Monday, December 12, 2011

Cohesive Communities 1: David Boyle & Jonathan Calder

Blogging becomes addictive once you are reasonably well established. You post a few paragraphs and immediately you get a respectable number of readers. Because of the availability of this instant reinforcement, it can be hard to get down to longer pieces of writing.

For that reason I am going to republish two or three longer essays that I have produced over the years.

Cohesive Communities, was written with David Boyle while we were both on the party's Federal Policy Committee (FPC). My recollection is that the committee considered an earlier paper with this title, but did not much like it. So David and I volunteered to come up with something different.

Perhaps to our surprise, the resultant essay was approved by FPC without any changes in January 2004. Despite this, the party showed no signs of having any intention to publish, and eventually we gave up and published it as part of the Liberator "Passports to Liberty" series in time for the party's 2005 Autumn Conference. You can find it it volume 6 ("A Different Country Now") alongside an essay by Adrian Sanders.

As it is over 5000 words I shall be publishing Cohesive Communities in two parts. The first, which analyses the problem is below. For the solutions you will have to read part 2.

At this remove I cannot remember exactly how David and I collaborated - I suspect he wrote more if it than I did - but I do recognise some of my hobby horses alongside his more evidence-based proposals.

Think of it as an early Liberal Democrat contribution to the Big Society debate.


Since the foundation of the Liberal Party in the 19th century, Liberal thought has recognised that people achieve their goals in life by working together for the local good, that their understanding of local needs makes them the experts in their own administration, and that good government is underpinned by neighbourhoods working together. When these truths are forgotten, the rift between government and governed becomes a dangerous gulf, and the administration and cost of public services become unmanageable. Liberal Democrats believe that administration is best carried out by the people closest to those that it affects, and that the right to work together locally to manage things differently is a guarantee of liberty.

Recent research, particularly in the USA, has pinpointed cohesive communities as the key missing ingredient to a whole range of intractable policy issues that are undermining the ability of governments and their welfare systems to struggle on. The biggest and most expensive study in the history of criminology, carried out by theHarvard School of Public Health and which reported recently, found that by far the most important influence on local crime is the willingness of neighbours to act for each other’s benefit – and especially for the benefit of each other’s children.

This and the research known as ‘Broken Windows’, which was the inspiration for the major reduction in crime in New York City, demonstrate that it is often very little things that make the biggest effect on local life, among which is a range of equal partnerships between local neighbourhoods and local police, often instigated – as in Boston – by the churches. This makes cohesive communities not just a stand-alone outline of policy in a narrow area, but a central idea in Liberal thinking in health, crime, social policy, family policy and a range of other areas.

It is true that people’s need for community is, to some extent, now satisfied by workplace communities, communities of interest and even sometimes virtual communities, but it is geographical communities and their cohesion that underpin these other aspects of policy.

Pressures on community
The constitution of the Liberal Democrats tells us that we exist “to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”.
When the Liberal Party committed itself to ‘community politics’ in 1970, it was clear that that this approach represented something radically different. It was different both in its content – representing a reaction against the narrow economic concerns of government in that era – and in its campaigning style, representing an attempt to energise the political process by involving people more directly in it where they lived, and to work alongside them to improve their lives.

Today we face a different problem. The word ‘community’ is used so widely as to be almost meaningless. It is used as an adjective to cast a warm glow over the, often disreputable, noun that follows. So the Poll Tax was officially described as the ‘Community Charge’, and today people talk about ‘the intelligence community’, as though spies babysit for one another and organise jumble sales together.
There are threats to the idea of community.

Pressure from the market
One of the greatest threats to community life is economic change. It is traditional to laugh at the Luddites, but it remains a fact that those who suffer the costs of economic change are rarely the same as the people who reap its benefits.

Individual communities and ways of life are rooted in particular economic forms and, when those forms collapse, they collapse with them. This phenomenon can be seen dramatically in the fate of the pit villages after the closure of coal mines in the 1980s. It also operates more gradually: the decline of the Romanies in Britain arises from the fact that, 50 years ago, there was a need for a casual agricultural workforce and today, because of changes in farming brought about in part by government and EU subsidies, there is not.

The combination of monopolistic retail practices and damaging government policies have stripped many neighbourhoods of the basic necessities of local life: 20 per cent of corner shops, grocers, high street banks, sub post offices and local pubs disappeared from British villages and high streets between 1995 and 2000 and a further 28,000 outlets are expected to be lost by the end of next year. There is an equivalent stripping of local green space and playing fields – the equivalent of seven Hyde Parks in London alone since 1989.

These losses undermine the ability of communities to sustain themselves economically or socially, or to determine their own economic lives, and lead to a tipping point where complete collapse is inevitable, and go against the expressed wishes of the people who live there.

Pressure from communitarians
Our Liberal Democrat embrace of liberty, equality and community echoes the Jacobin slogan Libert√©, Egalit√©, Fraternit√©. Perhaps the idea of ‘fraternity’ is irredeemably sexist, but it does convey a warmth and spontaneity that are often absent from ‘community’ as it has been understood by governments of either Labour or Conservative. Certainly, they are absent from the idea of community held by New Labour communitarian theorists.

In as far as communitarianism reminds us of the point we note above, that communities are rooted in particular forms of life, then it acts as a useful corrective to the varieties of liberalism that consist of nothing but free-floating rights. But there are strong objections to the sort of policy measures that communitarianism has inspired in Britain. They are often simply authoritarian, have little sense of tackling causes, and have in general been directed against particular social groups who are singled out as a problem. The debate on anti-social behaviour, for instance, assumes that problems always occur on ‘estates’ and that the solution lies in threatening to take away the tenancies of the perpetrators or their parents. This is factually wrong, in that home owners are quite capable of being anti-social too, and should alarm Liberal Democrats in that it makes one section of the community (council tenants) liable to penalties (the loss of their homes) that do not apply to anyone else.

