Community Blog

  • Some thoughts on Best City outcomes…

    The only test of ‘best city’ is not a position in a league table, but some very personal answers to a complex set of questions, which may include….

    • Is this the ‘best city’ for me and my loved ones?
    • Is this the best place for me to make a life of fulfilment, dignity and pride?
    • Will I find people that are willing to challenge and support me with compassion?
    • Will I find opportunities to be stimulated, provoked and changed?
    • Will I find it possible to connect with others with whom I share a common cause?
    • Will I find the space and support to do my best work?
    • Will I find myself in a political, social and cultural system that accepts my values and beliefs?
    • Will it encourage the production of goods and services necessary for a becoming existence or will it do almost anything in pursuit of growth?
    • Will it respect and nurture micro-enterprise, sole traders, makers, community groups and individual activists as much as it ‘establishes proactive relationships’ with ‘large corporate employers’?
    • Is this a place where I can help to shape a better future for my children and theirs?
    What kind of ‘city development’ processes would be necessary to allow the majority of us to be able to answer most of these questions with a yes?
    Get those processes right and we might just be on course for somewhere exciting.


    Dismantling Barriers to Engagement…

    Engagement, co-creation, co-production consultation, and membership development all are high on the list of priorities for many.  Yet it can feel like an uphill battle to get beyond the usual suspects to establish a genuine engagement with the community.

    Are we beset by a tide of apathy?

    Or a complex web of cultural barriers that amount to intentional exclusion?

    Either way – what can we do personally and collectively to overcome these barriers to engagement and participation?

    To reduce them, undermine them, clamber over them?

    Is it possible to be disengaged – or are we just engaged in other things, with other folk?  Do we label people apathetic as a way of avoiding a real inspection of our own work?

    Apathy historically means ‘free from pain’.  To what extent are choices not to engage sensible means of avoiding pain, disappointment and failure?

    How often is the ‘engagement’ that we are offered really in our own interest?  Or is it often more serving policy makers and service providers.

    Whether you are on ‘the outside looking in’, or on the inside, wondering why we don’t engage… let’s start looking for clues…

    I would welcome your comments, insights and experiences of engagement, good, bad and ugly…

    Please follow the link below to a pdf of the mindmap produced at the Dismantling Barriers event…

    Dismantling Barriers To Engagement


    Working In Community Development Today……

    Wheeler Hall in Leeds was packed for this conference, as busy as I have ever seen it, which I think reflects a couple of trends:

    • the increasing interest of funders and policy makers in using community development to achieve their policy goals
    • an increasing need to turn to our fellow citizens to tackle the small and big challenges in life as the impotence of governments becomes increasingly apparent.

    The conference opened with John Low from JRF providing a retrospective of his 40 year career in community development spanning major periods of work in Halton Moor, then Wrexham and finally Bradford, with an emphasis on highlighting strengths and weaknesses in different approaches to community development and importantly lessons that had been learned.  I am not attempting here to report what the various speakers actually said, as much as the thoughts that they triggered in my head with their words.

    • John was attracted to community development because it seemed to offer a means of rebellion against his middle class up-bringing
    • Work on Halton Moor, good though it was showed how the issues that caused poverty on the estate were not caused by anything on the estate.  The causes of poverty were not the poor or the places they ended up living, but embedded in the wider socio-economic system.  The work on Halton Moor was able to ameliorate some impacts but to substantially address causes
    • The lack of any city-wide approach to community development meant that while Halton Moor enjoyed some successes from the approach other similar communities did not.  How can we ensure that all communities have access to the approach?
    • In Wrexham, John was part of the City Challenge programme one of  series of top down efforts at state funded and sanctioned community development and a series of independently funded projects.
    • Long term support from the National Government, Welsh Assembly and local authority gave 15 years of consistent community development.
    • The organisation that emerged showed signs of aping the bureaucracies and losing its edge.
    • It was always contested with several councillors looking to ‘clip its wings’, I suspect on the grounds that it had the power to tread on their toes.
    • In Bradford the project was city wide, working through a network of neighbourhood management and wardens with devolved budgets
    • They worked on 6 week task and finish cycles getting reported issues addressed quickly.  This worked well for short term fixes but made little impact on longer term issues such as planning and transport
    • It also found it hard to ensure that enough resources made their way into the poorest communities
    • Lessons from this 40 year odyssey were that poverty seems to be ‘intractable’.  Whatever phase of the economic cycle, boom or bust, the same folk stay at the bottom of the social pile and the gap between haves and have not seems to widen
    • Are industry is blighted by collective amnesia – we fail to learn and pass on the lessons to the next wave of workers.  This was highlighted on out own table where we had three generations of community development workers in the BD3 area with a collective memory of the last 2o years.  The most recent incumbents were just in post and had heard little of the past or what had already be tried and learned.  But this may be a good thing…
    • Current government policy in relation to localism does little to encourage community development work, although community organisers might be interesting.

