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Is Community Involvement a Waste of Time?

Mike Waite, New Start Magazine, July 2001

Contents

bulletCommunity Involvement in Regeneration Projects
bulletThe policy is fine, but reality doesn’t match the rhetoric
bulletIt doesn’t go far enough
bulletThe policy is fundamentally flawed
bulletFurther Information

Community Involvement in Regeneration Projects

Successive regeneration programmes in the UK have been marked by the growth of community involvement as a central theme. It has been widely welcomed as a way of bedding in change, and capitalising on the knowledge, skills and ideas of local residents. This is seen as a crucial antidote to the bureaucratic, top down approach of traditional service provision. But it also raises a range of questions. The criticisms tend to fall into three broad categories:

bulletThe policy is fine, but reality doesn’t match the rhetoric
bulletIt doesn’t go far enough
bulletThe policy is fundamentally flawed

The policy is fine, but reality doesn’t match the rhetoric

Supporters of this theme welcome the policy – but don’t believe it is being fully implemented. There’s a mismatch between what government says should happen, and what it feels like on the ground.

Some suspect that much of the talk of involvement is a cynical attempt to sell policies, and to get people to think they have ownership without the reality of it. Statutory organisations may want to open up space for community involvement – but it doesn’t actually happen.

Part of the problem is that public agencies aren’t skilled enough in consultation – they are the ones who really need capacity building, rather than community and voluntary groups.

The form filling and jargon involved in running regeneration projects effectively debar community activists, and professionals take over.

It doesn’t go far enough

People who raise arguments on this theme see that stated policies are steps in the right direction – but say they’re not sufficient.

The reality is that community groups, voluntary organisations, and local agencies are dizzy with the range of initiatives landing on them.

The energy involved in running each swamps the big picture and prevents the linking up of processes. In all this, partnerships and policy-making bodies don’t give enough real weight and value to community representatives.

Some would also ask whether there is actually a commitment to devolution of control. Although the government justifies much of what it does in terms of delegation, the reality is that local government control is being replaced by more central control, with objectives set by central government or regional development agencies.

The policy is fundamentally flawed

The above arguments assume that problems to do with popular involvement in tackling social exclusion are technical glitches that can be solved by stronger will and better techniques. But more radical perspectives suggest that the concepts of participation and community development are problematic and ambivalent.

Some suspect that policies in this area are being used and promoted for negative and cynical reasons. A focus on community and the local neighbourhood as the site for solving problems of social exclusion suggests this is where their causes can be located.

There is a negative logic in this argument. It blames the victims. It focuses on changes seen to be necessary in people’s behaviour in excluded areas, and aims to get people in deprived areas to add to their burdens by taking responsibility for the negative effects of trends such as globalisation and social fragmentation.

What’s so good about community involvement anyway? The real issue is whether the political or social content of the process in which the community is being involved is positive and in their interests.

Critics say current policy trends need treating with suspicion. At its centre is an attempt to privatise responsibility, to encourage the poor themselves to address their problems. Community involvement and concepts such as social entrepreneurship become metaphors for the absence, withdrawal and degradation of services, which should be provided by the state.

Community involvement is promoted as a means of mobilising active consent and co-operation for official schemes and agendas.

Some community activists are worried about becoming dependent on official funding programmes. This has a range of effects, including shifting their focus from campaigning and advocating to management and accounting, making them experts in regeneration jargon rather than the needs of their constituents.

Further Information

Mike Waite has been involved in youth and community work projects in deprived areas of north-west England for more than 15 years. He has contributed to many publications, including New Start, Soundings, Critical Social Policy and the Community Development Journal. A fuller version of this article appears in the pamphlet, Perspectives on Social Exclusion. It is available from the New Politics Network, 6 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF (Tel: 020 7278 4443). Price 5.

 

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