Turning Out The Lights

The Coalition’s main social policy platforms are localism and the Big Society. Localism was supposed to remove the restrictions on local people making civic improvements in their local areas. Big Society was supposed to enable local people to get together and make civic improvements to their local areas. One to take the barriers away, the other to support community activity.

But how was this to happen? How were these improvements to come about? Well here, there has been silence. Or almost. We have seen councils embrace and then reject the idea of local action without central government funding. We have witnessed government ministers urging people to bash local government. We have heard David Cameron appeal to Jesus to get things going.

So what about the Voluntary and Community Sector? Aren’t they the people who should be picking this up? Aren’t they the experts on localism and haven’t they been doing Big Society for years? Well, I’m sure they would like to get involved in all of these things but, if anything, they have taken the hardest blow from the public sector cuts.

Such perverse and contradictory behaviour leaves people confused or fed-up. And this means that the Big Society isn’t engaging people and that localism is little more than piles of paper in council store rooms. Quite simply people aren’t taking part either because there’s nothing to take part in or they are busy trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

At the same time, the Coalition has pursued an economic policy that makes large cuts to the welfare budget, imposes a bedroom tax on under-occupiers, and makes it harder to claim disability benefits. So we now have a situation where more and more people find themselves in need of help and we have fewer and fewer places to provide that help.

What, you may ask, are the Coalition government doing about this? What are they doing to assert their key social policy, localism and to promote their flagship community programme, the Big Society? Well, if David Cameron’s much-lauded conference speech is anything to go by, the answer is ‘nothing’.

In his speech Dave told us how proud he is of everything he’s done. So proud was Dave that he didn’t mention welfare cuts, public sector service reductions, ending full-time employment for millions, the rising number of food banks and all the other social catastrophes he’s so proud to have brought about.

But isn’t there a silver lining to all this gloom? There’s a general election in a few months and the Coalition has been so disastrous that we will surely soon be back on track with a fresh Labour government following a progressive social agenda. This is evidenced by Ed Miliband’s recent conference speech in which he … err …. forgot to mention austerity. Yes, he is concerned for those in work, for doctors and nurses, and yes, he supports a living wage but what about those with no wage? Indeed where are the proposals to reverse the damage done by Coalition cuts and reductions? Where is the programme to increase employment, balance wages and replace the regimen of greed with equality and consideration? I’m still looking.

So we’ve seen what Coalition social policy has, or rather hasn’t, achieved. And we’ve looked at what we can expect from both sides after the 2015 general election. What this seems to be left with is a pledge from the Conservatives for more of the same and a commitment from Labour to keep things more or less the same.

But is this good enough? I don’t think it is. Cutting off public funding removes services and increases unemployment. Doing so deliberately and intentionally is reckless. At the same time, expecting business people to step in and pay for social services is unrealistic and may be seen as politicians ‘washing their hands’.

Returning to the Coalition social policy platforms, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Big Society means No Government Responsibility and that Localism means No Government Money. Shifting responsibility away from government and leaving someone else to pay was the clear Coalition intention. When it concerns the most vulnerable people in our society, this smacks of malice.


Bottom-Up Cat Herding

Professionals, such as those involved with local government, community development, social services and welfare, love to talk about ‘top-down and bottom-up approaches’. This is claimed to be done with the intention of encouraging others, including their own staff, to refrain from desk based planning. This usually means that some impact reports are read and, sometimes, expensive consultations are undertaken. This bottom-up material is then used to inform the guiding, top-down, policy and planning documentation.

This means that all such approaches have a fatal flaw, namely they are designed to suit the professional, managerial agenda. Put simply, bottom-up policy-making is a myth. At best current consultative practice can be characterised as ‘not doing what I want straightaway’. At worst it is a conceit and for those consulted, a deceitful conceit for they were never going to have an impact on what happens.

Why is it like this? Well, one reason is that work in these areas usually takes the form of projects and is carried out through a project plan. As such a purposely closed and limited structure is imposed from the start. There is deliberately no place for those affected. There is deliberately no intention to involve anyone outside the group of professionals planning the project. Furthermore, there is every intention to withdraw all resources, 100%, at the end of the project. The project plan is followed, the project is completed and the project is closed down. There is no intention to provide anything lasting, simply to move from one project to the next, should the resources allow.

Another phrase used by professionals working with community members, service users, clients and so on, is that dealing with them is like trying to ‘herd cats’. Taken on its own terms this is a plain insult. Taken in the context of a project planning framework it is only to be expected. What the professionals really mean is that people are reluctant to give up their free time to examine and agree project documentation that is intended to deliver the project. Whether the project has a positive, neutral or negative impact on the people affected is not the point. Whether the project is delivered as specified, on budget and on time is.

This means that the professionals have no intention of explaining what they are actually doing. Staff may be co-opted into presenting a message that they believe people will understand and accept. Yet woe-betide any member of the public who takes their own time and trouble to try and understand the documents and ask questions about their concerns. These people are labelled ‘troublemakers’.

