The new politics of community action

Bob Colenutt assesses the Tory conversion to community politics and finds echoes of New Labour's early espousal of communitarianism against the state. What has happened to the radicalism of community politics? Here he urges a critical return to the ideas of radical thinkers and activists such as Saul Alinsky and Paolo Freire, who were clear that power had to be fought for and taken

May 7, 2010 · 10 min read

The enthusiasm of the Cameron Tories for community development and localism, and its convergence with the New Labour and Lib Dem ‘community empowerment’ agendas, suggests it is time to ask whether community development and community action, once a radical force in local politics, has been effectively depoliticised and incorporated as an arm of government. Has community radicalism been silenced, or is it more complicated than that?

Tory ideology can be summarised as broadly ‘anti-state’: shrinking the state, cutting investment in public services, and creating a world in which the voluntary, charity and community sectors would be encouraged to deliver as many services as possible. Most Tory-controlled councils have already outsourced youth, leisure and social care services to voluntary/community consortiums. Some community organisations welcome this, believing they can deliver services better and empower local people in a way that local authority service departments cannot.

This approach to community is not justified exclusively in small-state or free-market ideological terms. One strand of Toryism longs for community in a pastoral pre-modernist sense, another emphasises community participation, individual ‘liberty’ and freedom from government interference.

The Tory conversion to community politics marks an interesting change from its neoliberal promotion of individualism because it appears to support some degree of collective action to achieve social goals. This is significant even though that collective action is often ‘nimbyish’ (involving opposition to development in their own leafy back yards but not near poor neighbourhoods) and has a conscious political aim of using community action as a vehicle to agitate against ‘Labour’ policies, such as many of the campaigns against the proposed Eco-Towns.

In power, the Tory view of community will almost certainly be different. For example, will a local Conservative council support a community campaign against commercial development if a Tory central government is giving local authorities financial incentives to agree to developer proposals? Will a Tory central government impose nuclear power stations, airport runways and major commercial schemes if local people are opposed? From this perspective, the current Tory opposition to the third runway at Heathrow appears to be opportunist in the extreme.

New Labour’s position on communities and community empowerment is different from that of the Tories but it is also complicated and often contradictory. Until the economic crisis, Labour had no overt agenda for reducing the size of the state, although the mechanisms of the state were diversified to embrace a wide range of local and regional bodies and partnerships. This was partly to satisfy a democratic principle of devolving decision making, and was also a pragmatic response to public impatience with centrally driven politics.

Local and central government and community organisations all saw advantages in forming central/local partnerships. Many community and voluntary organisations took advantage of government and lottery funding opportunities and have engaged with the plethora of community initiatives launched by the government. Although some have reservations about being drawn into government bureaucracy and target chasing, there are few organisations in the third sector that have stood outside it all.

In his book The Future of Community (Pluto, 2008), Dave Clements argues that community has been fetishised by the Labour government, which has tried to ‘fake’ civil society by creating the illusion of community power where none exists because in reality it is entirely managed by the state. There is some truth to this in the profusion of empowerment strategies and the widespread feeling that people do not feel empowered by the measures.

Tory positioning on community empowerment has received an intellectual boost from the Tory guru of localism and community empowerment, Phillip Blond, a self styled ‘Red Tory’. He argues that both socialism and monopoly capitalism disempower working people, and the answer is free markets and community power expressed through voluntarism and community initiative. ‘Community-based problem solving will finally put an end to the bureaucratic age,’ he claims. This is music to the ears of Tories who denounce Labour’s centralised target setting culture.

Yet some of this is reminiscent of the adoption of the communitarian idea by New Labour in the 1990s. Communitarianism was promoted by an American, Amitai Etzioni, who argued that citizens had responsibilities as well as rights and that by self help and self organisation they could create a more democratic and empowering welfare state.

It is arguable, however, that, contrary to both Blond and Etzioni, the market economy works against community empowerment and local democracy because economic decisions (both private and public) are taken far away from localities and are normally not susceptible to local action alone. Moreover, rather than reduce ‘box ticking’, the community empowerment agenda has itself created a new bureaucratic age of target setters from charitable funding bodies and government departments. It has ended up ’empowering’ large numbers of auditors, accountants and business planners instead of stimulating community organisation and action.

This may get worse. Faced with the economic crisis and plans for major cuts by Labour if it retains power, it is likely that the third sector will be called upon to take on welfare state functions in a similar way to the Tory strategy, and will become ever more drawn into the commissioning and procurement culture of government.

You have to go back to radical community thinkers and activists such as Paulo Friere and Saul Alinsky to find a different model of community action. Their community organising was open about the political aims of meeting community needs by challenging the power of the state and the market. Empowerment (measured by concessions won) was the result of intense community pressure and political organisation, sometimes involving nonviolent direct action. Power was not given but fought for.

