I’ve been attending an ESRC seminar on localism and social housing. Some of the arguments I’ve been hearing about localism, particularly from England, are troubling.
Part of the problem is that the arguments for community are dated. There was a time when people’s lives were centred on the neighbourhood; people would have their families, social contact, work and leisure activities all in the same place. Times have changed; this kind of lifestyle is increasingly rare. The communities where most of these things still all happen together are unusual; there are exceptions, but they are likely to be isolated or excluded to some degree. The most deprived areas are marked by transient populations, empty property and poor facilities. It does not make good sense, then, to build policy on the assumption that there must be a geographic community in place.
There are three good arguments for focusing on communities and neighbourhoods – they’re also the reasons why I’m still engaged with community development. The first is that areas matter. Some areas have serious problems – security, ill health, environmental problems, lack of facilities. They can be difficult and damaging for the people who live there – not just for poorer people, but everyone.
The second is that wherever people are disadvantaged, they need the kinds of support, facilities and opportunities that will help to make their lives better. A great deal can be done at the local level – providing amenities, activities, opportunities, creating jobs, increasing income and helping to care.
The third is that people need a voice. Voice is not the only thing that’s needed for democratic governance – others include rights, accountability and empowerment – but the less people are heard, the more important it is that they should be.
The localism agenda has taken arguments that were intended to help in disadvantaged areas and extended them to a wide range of others – among them, rural villages, commuter suburbs and gated communities. In the process, the arguments for community development have been twisted out of shape. Reinforcing the power and influence of relatively privileged communities may improve their circumstances, but it’s often at the expense of others – localism can become a mechanism for exclusion. Listening to other people is basic to democracy; but allowing particular groups to dominate the discourse, to shut out outsiders or to veto measures to help others, can be undemocratic. The assumption of community in such cases is not just dated, it’s potentially dangerous.