So cat-herding suits the professionals just fine. That way they can dismiss the community and get on with delivering their project in the way that they want, top-down and free of any interference.

Note: If you are aware of any ongoing activities that involve genuine collaboration then please do comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Real Localism

The Localism Act moves responsibility for local areas from central government to local communities. However, the legislation is not being matched with suitable budgets for local communities. Theoretical discussion and political involvement alone cannot make power and decision-making available to local people.

Consider initiatives such as My Community Rights. They are intended to give people control and allow them to exercise real power. They are only effective if they address communities as they exist and as equals. But are they doing this?

The message of localism amounts to the knowledge how do it is local knowledge. The consequence of this message is for communities to say to government ‘we’ll achieve what you want, don’t worry about how we do it’. But what do communities want?

Those working with communities need to ensure that their actions are based on informed and inclusive methods for local engagement and community participation. Importantly they need to begin with a developed understanding of the local context and of appropriate behaviour within that context. Only then will they be able to genuinely empower communities and build substantial local resilience.

This is where democracy comes in. Only in the context of genuinely democratic negotiation can community and government relationships flourish. Without some acknowledgement by government of the powers held by communities there can be no worthwhile relationship between the two. Furthermore, without the resources to take up those powers communities are as helpless as if they had none.

Supposedly this is done through elections. Here elections are seen as the people giving those elected the power to govern on their behalf. Yet turnouts at elections are low. Voter apathy has been joined by voter disgust at government practices. And traditional voting patterns and blocks can no longer be relied on by any party. So here is another reason to turn to the local, specifically to the traditions of self-help, mutualism, co-operatives, friendly societies and trade unions.

With this we see that localism is not just about the local. It is about interactions at different levels of government and communities. Nor is it about getting local people to pay for public services. It is about local people getting the public services they need. In other words for real localism we need a genuine commitment to a much more open, honest and co-operative public realm.

Community resources and services should be seen as the domain of the community themselves. They should not be regarded as the property of government. They should be there to help people help themselves. The focus needs to be on the underlying purpose rather than an easy cut or something government will do once it has balanced the books.

At the moment we do not have a localism worth the name. We do not have a society that acts as guarantor of meeting needs and creating surpluses. Rather we have a society separated from the government it creates through election. And we have communities separated from the resources that they need.

Putting the local into Local Enterprise Partnerships

Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are groups led by businesses to steer economic growth in their areas. In the North East there are two: Tees Valley Unlimited and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP). Their role is to promote business and investment by challenging negative perceptions of their area, and by driving transformational change as local communities take greater responsibility for their development.

Last year, the Heseltine report, ‘No Stone Unturned’, supported LEPs and recommended that they be given a range of powers and budgets to drive their work. Earlier this year the North East Independent Economic Review Report for NELEP led by Lord Adonis endorsed the Heseltine review and outlined an even greater role for NELEP and other LEPs.

But how local are LEPs? Heseltine had no place for neighbourhood planning or community budgets and neither Heseltine not Adonis refer to local organisations as contributors to growth. So it seems that LEPs and localism are talking about different things.
The European Funding cycle 2013 to 2020 is currently under review. At least 20% of the European Social Fund (ESF) will be dedicated to social inclusion. The plan is for this to be routed through LEPs who will decide on the delivery. However, the question is whether LEPs have a good enough understanding of social inclusion to do this properly. And if they don’t then there should be opportunities for local groups to get together, possibly as VCS consortia and bid to do this work for the LEPs.

Certainly, the VCS has the fine grain of local knowledge necessary to allocate this funding effectively. And equally certainly the need for this work is there in our region. The question is whether the local VCS has the allies to influence their LEP and to shape the debate in their favour. And the first task is to make LEPs listen.

What volunteering means to me?

I’ve been involved in volunteering for many years, both as a volunteer and working with and for voluntary and community organisations. I’ve always known how valuable it was and could, no doubt, have come up with various statistics on its contribution to GDP.
But my recent experiences have really brought home to me what it can mean for individuals.
Like many others in these austere times, last year I was faced with redundancy. I decided to take the opportunity to set up my own business while continuing my PhD studies.
Starting up a business and post-grad research can be lonely undertakings. It’s easy to become isolated.
Or it would have been if I hadn’t got more involved in volunteering too. Volunteering helps you stay connected.
My voluntary policy work for VONNE and Newcastle CVS has helped me keep up to date with the latest policy developments, refresh and extend my skills – and some new ones – and it’s helped me be part of a network of people whose knowledge and passion have helped me stay motivated.
Closer to home, I’ve become chair of my local community centre. It’s really important for people to feel connected to their community and local centres deliver these connections in spades.
It’s great to see volunteers of all ages and backgrounds helping their communities and gaining valuable skills. And now when I tell people how great volunteering can be for them, I can speak from the heart as well as the head.