    Throughout Johns talk attention was slightly distracted by valiant attempts to get a laptop (first a mac, then a pc) to connect to a data projector so that our next speaker should show us such visual delights as a can of beans and Trotsky pushing a pram, to no avail.

    So next up was the indefatigable Nick Beddow of CDX, describing the slides that should have been on the screen…key points for me were….

    • Community development is in danger of losing its identity as a centred practice with agreed principles and values at its core to a set of competing brands in danger of hacking each other to pieces in a race to the bottom to win the funders largesse. (Imagined slides of Heinz 57 varieties and Trotsky pushing a pram full of babies whacking each other with rattles)
    • We must ‘test’ projects that carry the community development label against the principles and values – not everything that claims to be….
    • We have to in some way unite to make the case….(community developers – develop thyself)
    • We have to continue to help ‘authorities’ and ‘funders’ to see communities differently.  They are not problems to be managed, but potentials to be facilitated…..
    • Cuts have left many good people and projects ‘wrecked’…
    • In search of funding, community development has been bought off by the state,hi-jacked.  Much of what is called community development is just the use of community development practices to achieve objectives of the state (smoking cessation, obesity management, breastfeeding, routes into work etc).  Many of us have sacrificed our professional integrity in order to pay the mortgage.  We have allowed ourselves to be locked in the gilded cage that we ask others to have the courage to step out of…..
    • Government approved community organising is a mixed blessing – it may get bums off seats and build activism – we should welcome them in to our worlds and help them to build on what has already been done
    • Training for government approved community organisers is woefully inadequate – they will need further support from local activists
    • The best campaigners are usually not great at running organisations – these are very different skillsets
    • We need to be much cuter about the causes of problems. Start from local issues but then look out… ask, ‘Why are our lives the way they are?’
    • We need to present a much better case for investment in grass roots organising, or, we have to ‘work with what we have got and start from where we are’ and not rely on either the benevolence or self interests of others….

    The elephant in the room?  That perhaps there is no such thing as a ‘community’. Just individuals, their associations and aspirations….We claim to be working with communities when in reality we are only ever working with people…

    In the next session we seemed to take a bit of a weird turn as we were shown some work on an online toolkit to help learning providers to design and develop learning in response to local needs.  My own prejudices against ‘online’ and ‘toolkits’ no doubt distorted my perceptions a little, along with being subjected to the 4th, 5th and 6th speaker from the front in quick succession in a hot room with poor acoustics…..

    It was at this stage that I started to think about the possibilities of a conference of community development practitioners based on community development principles…. open space or knowledge cafe perhaps?

    After lunch I got completely submerged in running a session on finding power for community on emerging commissioning structures of the NHS.  Which ended with an analysis that says if yo are really bothered about health inequalities dont worry about commissioning and  health and well-being boards but rather get stuck into the economic development agenda as only through economic development that does not promote economic growth over all other factors (health, well-being, environmental sustainability and so on) will we really start to deal with causes rather than symptoms.  This was exemplified nicely by a public health practitioner struggling to development community development approaches to the reduction of dental caries while Haribo access regional growth fund money to expand production in Wakefield….

    After these workshops things descended into a bit of anarchy.

    The resounding answer to the question of ‘So what?’….we all shambled out into the sun….


    Making Progress Through Austerity…

    There can be little doubt that these are relatively tough times in the UK, and the minds of many are focussed on how best to make progress when it feels like everything is being cut.

    But most of those who are thinking about it are the professionals, who control budgets for the delivery of services or front-line service providers trying to figure out how to stop things getting dangerous as they are stretched further and further.  The assumption is that the job remains to be done, that they are the ones to do it, and they need to figure what they are going to do to make the best adjustments that they can.

