28 Oct 2019

Communities – 9 ways to break them

Originally published at: juliaunwin.com 

All my working life the call has been for stronger communities. Communities that could – depending on fashion and decade – care for their neighbours, enable regeneration, manage their carbon footprints, be more resilient, engage in community governance. You name it, reports of all kinds and all types have frequently concluded that stronger communities are what we need.

Most recently I have been very struck by work in Scotland, led by Carnegie UK Trust (where I have a fellowship,) and JRF where I used to be CEO, and by Lloyds TSB  Foundation for Scotland , where I chair the Observers Group, describing the web of support that enables communities to survive, and even thrive, in troubled times. In a lovely phrase, one of the participants described this as

spraying water on a spider’s web, and seeing the drops

The metaphor recognises the strength, and the invisibility, of these webs of support and engagement that make life worth living. The challenge is to find out how such webs grow. We can see that they are just as important for well-being, happiness and a good society as the far more visible webs of economic flows, digital connectivity and a transport infrastructure, but we don’t know much about how to build them.

However, we do know quite a lot about how they can be destroyed. And the more I consider the vital significance of this human interactive web, rather than the one we access via our computers, the more I am struck by the things we have, almost systematically, done to extinguish them. Here’s my list of the things that make communities weaker rather than stronger

  1. Make people so busy that they haven’t got time to take part. We know from study after study that people are working harder and longer, and that in particular poorer people are doing several jobs just to make ends meet. Shift work has always been a threat to community engagement – precarious, unreliable and irregular work is a formidable adversary. Make sure that financial survival requires that people are always either working or actively looking for work.
  2. Keep them moving. Six months’ tenancies, rents that increase when the wages go up, short term tenancies with periodic review. All ways to make sure people have a minimal stake in where they live, and, perhaps even more fundamentally, believe that their neighbours have little stake too.
  3. Take away the places people meetCivicus have documented the decline in the amount of civic space. As we attend church less often, have an apparently limitless choice of places to eat and drink, and our community centres get more dilapidated and the public realm is either neglected or private, safe places for community engagement are vanishing..
  4. Make the rules scary. Work commissioned by JRF a few years ago made it very clear that the fear of regulation, and litigation, and uncertainty about both, was a real inhibitor to actively engaged communities. Why would you clear a path in your local park when you are told that that might make you liable for someone falling over?
  5. Use architecture to divide How many new housing schemes provide genuine, informal places to meet and coincide? I have visited far too many estates that could have been designed to keep people from chatting casually, that privilege privacy over inter action, that make chance encounter extremely unlikely.
  6. Dismiss engagement. Talk about those who try to organise as busy-bodies, phone leaders, trouble makers, angry and difficult people, persistent complainers or the ‘great and the good’. Make it unfashionable to want to get involved.
  7. Punish those who do – unleash the power of social media and be hyper critical of anyone who expresses an opinion, or tries to do things differently. The modern face of public shaming  on Twitter and Facebook  seem to work well.
  8. Introduce new policy without thinking of community impact. Plan the bus route so it doesn’t connect parts of the community. Charge for the collection of old mattresses and furniture so that the poorest parts of the estate look like rubbish tips. Design a lettings policy to make sure that people don’t live near people who are too like them. But also make sure that the people facing the biggest challenges are all together.
  9. Demand the impossible. When you know that a community group is running a successful toddler group, ask them to take on the management of a dilapidated piece of public space and suggest that at the same time they could take on running a library. Lament their failure, and lack of ambition.

Talking about community self-organising, engagement, self-efficacy or just action can readily be dismissed as ‘motherhood and apple pie’. (Though in my experience, motherhood is fierce, incredibly hard and essential so I’ve never quite understood th point of that jibe). It is easy to see it as a spray-on bit of language and to continue to round off our reports with a call for a bit more of it. But agency in the community is essential if we are going to begin to  address the huge challenges we face as a society. We will never provide the mutual support that is needed, raise resilient and confident young people, and stand up to the tyranny of both state and market, without active, engaged communities .

It’s about time we put a stop to the practices that tear the web of engagement and weaken rather than strengthen the bonds of community. Unless we never really meant all those many recommendations. 

Julia Unwin, Chair of the Independent Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society