These interventions, whether of the Alinsky kind or the citizen empowerment kind, assume that there are ‘communities’ out there, either with shared interests or neighbourhood based, that want to engage in action to defend their interests. The existence of communities of this kind is disputed by some observers. For example, Ash Amin, in an article entitled ‘The Good City’ in Soundings (2007), sees ‘irreconcilable differences’ among people rather than ’empowered neighbourhoods’.

Asset-based community development

One UK example of community engagement that demonstrates the complexity of these politics, and the opportunities for either radicalism or disempowerment, is the so-called ‘asset-based community development’ movement. In plain language, it involves community ownership and control of land and buildings that have been transferred to or acquired by community based organisations from public authorities, charities and in some cases private estates.

Community action was a social movement making its name in part by campaigns for land and housing in the 1970s and 1980s. In this period, public and private landowners sought planning permission for commercial development or road schemes and the like, vigorously resisting demands to retain or expand lower value social housing and community uses.

Famous campaigns such as Coin Street Community Builders on the South Bank, Covent Garden Action Group and North Kensington Community Trust in London won against the odds, often with the help of a handful of sympathetic local authorities or as a result of prolonged planning battles. In Scotland, there were radical movements for community takeover of landed estates.

These campaigns were part of wider community politics in the 1970s and 1980s challenging the policies and actions of public authorities. They demanded the redistribution of power and resources in land and housing markets, and, following Alinsky, did not hide under a cloak of non-political community development.

Partly due to the success of this community politics, there was a steady growth of community-led development initiatives during the 1990s, leading to the creation of umbrella organisations such as the Development Trusts Association (DTA) and Community Land Trusts (CLTs). The government (particularly since 2003) became supportive of these ideas and encouraged initiatives with funding and policy support. In 2007, the government set up the Quirk Inquiry into asset-based community development, which came out in favour of the concept and urged the government to back it. The government then set up funding and legal mechanisms (such as the Asset Transfer Unit) to facilitate land transfer and gave funding to organisations such as the DTA.

In spite of this, many local authorities remain sceptical about the capacity of the third sector to acquire and manage assets over the long term, although local authorities are currently being invited to submit proposals to government for asset transfers to the community.

The new spirit of co-operation by government has several causes. First, it reflects the fact that the sale of local authority property assets (part of shrinking the local state) is now a major plank of government policy – and is a policy shared by the three main political parties. Second, it is part of a citizen empowerment agenda – an attempt by New Labour to reinvigorate its local base and local democracy. Third, it is a response to focused pressure from the third sector that has wide political backing.

The movement is now at a turning point. In one direction, organisations such as the DTA and CLT are demanding more transfers of public assets to the third sector at heavily discounted costs (costs being the key barrier to community ownership) and an extension to the whole of the UK of the ‘community right to buy’ scheme, which gives rural communities in Scotland a right to buy landed estates coming onto the market.

On the other hand, is the community sector playing into New Labour and Tory hands as willing partners in asset sales and reductions in direct state services? The DTA, for example, is calling for more state funding and a legal ‘infrastructure’ to make asset purchases and property management possible, but at the same time, this may entangle asset-based community development in government bureaucracy and political control.

A classic case of this dilemma is the recent invitation by Glasgow City Council to local groups to take over 11 community centres to save them from closure, with the resulting furore that this is really about cuts, with impossible conditions of transfer placed on community bidders.

Returning to the general question of whether asset-based community development is a progressive movement, it is notable that while some poor communities in the UK have a presence in the asset-based community development movement, many others do not. Is asset transfer limited to particular types of already empowered professionally assisted communities, while the majority of deprived neighbourhoods do not have this capacity?

Is there a principle of community ownership?

A key question that concentrates the mind on the politics of the new community action is whether there is an absolute right or principle of community ownership. For example, why should public authorities give up their long-term ownership of land and other assets, in principle for the public good, for the sake of potentially short-lived and parochial campaigns? Surely, local authorities should have the right to say no if they do not agree with the aims of a particular community group.

The biggest concern is that localised community provision, however successful, does not produce universal provision of jobs, housing, or social care; nor does it enable universal democratic involvement. It is patchy, partial and to a degree divisive because some areas get some benefits while others do not.

On the other hand, community action that has progressive political aims can build community confidence and solidarity. It can change the policies of the local state so that it improves its universal provision (for affordable housing for example) and can challenge power in a way that the New Labour community empowerment and Red Tory community action and voluntarism cannot.

The key test for the left about the community empowerment agenda is: what is it part of? Is it a progressive movement for justice and meeting needs, or is it essentially conservative and parochial, facilitating a reduction in welfare provision, and acting in the end an as obstacle to justice and equality?

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