June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
Community engagement is the buzz-word in government at the moment. Although news organisations have passed it by, David Cameron’s Big Society campaign is still an important part of government policy, effecting everything from housing policy to local elections. The Big Society seeks to shift ownership of community management from the state, to the general public. It is the friendly face of the Conservative’s suspicion of a large state capable of forcing its hands into the lives of every day people.
Strong communities are intrinsically valuable, they promote trust and mutual ownership. We English have a tendency to hark back to the ‘good old days’ where people watched out for one another. This discourse was dreamt up by newscasters looking for an emotive sign off, and historians seeking to appeal to the public mood, but it remains true that communities with a ‘village feel’ where divergent classes of people live alongside one another, are happier communities.
Big Society policy may have its values in the right place, but it will ultimately prove unable to realise its potential unless it recognises the importance of community leaders. Rather than absolving themselves of all responsibility and hoping that the community will pick up the slack, local governments ought to be identifying ‘Community Heroes’ who have the energy and enthusiasm to encourage apathetic residents to pick up a shovel and muck in.
Wards in the South West of Birmingham exemplify this issue. Follow the railway tracks south of New Street out of the city and you can see the stark effect committed individuals can have on a neighbourhood. On the one side you have Quinton and the Northern fringes of Selly Oak. Areas which have benefited tremendously from community engagement. Organisers linked to local government, or the Neighbourhood Watch have ensured that local problems are quickly dealt with. In Quinton Community Leaders were able to pressure a telephone company into dropping plans to erect a new mast. East of the line lies Selly Oak proper, a grotty little ward with zero upkeep and even less community engagement.
A high level of involvement isn’t for all, however local governments facing cuts ought to find creative ways to recruit and train new leaders able to take up the rains when council jobs are axed.