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Community Development and Community Organising Must Get Politically Engaged: Why the Common Platform is Important

A core founding principle both of community development and community organising is the commitment to help empower communities through collective and participative action and practice. This has always been a hugely challenging commitment but current political ideology and the impact of neo-liberal austerity economics have made our task exceptionally difficult. These policies have decimated CD as a practice and destroyed most of its organisational infrastructure in England, at least.Worse still there has been a profound impact on the neighbourhoods that we work with. Gross economic inequality continues to rise, as does child poverty. At the same time access to decent and affordable housing is now a pipe dream. The ‘right to buy’ has meant that huge swathes of decent social housing have ended up in the hands of private landlords who let the homes as HMO’s at extortionate rents. Support for autonomous community activities and facilities (such as community centres) is a fraction of what it once was, and, at all levels, the dominant political policies are geared toward exclusion rather than inclusion.

Inevitably these and other changes have impacted on the way people feel about themselves, their community, country, political systems and the world around them. It is little wonder that so many bought into that empty Brexit slogan ‘take back control’[1]

Community Development and Community Organising are confronted by a series of profoundly important issues:

  • The continuing decimation of CD’s practice base and training and support structures
  • The indifference of the current government to CD and CO
  • The impact of austerity and de-regularised economy, and the longer term impact of Brexit on communities, jobs and workers rights
  • The continuing rise of rightwing and racist ‘populism’

The politics of fear and division is becoming a powerful and growing force throughout Europe, the USA and the UK.

CD and CO’s commitment to hope and openness, in working with residents to creating welcoming, safe and optimistic communities stands in complete opposition to the politics of fear and exclusion.

Whilst our work is in many ways deeply ‘political’ as a body of practice, often for good reasons, we rarely get involved in ‘politics’ particularly at a national level.

This now needs to change. The question is not if but how?

In the past CD’s relationship with national policy-making has tended to wax and wane depending on the interests of particular governments (or the interest/understanding/prejudices of individual ministers). At best our ability to impact on policy, even around issues where we have a direct and legitimate interest, has tended to be limited.

We did begin to have some positive impact on policy during the last Labour government. Through a series of major strategies and programmes (such as New Deal for Communities and New Start) the Labour Government had shown a long commitment to investing in communities, along with reforms in local government, such as the creation of the Local Strategic Partnerships, encouraging local government departments, public services, voluntary organisations and community groups to undertake joint planning and problem solving.

Community development played a central role in helping implement and deliver these and a plethora of other Labour government strategies, but it took nearly 13 years to begin to have a cumulative impact at a national level, a relationship , that reached a kind of brief apotheosis in the latter days of the Labour Government with the publication of the ‘Communities in Control’ white paper[2]. Sadly the proposals in the white paper were almost instantly killed off when the economy crashed. Even those that were enacted received a coup de grace in the early weeks of the Tory-led coalition government, to be replaced by their joke replacement the big society[3].

This relatively limited influence was achieved through persistent and insistent lobbying with a government that was relatively open to some of the ideas that underpin community development. It was carried forward by a national infrastructure of organisations such as the Community Development Foundation (CDF), the Community Development Exchange (CDX) and the Urban Forum. These organisations were able to speak with a collective voice and develop good relationships with a number of key civil servants and politicians.

This national voice no longer exists in England and our practice base is a great deal smaller than what it once was.

Given these circumstance it would not be surprising if people were tempted to simply keep their fingers crossed that Labour will soon be elected. But whilst most of us would welcome the election of a progressive government, we can’t afford to be passive. If Labour (or possibly some kind of progressive coalition) gets elected it is essential that we, as a body, are ready with ideas and policies. Not just in the narrow sense of promoting the importance of what we do, but in a much bolder and visionary way. We’ve always known that our founding ideas have wide political, social and economic implications – that’s why we got involved in the first place. The question is how can we now, at this stage, engage in a deep way with others in helping shape ideas, policy and visions?

Without a national infrastructure this will be tricky, but not impossible. However I can’t get over the feeling that many of my CD friends and colleagues are unaware that over the last few years our core values and ideas, such as the importance of empowering communities, and the need embed participative and deliberative processes in our planning and decision-making, are now widely shared and discussed within progressive politics. What we have always fought for is beginning to hit the mainstream.

In 2015 a group of leading Labour politicians, progressives and academics, from a wide range of political perspectives, contributed a series of essays that argued that it is essential that a future Labour government develop a much more open state where citizens are fully involved in the planning and decision making process within public services and local government.

Contributors covered a wide spectrum of progressive views and included Jon Cruddas MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Hilary Wainright co-editor of Red Pepper, Anna Coote from the New Economics Foundation, Steve Reed MP and Zoe Williams from the Guardian, as well as the author of this post[4].

