direct cause of the ineffectiveness of public service reform, as well as the failure of increasing funding to make a significant difference to services.
Liberal Democrats recognise the critical importance of building relationships with individual professionals, with face-to-face contact, and will:
- Promote schemes that shift NHS treatment to smaller local units, such as GP surgeries and clinics, and as far as possible keep open small local schools.
- Promote community policing and direct involvement by local communities in setting police priorities.
- Provide local government with genuine powers of general competence to carry out what local people believe is necessary.
- Encourage alternative ownership models for public housing, like community mutuals and community land trusts, which can inject more democracy and self-management into the big housing associations.
Numerical targets, Whitehall formulae and centralised decision-making are all ways in which Conservative and Labour governments alike have created increasingly distant institutions, increasingly cut off from people, and increasingly inflexible when it comes to local variations in what people want and need. They are also increasingly immune to pressure from neighbourhoods that want sometimes tiny changes in the way the systems affect their lives. Liberal Democrats will:
- End the target culture that encourages distant control by Whitehall of what are essentially local services – preferring direct accountability to local people rather than to distant bureaucrats with little or no local knowledge.
- Launch a one-stop grant system that would streamline the complexity of existing regeneration grants.
- End artificial boundaries between government departments and administrative areas that make neighbourhood involvement such a bureaucratic nightmare.
- Devolve decision-making power to the lowest practical level.
- Eliminate the phrase ‘postcode lottery’ from political discourse.
Giving power back to people
Liberal Democrats believe that community cohesion emerges primarily through joint local endeavour, through pulling together disparate people of different ages, races and social groups. Often, the enormous benefits of community activity and cohesion – including lower crime and better health – can dissipate as soon as their specific objectives have been achieved. The challenge is to return responsibility to neighbourhoods and to local people in such a way that regeneration in all areas can continue to drive forward.
That means formulating policies that are genuinely participative. But this must be meaningful participation – not what passes for it in most government departments now, which is often a deadening and passive form of ‘consultation’. Liberal Democrats believe that no community can exercise responsibility simply by being consulted, or even by democratic involvement, but by active involvement and sharing in the work of tackling local crime, ill-health, loneliness and regeneration –and unless they have some measure of control over their economic lives as well.
Participating in decisions
Centralisation has made institutions and services distant, unresponsive, unequal and inflexible. It has meant more mistakes and more expensive ‘externalities’ that are sucking up extra funding in NHS institutions, for example, because neither staff nor patients feel any sense of ownership. It has meant more crime because local people do not feel engaged or responsible for tackling it.
Although Labour and Conservative alike pay lip service to having local and user representatives on governing bodies of public institutions, and for ‘consultation’ with communities, all too often this is simply a tick-box version of consultation that has become a dull, suspicious affair, involving a handful of ‘professional’ representatives, who provide no sense of ownership to the wider community.
Liberal Democrats have led the way in local government experimenting with ways that decisions can be taken by local communities, and developing dynamic new methods of participation. We will:
- Make the local administration of institutions like the police and the NHS more democratic and locally controlled.
- Reform local government finance so that local authorities raise more of the money they need to spend locally.
- Develop the concept of public benefit organisations (PBOs) that genuinely – unlike foundation hospitals – involve staff and users in their management and administration.
- Allow parish and community councils to form wherever communities want them, and allow locally managed community trusts to take over parks and other local amenities where appropriate.
- Encourage the use of citizens juries, Democs (techniques that allow local people to reach agreement on difficult local issues), and other methods of reaching local agreement as a way of devolving decisions to local communities.
Participation in local life
Participation is meaningless and ineffective if it does not also involve local activity and mutual support, which might include visiting people, keeping watch for crime, doing small repairs, telephone support, and other vital local tasks that professionals are not funded – and not effective – at providing. Research shows this is a vital basis for cohesion across race and age barriers.
One of the key elements missing from the government’s programme is any systematic attempt to revive this kind of informal volunteering – the kind of unmeasured, mutual efforts that neighbours put in to help neighbours, which are so critical to rebuilding local trust and social capital. Neighbourhoods need informal mutual activity if they are going to prevent crime, keep older people healthy and living at home, and maintain housing estates as places where people want to live. Even informal childcare is vital if people are going to be able to get training and find jobs. The evidence is that even small grants are wasted and people’s efforts unsustainable, unless there is a supportive network of local people around them.
Liberal Democrats are committed to innovative approaches to rebuilding social capital in ways that trust ordinary people, that recreate local responsibility without being authoritarian, and that are not under the direct control of ministers. We will:
- Encourage a network of local time banks, and other mutual volunteering exchanges, in local institutions – which recognise that welfare and services work best as part of a reciprocal framework that rewards people’s efforts, allowing them to spend the ‘credits’ they earn on help for themselves, on public transport, in sports centres or on education and training.
- End the disincentives to volunteering, mentoring and time banking, for example through unnecessary age barriers.