Another group singled out by communitarian policies is children and young people – a fact seen most clearly in the introduction of general curfews for particular age groups. Some will object to these policies because they violate children’s and young people’s rights but, even if one is sceptical of the existence of such ideas, there are still good reasons for being alarmed by policies of this kind.

The first is that much of the impetus for the introduction of curfews arises from a lack of contact between the generations. Groups of teenagers hanging around on street corners can seem threatening to older people but, if communitarian policies and blanket restrictions lead to less contact between the generations, then such groups will come to seem even more threatening and there will be calls for curfews to be made even more restrictive.

The second objection is that such policies undermine communities’ faith in their ability to police themselves. Research in the USA shows that this ability is the most important determinant of the local crime rate. British communitarian policies simply require people to hand over the problem to the police, the council or their local community safety officer.

Perhaps the clearest distinction between communitarian and Liberal outlooks can be seen when we consider the idea of the gated community. To Liberal Democrats, this represents the ultimate failure of community, but David Blunkett recently called for their extension to “the many not the few”.

Pressure from traffic and planning
Almost the only point on which, until recently, all three main parties agreed was that the post-war policy of clearing terraced housing and replacing it with tower blocks was a disastrous mistake. It arose, Liberal Democrats would argue, partly from a distrust of the spontaneity of communities and a desire to impose a more rational pattern upon them. This tendency can be seen in socialism as far back as Engels’s account of Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England.

The failures of the tower block as a ubiquitous solution to all social problems and the housing needs of all age-groups are well-known, but the rigorous planning policies favoured in recent decades have also had serious effects. What we would now recognise as small businesses were for many years regarded as non-standard planning uses which threatened neat zoning of residential areas and industry. This had the effect of reducing employment in villages and working-class areas of cities and putting more pressure on the surrounding suburbs and countryside.

A related problem over the same post-war decades was the assumption that communities should be planned around the motor car – Milton Keynes, famously, was planned in the 1960s on the assumption that every resident would own one. This assumption has contributed to the construction of new retail developments away from established high streets, leading to the decline of some and tending to exclude many people from using them. At the same time, the car’s dominance of the street has excluded other users, diminishing the freedom of children to roam, in particular.

This should not suggest that planning is, by its nature, destructive of communities – quite the reverse. Good planning and urban design enhances local life; bad planning undermines neighbourhoods.
Unfortunately, Labour’s policies in London are now returning to high-density, high-rise building with its consequent loss of green space, amenity space and traditional streetscapes, with the most damaging effects falling on those communities which require public green space the most. The failure of both Labour and Conservative policies in housing – demolishing community centres and similar facilities, subsuming public housing tenants into equally gigantic and faceless housing associations – are both storing up problems stemming from the loss of community for the future.

Pressure from over-professionalisation
Hilary Clinton once published a book on raising children with the title It Takes a Village. She was right in that, in a healthy community, childcare will be a general responsibility, but the subtext was that it takes a great many professionals.

For decades, the dominant view on the Left has been that progress consists in applying the insights of social science to society, and that anyone or anything that gets in the way of this is a reactionary force that must be opposed. So, for instance, when people on the Left talk of giving children the best possible start in life, they take it for granted that this means they will be brought up, at least in part, by someone other than their parents.

There are two arguments against such an assumption. The first is that it relies upon a very partial view of history, because it is by no means true that the professionals have been on what we would now regard as the side of the angels. For decades, working-class parents who objected to their children being beaten at school were treated as figures of fun by the education press, and the teachers’ and headteachers’ unions were the last groups to campaign for the retention of corporal punishment. Similarly, the improvement in the lot of children in public care marked by the Children Act of 1948 was made in the teeth of opposition from the childcare charities, who favoured barrack-like homes and had hitherto regarded themselves as experts in the field.

The second argument against this distrust of parents is that it tends to undermine people’s confidence in themselves. It is a strange paradox that, the better educated and more affluent society becomes, the less autonomy people are thought able to cope with and the more they are encouraged to seek the expertise of other, wiser people.

The increasing dependence on professionals at neighbourhood level has led both to the exhaustion of public services and the increasing powerlessness of their clients. The truth is that the successful operation of teachers, doctors, police and social services depends on working as equal partners both with clients and with their neighbours – all three have a critical part to play in any successful regeneration. This basic truth, and the resources that it represents, have been increasingly forgotten as politicians puzzle over why their spending on public services are so ineffective, and as even the community development sector finds itself expecting and achieving very little from the localpopulation.

Pressure from bureaucracy
When pressed to defend their continued relevance after long years out of power, Liberals used to point to Keynes and Beveridge. They were both Liberals, and they more than anyone else were the architects of the modern world. The post-war settlement has come under a lot of strain since then, but Liberals still instinctively defend the Welfare State. This is a healthy instinct in as far as it shows concern for the poor, but there are still criticisms to be made.

The social security system was originally predicated upon the idea of the claimant as passive – someone who lacked a job. The transformation of the unemployed person into the jobseeker in recent years has tended to reinforce this passivity. True, people are supposed to be actively seeking work – even to the extent of being compelled to attend training courses – but they are discouraged from doing anything else. This approach to unemployment tends to deny its economic and social roots by treating it as a form of individual delinquency.

Yet a healthy community depends upon a rich tapestry of voluntary work, unpaid work and reciprocal favours, and the welfare system can make it more difficult for anyone who is involved with it to play their part. The enforced disappearance from community life of many parents, because the government wants them earning money rather than spending time bringing up their children, has also impoverished neighbourhoods and made them more vulnerable to rising crime. Families, in all their diverse forms, are the bedrock of communities and policy must support them.

Now read part 2.

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