    But supposing they took a different tack?  Suppose they invited citizens in to explore the challenges that they face and how they might be met, how ordinary citizens might be able to use their resources, time, knowledge, skills and sometimes perhaps cash, to help?

    So, for example, we might

    • invite citizens to explore issues around poverty in an area, and what they might be able to do about it.  And we might end up with something like Disrupting Poverty in Leeds
    • ask people to think about what they can do about empty properties in Leeds and end up with something  like Empty Homes
    • ask residents to explore how they can make a city more playful and end up with something like Playful Leeds

    What might happen if we asked local people to step up and see what they might be able to do about other issues facing them, their loved ones and their neighbours like:

    • dementia care
    • sports development
    • fostering
    • elderly care
    • crime reduction
    • economic development and supporting start-up businesses
    • educational attainment
    • resettlement of offenders
    • suicide reduction
    • mental health promotion
    • and so on….

    Or  we can just bundle these issues up into performance related contracts, attach our 56 pages of terms and conditions, develop it into a multi-million pound contract and pump it through the procurement process?

    How might this work out at a local level?

    I watched a community psychiatric nurse, working with a third sector service provider, planning home help for an elderly gentleman in the early stages of dementia.  He needed help with a weekly shop, food preparation and encouragement to take his medication.  Essentially they agreed a piece of business for the third sector to provide this basic support, paid for out of public finance.  There was no discussion of the role of neighbours in helping out.  No exploration about whether they might be able to manage a weekly shop between them, or set up a meal rota, or ensure a daily visit.

    Now I don’t think this was a rare one-off.  I think our neighbourhoods are awash with opportunities for local people to engage with each other, to help and be helped, and to learn how to make a real difference to the big and small issues that beset us.

    I am not saying that we don’t need specialist public services, of course we do.  But we will have to learn to do the basics for ourselves if we want to make progress.

    The challenge is how can the funders possibly engage with a civic group that helps it to do something quite remarkable.  Because standard forms of procurement and project management are hardly conducive.


    Are The Bin Men Coming?…

    In the months in the run-up to voting day the service on our bins was excellent, after a really hit and miss few months.  First bin-day post voting day and guess what?

    No collection.

    Surely a co-incidence….


    Jane Jacobs on Neighbourhoods in Action…

    Pay attention to what local people want?  Now THERE is an idea.

    Inward Investment – What’s the problem?…

    Inward investment – the short cut to a prosperous and fair city where all of our communities can flourish?

    But, what exactly is it?

    It is the process where an investor believes that this is the best place to put their money to get a secure and sufficient return.  They may invest by setting up a factory or, more likely these days, an office or call centre.  And most cities employ specialist teams to attract inward investment – to present the best case for their city or region as an investment proposition.

    But it can go further than this.

    We may be able to offer specific incentives to investors to bring their money and their jobs to our city.  We may provide them with low or no-cost infrastructure, or other benefits such as an enterprise zone where they may enjoy high speed broadband, simplified planning requirements  and reduced business rates.

    So inward investment becomes a highly competitive, and sometimes very expensive process to get those scarce investors to being their money to our city.  Inward investment teams are under pressure to deliver, and the dynamic gets interesting as sassy ‘investors’ play country off against country, region against region, city against city and even neighbourhood against neighbourhood.  But just look at the prize for the winners.  They get ‘investment‘ and even better ‘jobs‘.

    But, we must remember the investment comes because there is an expectation of a return.  And it has to be a good return.  The net flow of cash over time will be out of the local economy and into the pocket of the inward investor and their shareholders.

    But, inward investment brings many gifts…

    Inward Investment brings Wealth to the City

    This of course is true.  But it does little to distribute wealth.  It concentrates it with the lucky few.  Inequalities of wealth and health are, in my opinion, increased by inward investment rather than decreased.  It drives social stratification and is unlikely to be a great policy for a city that wants all its communities to thrive.

    Inward Investment Brings Jobs to the City

    This too is true.  But usually the jobs that go to local people are largely low skill, low wage. Often inward investment can increase local unemployment rather than decrease it as investment tends to create relatively few jobs and automates as much as possible.  Lets face it if employment costs are a large part of your business and you require large volumes of low skill workers then you are not going to be looking at the UK.  And if you do create high wage, high skills jobs what are the chances of local people being able to take them up?  It is likely that these jobs will go to incomers too.

