Towards the ‘Big Society’: what role for neighbourhood working?

 ‘Neighbourhood’ has been recognised as a space that citizens identify with, feel a sense of belonging and where their concerns are in sharpest relief. It is also an enduring concept giving a spatial focus to a range of policy areas. Neighbourhood was prominent in policy particularly in the early part of the New Labour administration and this focus seems to be continuing with the Coalition government’s agenda of the ‘Big Society’. But, how useful will existing neighbourhood structures prove in delivering the civic objectives of the ‘Big Society’? Our research has shown that many examples of neighbourhood working, both those created in the UK under the New Labour administration and internationally, have been primarily ‘invited’ spaces created by the state, as opposed to ‘popular’ spaces outside of conventional political structures established by citizens which the ‘Big Society’ seems to aspire to (Lowndes and Sullivan, 2008).

The Coalition’s aim for the ‘Big Society’ is to involve communities in social action and the delivery of public services. The Coalition Agreement and recent Localism Bill refer to encouraging volunteering, training community organisers and supporting the creation of neighbourhood groups. The Agreement also sets out an objective to expand the role of mutuals, co-operatives and social enterprises in public services. Policy pronouncement have also sought to promote decentralisation and democratic engagement, aiming to end the era of ‘big government’, removing bureaucracy and giving ‘new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals’. Following in the tradition of politicians to say something three times to prove their seriousness, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (CLG) has asserted that his priorities for government are ‘localism…  localism, and… localism’ (2010).  Whilst it does matter who initiates and sets up neighbourhood structures, there is no ideal structure. Research from Durose and Richardson (2009) has suggested that local authorities have struggled to deliver on multiple and potentially competing objectives for neighbourhood working to move beyond their ‘comfort zone’ of service provision to deliver on civic objectives and opportunities for direct citizen participation and community involvement. Elected members in many localities can often feel their role and electoral mandate is threatened by community representatives and wider participation.

Yet, community control does come with its own risks. Community initiated neighbourhood spaces can often lack capacity and communities can struggle to sustain these spaces over a long period. Neighbourhood initiatives can often be insufficiently strategic and can be captured by an unrepresentative portion of the community. There remains a significant question about the appetite or interest in the ‘Big Society’ from communities.

Evidence from the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal evaluation suggests that ‘invited’ neighbourhood spaces provide an important complement and catalyst for ‘popular’ activity. Wider evidence has suggested that ‘invited’ spaces can assist in building capacity within the community and act as a ‘broker’ within the community helping to ensure inclusion. Moreover, community action does take time to develop and often needs ongoing support. It seems that some communities are more ready than others for the ‘Big Society’. Rather than reducing the role of the state, in disadvantaged areas, it may increase demands on the state.

The ‘Big Society’ has potentially serious consequence for equality in opportunities and outcomes in deprived communities. These concerns make the need to retain, if reform, neighbourhood structures, particularly in disadvantaged areas more important than ever. Yet, the call for the ‘Big Society’ comes however, at a time where the funding available to sustain neighbourhood working is in question. A context of radical local austerity may undermine the ‘Big Society’ rather than foment it.

This blog post draws on a forthcoming paper by Catherine Durose (DMU), Jonathan France (ECORYS), Liz Richardson (University of Manchester) and Ruth Lupton (LSE)

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