- Set up institutions that are able to involve young people from every background in youth courts, mentoring, sports coaching and peer tutoring, to encourage the co-production of local justice and education and other regeneration initiatives.
- End benefits anomalies that prevent participants from using credits to buy training or educational equipment like computers as a reward for their efforts in the community.
- Investigate a new form of ‘voluntary sector bond’ that would enable local agencies to bundle up future savings in government spending – as a result of a neighbourhood project – and use those resources to launch it.
- Remove bureaucratic barriers to using schools as community resources, as well as bringing other empty property back into use for the local neighbourhood.
Participation in public services
Local ownership of public services requires local engagement in their delivery as well as their administration, and Liberal Democrats are committed to developing new ways to make this possible – either through time banks or other local institutions – so that public services can be more responsive, human, local and holistic in what they can achieve.
This means an asset-based NHS, for example, that understands that its best assets – the knowledge of its frontline staff and the time of its patients – are currently being wasted by target setting and bureaucracy, and the patronising sense that Whitehall knows best. Liberal Democrats believe that no public service can succeed, whether it is education, police, health or regeneration, unless it is co-produced by an equal partnership between professionals, front-line staff and pupils, parents, residents, patients. We believe that working together in this way is the key to genuine efficiency that can both make services more effective, and make public money go further. We will:
- Make it a requirement for all public institutions, from regeneration agencies to primary care trusts, to demonstrate that they are involving clients as partners in the delivery of services.
- Prioritise the support of staff that deal directly with the public – both in public services and the voluntary sector – as the best way to make the efforts of local institutions effective.
- Defend and where appropriate reopen local libraries and magistrates courts.
Participation in the economy
The sad fact is that all too many communities are close to the tipping point when their economic viability collapses. Successive governments have done little to tackle the closure of the local bank branches, bank machines, post offices, pubs and shops that make neighbourhoods viable: as many as 20,000 of these have disappeared in the last five years and a similar number are expected to close in the next five years – and this is putting tens of thousands of communities in serious danger of becoming ghost towns.
Liberal Democrats recognise the critical importance to community cohesion of finding ways to buttress the survival of both urban and rural neighbourhoods threatened with this kind of collapse, and new ways to help communities share a vision of their own futures that can give them more levers on local economic change – and secure a variety of work within reach locally to meet local needs. We will:
- Help small shops and independent traders by tough controls on monopolies and cartels, with a presumption against high concentration of ownership in local areas as well as nationally.
- Cut business rates on small businesses with a Business Rates Allowance similar to personal tax allowances.
- Protect the services offered by local post offices.
- Support local markets and farmers markets to preserve a diversity of small local shops – if necessary reopening these facilities in village halls.
- Encourage wider use of discretionary powers by local councils to give relief to small businesses and shops.
- Use public procurement as far as possible at local level to support local business and local food.
Participation in business
Disadvantaged communities may be increasingly dependent on poor services, unequally managed by centralised bureaucracies, and with dwindling financial support. Yet, by their very nature, they possess potential customers, potential markets and needs that can be fulfilled. Often the solution is in setting up social enterprises which are revenue-generating, but created primarily to fulfil local needs, and employ local people, rather than primarily to make a profit. This requires both the finance – and conventional banks have a poor record of lending to them – and the know-how of local people.
It also requires skills, confidence and training to be available at local level to encourage people who live there to understand what can be achieved and how. Liberal Democrats will:
- Tackle financial exclusion by promoting community banking, local currency schemes like LETS, and credit unions.
- Require commercial banks to reveal the geographical areas they are lending money, and launch a Bank Awards scheme to encourage them to provide services to excluded groups.
- Boost investment in regional banks that reinvest in their regions, and community development financial institutions – designed to lend to social enterprises and other non-commercial ventures – by expanding the scope of the Phoenix Fund and developing new investment vehicles to draw money into the social investment sector.
- Promote mentoring schemes for new businesses and social enterprises in places that need revitalisation.
There are few areas of policy so central as community cohesion to the real concerns of people, and yet so intractable to governments that refuse to trust local authorities or local people with freedom and funds. The Labour government is increasingly distrustful, even to the extent of finding ways to stop people looking after the children of next-door neighbours.
Liberal Democrats recognise that creating this cohesion is a shared responsibility between local government, local people and the voluntary sector, but their efforts can be enabled or disabled by central government and public service professionals and managers.
Equally, they recognise that community cohesion is one of the central issues of our age. Cohesive, active neighbourhoods, that work alongside professionals – co-producing local services with them – can make breakthroughs possible in fighting crime, in tackling ill-health and in a range of previously intractable social problems where society has grown used to expensive failure. When cohesive communities are active in this way, public money can go further. When they are fractured, fearful or disempowered, they are likely to suffer worse crime, worse health and worse education.
Liberal Democrats believe that the local staff and clients of public services are critical forgotten assets, sidelined by successive governments – a direct cause of the failure of current public service reform. Community cohesion, on the other hand, makes it possible to bring these assets to work effectively.