    Inward Investment Builds Houses

    Very true.  Inward investors may take over a problem community – demolish or refurbish it and turn it into an aspirational address.  House prices are driven up and often beyond the reach of many local people

    Inward Investment Creates Dependency

    We become a blue collar community reliant on employers and investors.  They become powerful influence on the politics, economics and education in our communities as they demand more and more ’employability’, better and better conditions for business.  We end up with much time and energy being put into retaining our 100 largest employers and continually tipping the playing field in favour of ‘business’…. Becoming a dependent client class I believe has negative impacts on the wellbeing of community and acts as a significant barrier to the development of innate potential as we are shaped to meet the demands of employers.

    Loss of Local Control

    Not only are we dependent on the presence of inward investors in our communities but we cede control to them.  They manage their investments on the ground and if they choose to create redundancies in our communities there is precious little we can do about it.

    Inward Investment is Fickle

    The mobility of much modern business means that inward investors can go almost as easily as they come.  You might have to have very deep pockets to retain them in the face of all that competition for their ‘jobs’.

    Inward Investment can Undermine Local Business

    By competing for talent and skills and by driving up land values and costs beyond the reach of local independents.

    It Plays a Zero Sum Game

    If an inward investor moves from one part of the county to another there is not net gain in jobs.

    Put More Strain on Local Services

    Schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure may all face increasing demand as a result of inward investment. These costs are seldom met by the inward investor but is funded from other budgets.  Meanwhile in the community that the investor has just left services may lose viability and be forced to close.

    It is Resource Hungry

    Playing the inward investment game is a high stakes, high cost business. Renting a yacht at MIPIM and taking a high powered delegation there does not come cheap.  But that is just surface.  Someone has to pay for the business rate subsidies and the infrastructure demanded.  And every pound spent on helping an inward investor to realise a profit is a pound that is not spent elsewhere in supporting the local community and its economy.

    But I am not Against Inward Investment…

    It has a role to play in bringing ideas, innovation and fresh blood to our city.  What I am against is a political and business narrative that says it is really the only game in town, and one that says it is the only strategy worthy of real investment.   Instead of economic hunting perhaps we need to look at nurturing the potential our own communities a little more, and recognising that there is much more to creating sustainable and fulfilling lives than the ever increasing growth of GDP and a touching faith in the trickle down fairy.



    Big society was never a government initiative…

    It was a label to put on the self-sufficient work that communities have always done, and the capacity for which, over many decades a series of governments have effectively eroded. As McKnight says

    ‘competent communities have been invaded, captured, and colonized by professionalized services’

    and I would say seriously weakened as a consequence. Now that some debt needs paying off, and the ‘professional services’ are being withdrawn, the ask is that we pick up where we left off, as if all that capacity and capability could just be turned on and off like a tap.

    And, that instead of focussing on real needs, we focus instead on how we can help these professionalised service providers to maintain their empires through ‘volunteering’.

    Sadly many of us have been complicit in the professionalisation of services as we convert civic endeavours into social enterprises and re focus community development on state funded policy objectives – instead of having confidence to work on the priorities that we find at our own kitchen tables and at the places where, increasingly rarely, our neighbours meet.

    So for me it is about re-discovering self-sufficiency, self-interest and association as the means through which we can build fair futures for as many as possible, with governments and their policies and procedures being seen increasingly as, at best, impotent.

    For me Big Society was never an inspiring initiative but really just a political land grab. But the work of building our communities needs to be bought back inside our communities and we need to recognise that any form of dependence on our government as an investor needs to be handled with immense care. For they are often a fickle investor. Much of my work at the moment is helping a range of charities, social enterprises and other components of the beloved Big Society to re-build themselves in a world where the public money has simply disappeared.

    Building a strategy for social change based on assumptions that the state will be a benevolent and consistent investor has always been risky.

    This post was first published as a comment on, and inspired by Tessy Britton’s piece Big Society R.I.P.

    Smile or Die – Why I don’t subscribe blindly to the school of positive thinking…

    Big Society and Young People…


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