Archive | December, 2011

Local Resilience – doesn’t just happen

13 Dec

I had an interesting conversation today with Kate Braithwaite who has been active in Cumbria for many years and is now working for UnLtd overseeing their social enterprise programme. This programme has funds for social entrepreneurs living in any part of the UK and is not focused on any one group, region or particular community and is open to those living in urban and rural areas.

We agreed that there was a need to support innovators whereever they were. Most programmes tend to be directed at particular groups or like the Locality Communities Programme targetted at communities previously over-looked.  St Blazey/ Par in Cornwall is one such community, another is a pocket of estates in Islington. Looking back we could see where particular interventions in the 1970s had an a lasting impact; for instance the Community Development Projects in Coventry, Batley, Belfast and Barrow had left a legacy of local relationships and started a tradition of joint working.  The Health Action Zones also left such  legacy of joint working, a substantial third sector base and robust partnership relationships . There are many more, the point is that we spend no time at all reflecting on those interventions that helped build local confidence or indeed that eroded it. Sixties tower blocks and grey estates did little to nurture people’s well-being or build a confidence in organising.

We agreed that where local communities have an energy there is often a legacy footprint, alongside contemporary energy for social alternatives and  experimentation. Local authority and business endorsement of experimentation is also important, few places succeed where local leadership is weak.  Size also matters, large communities can be overwhelming and very small ones oppressive – Kate thought the optimum size for cohesive places was between 2000 and 10,000. 

By contrast those places without energy, backing and legacy find it harder to build resilience, especially where the local, political leadership is complacent, over-controlling and tribal.  The police have been playing a much more active role in lifting communities than is recognised and have local businesse as well as community organisations. The role of local leaders is surely not to control but to create the opportunities for exchange between business, community organisations other public services.

Scale is not just a matter of ‘scaling up’ but also of scaling down to human dimensions. It is the linkage between ‘communities you can get your arms around’ and the institutions that govern us that matter;  governance and government are not redundant and cannot be dumped but they do need reforming. The introduction of Mayors of itself is hardly likely to generate the confidence needed in politics for  local democracy to move on to a more active phase, where voting is part of a larger process of political engagement.  We need good governance to ensure that one group is not privileged over another and to create common social space, activities and services without which inequalities will further demoralise the poor and undermine the connections between people which form the fabric of a good society.

Earlier in the week I was with a  Swedish delegation who were fearful that the Far Right were gaining ground within local democratic organisations – they wanted to know about co-production and joint services – we were surprised because local democratic relationships and innovation in most Swedish cities far exceeds that in the UK – but not apparently in the rural areas where people are increasingly, suspicious and fearful .

When people are fearful they stop talking and begin to demonise each other – given our press it is amazing that more people are not ‘tooled up’ for trouble. Unfortunately, although the British public are sceptical of the media not having a grown-up media means that complicated issues like the  euro and banking crises are poorly covered and ignorance prevails.

The lack of serious reflection on how build resilience in demoralised communities is a problem – and one which those adept at using the social media could address………… it  takes time though and we need to reclaim our time and our confidence in people..


Living on the Edge – countries and people

3 Dec

At the Universities Engage Conference in Bristol on Wednesday, delegates met from universities around the country to discuss ‘public enagement’ work.  At a Comix event organised by Erinma Ochu, a very creative woman heading up the Manchester Beacons Project,  Carolyn Kagan (Man Met) used the metaphor of the ‘Edge’ to convey the space,place and experience of those in HE attempting to connect to communities.  My contribution was on transforming HE institutions and incentivising academic staff.  While the conference was full, there was only a handful of research staff present – yet these are the very people who need to be able to communicate with the public more. Those academics working ‘on the edge’ in universities are not taken seriously by their colleagues and most universities now rely on full-time non-academic staff to do public engagement work. No matter how dynamic an ‘engagement programme’ if higher education remains inpenetrable and academic staff micro-managed, public engagement will remain marginal and universities less effective as civic leaders.  Why?  because closed- systems smother innovation.

In fact it feels like we are all ‘living on the edge’ at the moment.

Anxiety is spreading which is affecting everyone and their decisions. The press tend to fuel this anxiety by not exploring how we can reconnect local-living within a global trading environment. This week ‘Starbucks’ replaced a good cafe in the university precinct by offering Blackwells a rent they couldn’t refuse. We are not carfeful enough to support local SMEs when considering value-for-money. There is a new edge between private corporations and local business- yet, too often public leaders are busy defending the public sector and not interested in their own business sector.

Political commentators are obsessed with reducing the public sector and public sector reform, when what we need is a reform of economic and international financial systems. The government cannot expect people to ‘trust’ them when their understanding of how to build recovery and resilience is so weak.  Public sector reform is only part of  a much bigger problem of global financial systems that only value ‘the bottom-line’. Whilst I know little about company law – I feel we could emulate the Victorians more in their innovations in company governance arrangements which value social return.  A combination of complacency and lack of innovation is resulting in government shying away from making radical changes in boardroom-decision-making.

One compensation is that there is a growing recognition that professional, working people and the under-employed are suffering and this is lessening a sense of common of inequalities and bringing people together again- after 20 years of competitive individualism:  but this is not a subsitute for debate on how to develop more sustainable systems and not assume that ‘out of chaos’ a new, better society will just emerge.

My gloom stems from the lack of the discusssion about how to regear the market economy away from serving the  corporate giants (mobile money, people and assets) towards exploring how global and national financial systems could value public infrastructure, governance and social assets – there has to be more that can be done to influence the way company boardrooms operate. The current economic system is not sustainable even for Germany – so where is the national and international leadership posing more challenging questions.

People are much more likely to agree to pension reductions etc, if they can see that social inequalities are being addressed through systemic changes rather than be left to a new version of Victorian philanthropy.