The quest for community

… by 2010 it was no longer practical to think of people living in proximity to each other as perforce a community. A growing number of Britains were experiencing a sense of cohesion, trust and fellowship elsewhere. They were joining voluntary groups based on their share interests and concerns. Pouring billions of pounds into bolstering communities of place, many of which did not exist was a waste of money…

This is the verdict of writer, Henry Hemming, on New Labour’s policies towards ‘communities’ in the 2000-2010 period.

Writing in his book Together – How Small Groups Achieve Big Things (published in 2011), Hemming suggests that the previous government’s policies aimed at improved the economic and social situation in specific local areas (a) failed to take account of how people form associations in the modern UK (b) failed to understand how actual locate communities evolve while focusing political constituencies lines drawn on maps and (c) aimed for a vision of community that wouldn’t have been any good even if it had been acheived.

In explaining the third of these points, the problem, Hemming claims, is that supporters of New Labour communities policies were (or are) – in viewing Britain as ‘a vast patchwork of 20,000 local communities’ –  attempting to re-create the idea of the medieval village. They aim was to generate a greater sense of identity within local areas (communities) and, in doing so, encourage get more involved in make those places better places to live but, for Hemming, the success of this policy could ultimately create places where: “We become more suspicious of non-comformity and outsiders, we frown upon private space, we gravitate towards a more authoritarian and patrichal take on the world, we become territorial and look for witches in our midst.”

This argument, if taken literally, is the least convincing element of an otherwise well argued book. The fact that some close knit local communities engage in or tolerate, to use some of Hemming’s examples, attacks on disabled people or the murder of young women whose choice of partner is not to their family’s liking, is not a convincing argument against close knit communities per se.

No more so than the suggestion that it’s possible for committed members of small groups, clubs and association to become detached from reality based on devotion to their group – Hemming gives the example of the spy Anthony Blunt and his membership of the elite debate society, the Cambridge Apostles – is an arguments against the small groups, clubs and associations in a general sense.

While Hemming (rightly) views the latter as a possibility to bear in mind but not overstate, he apparently views the former as the philosophical end game of New Labour’s communities agenda (rather than a possible by-product of it based on a worst case scenario).

It seems necessary to query the ‘medieval village’ argument because the preceding points are both important and mostly correct. New Labour’s attempts to stimulate economic and social developments, along with ‘cohesion’, may have benefitted the areas they called local communities but they weren’t so successful in terms of promoting the idea of community. The New Deal for Communities (NDC), was a programme “designed to transform 39 deprived neighbourhoods in England, each accommodating about 9,900 people… implementing local regeneration schemes each funded by on average £50m of Programme spend.

The government’s  final assessment of the scheme reports that life improved significantly in NDC areas and that: “The biggest improvements were for indicators of people’s feelings about their neighbourhoods: NDC residents recognise change brought about by the NDC Programme and are more satisfied with their neighbourhoods as places to live.

Where the programme was less successful was in shaping the NDC areas into communities which operate and identify themselves as such. The report notes: “Interventions have not had such an apparent impact on broader community social capital indicators, although with hindsight this was not always a realistic objective for the Programme. Some NDC areas lacked much in the way of community capital when the Programme was launched; key players in the community move on; some social capital indicators have not changed a great deal; and most people do not, anyway, engage with their local NDC partnership to any significant degree.

So most people like their local areas more if and when they experience an improvement in local public services, combined with new amenities and public spaces but that doesn’t, in itself, make them more inclined to take responsibility for the interests of ‘the community’ they live in.

The fact that most people are not very interested in most community activities laid on by the public sector (and show declining levels of interest in the activities of established churches and large voluntary sector groups) has led commentators, from US academic, Robert Puttnam, in Bowling Alone to David Cameron’s notion of ‘broken Britain’ to suggest that Western societies have become fundamentally atomised and individualistic.

Together makes clear that this not the case. In fact, during the 2000s in the UK, participation rates in the voluntary activity in the sectors such as arts and sports were on the increase – for example, 85% of Britain’s 49,140 arts associations had stable or growing memberships between 2003 and 2008 (based on Our Creative Talent, a 2008 survey report the Arts Council). Hemming explains that far from destroying ‘real life’ clubs and associations, the internet has enabled many existing groups to grow, while also enabling others to get going, based on ease of quick, cheap communication between group members.

While Hemming seems most interested in the stories and motivations of groups formed to pursue interests – book groups, caving clubs, druids – he also covers just about every other possible ‘community of interest’ – including groups based around religious or cultural background, gender or environmental protest. While many of the groups have a local focus – and may have formed to tackle a particular local problem or in response to an event (such as a flood) – none are focused on the general idea of making the local community a better place.

The underlying point is that tens of millions of people (probably most people in the UK) are ready, willing and able to get involved in communities. But that they won’t necessarily share dominant political view about what or where ‘their community’ is located. On the back cover, Lord Wei (remember him?) describes Together as ‘A non-political manifesto for Big Society’. Unfortunately, so far, the key promoters of Big Society are having just as much trouble engaging with the communities that the UK actually has (compared to the ones they’d like to see spring up and solve their problems) as the previous government had with their community agenda.

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3 responses to “The quest for community

  1. It’s often very difficult, I’ve found, to determine what others see as a community.

    Here for example, in a village of about 500 which boasts a brass band, cricket club, and drama group among its activities. We host boot sales and a carnival to raise funds, and yet, we are something of a minority.

    I chair the village committee and last night we learned that the band was unable to pay anything toward the hall use. There’s little interest in their view, because of the addiction to technology. There are now only 8 members.

    There’s seemingly little appetite for creating the community benefit society org I hoped to start 3 years ago with BBC Village SOS. As I see it, the idea of moving beyond voluntary and shared interest/activity groups just doesn’t seem be considered. Perhaps this has something to do with the perception that creating jobs and stimulating the local economy is the role of local government.

    ‘Meet John Doe’ is a Frank Capra film set in the US economic depression with a story about creating a community movement and in the film it’s Gary Cooper who makes the call in a radio speech:

    “Your neighbor — he’s a terribly important guy that guy next door. You’re gonna need him and he’s gonna need you, so look him up. If he’s sick, call on him. If he’s hungry, feed him. If he’s out of a job, find him one.

    To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barkin’ dog and high fence around him. Now, you can’t be a stranger to any guy that’s on your own team. So teach down the fence that separates you. Tear down the fence and you’ll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices. Tear down all the fences in the country and you’ll really have teamwork.”

    For me, however, it’s the powerful message from Jacob Bronowski, at the end of his 1970s ‘Ascent of Man’ series who really hits the mark about our isolation from the needs of others.

    Alluding to the Milgram experiments, he appeals We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people”

  2. Beanbags admin

    Jeff,
    Some interesting points. One of the key messages in ‘Together’ is that the idea of community – in terms of generalised affection for and interest in the local area – is not prevalent in the modern UK.

    That wasn’t really news to me in terms of artificially carved up local areas – such as council wards in inner citites. But, according to the book, that also true to a large extent in rural areas.

    Henry Hemming’s point is that just because (most) people aren’t interested in putting lots of time and effort into general activities to make their locality better, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in getting together to do things on reciprocal, co-operative basis.

    But (you’d think obviously) if people are doing stuff off their own back, in their own time, they do want they want to do – which may be socially useful but may just enjoyable for those directly involved – not what public sector agencies want them to do.

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