The views of many of the contributors could be summed up by Steve Reed in a speech he made in 2016:

” We need a real devolution – people getting the chance to influence decisions that affect them, and making the professionals who run those services listen more carefully to the people they serve. We believe in devolution by default. That means a new approach that assumes powers will be devolved unless there is a compelling reason not to. We want to see resources devolved alongside powers, with fiscal devolution that ensures funding follows need. And we want devolution to mean something more than a transfer of power from one set of politicians to another – communities need a new right to request control.”[5]

In 2016 Labour, the Greens and Liberal Democrats agreed to hold a ‘People’s Constitutional Assembly, where, amongst other things, ideas about devolving power to communities and creating a more participative and deliberative democratic system would be explored. Sadly the project was killed off in the aftermath of the referendum and the subsequent Labour leadership challenge. However the 2017 Labour election manifesto carried forward the commitment to conduct a Constitutional Assembly underpinned by the same principles as the original project.

So in many ways the time is right and ripe to start engaging with the wider progressive political world.

The question is how?

As it happens we now have an exciting opportunity to become fully involved with progressives in creating new ideas and policies for the future. In the autumn of 2018 the national organisation Compass (publishers of ‘Finding Our Voice’ and the group behind the Progressive Alliance project that played such an important role in the general election) are launching an ambitious project called ‘The Common Platform’ (CP).

The aim of the of the Common Platform is to involve as wide a range of people and organisations as possible to build a shared vision, programme and set of alliances that will help create ideas and proposals to create a much more equal, sustainable and democratic society. The project will combine emerging and existing innovative projects and practice with creative ideasand policy thinking to build the foundations for social and economic transformation. The CP will focus on three deeply interconnected themes:

 

 

 

A small group of us who have been engaged in CD and CO for many years believe this is an important opportunity for people involved in CD and CO and share an interest in and commitment to progressive politics.

We believe that the CP offers an unprecedented opportunity to share our ideas and experiences and engage with a wide range of others who share similar views as we co-productively develop a set of powerful ideas on how we create the good society.

We think that community development can play an important role in the development of the Common Platform in at least three key ways:

  1. Bring our knowledge and expertise to help develop the discussions on the creation of more inclusive and empowering democratic systems that include participatory and deliberative approaches
  2. Help the project make contact with community activists, great projects and organisations who might be interested in being involved
  3. Employing our skills to help facilitate part of the process

What Next

A ‘Community Development and the Common Platform’ launch event is being organised for mid November at the London Metropolitan University (I’ll post the dates and venue when confirmed). We plan to organise follow up events across in the midlands and north in early 2019. The event will be as participative as possible, but there will also be a number of keynote speakers to introduce Common Platform and explore the role of CD and CO. Participants will be able to ask questions and make their own contributions.

About the group

Members of our little group have been involved in pretty much all aspects of community development for many years and we are passionate about the role and potential that community development has in helping transform our world for the better. We do not always agree with each other, but we are agreed that at this moment it is essential for those involved in CD and CO to find ways of working with others who hold similar social and political views.

Our group is:

Bob Rhodes: co-founder of LivesthroughFriends, a community care initiative focused upon building stronger and more inclusive reciprocal communities; and community organising with the Forest Voluntary Action Forum.

 Colin Miller: ex CD practitioner and manager, former vice chair Community Development Exchange, founder of www.deeperdemocrasy.org.uk, writer and researcher and Compass Associate

 Diane Warburton: researcher and writer on community engagement and empowerment, deliberative and participative democracy,

 Gabriel Chanan: formerly director of policy and research at the Community Development Foundation, currently dramatist and community development writer,

 Helena Kettleborough: former manager Stockport Community Development unit, currently founder of the Centre for Connected Practice and lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

 Matt Scott: community development practitioner, lecturer and chair of Community Development Journal

 Nick Beddow: former community development worker and ex Director Community Development Exchange, now member of Shared Futures

 Nick Gardham: Chief executive of Company of Community Organisers, currently involved in developing London Community Organiser Network

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]See Colin Miller, Towards a Deeper Democracy(Brighton: Deeper Democracy & Compass, 2018).

[2]Department of Communities & Local Government, ‘Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power’ (White Paper, HMG, CLG, 2008).

[3]See Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller,Rethinking Community Practice: Developing Transformative Neighbourhoods(Bristol : Policy Press, 2013)

[4]Compass, Finding Our Voice: Making the 21st Century State, ed. by Gabriel Chanan & Neal Lawson (London: Compass, 2015).

[5].  Steve Reed, ‘It’s Time to Loosen Central Control and Let Communities Take Charge’, Guardian, 26 April 2016.

1 thought on “Community Development and Community Organising Must Get Politically Engaged: Why the Common Platform is Important”

  1. David Hunter

    I think that a lot of what you are suggesting about community involvement in decision making has links to what Edward de Bono suggested some years ago with communities being organised into autonomous “nodes” which would be responsible for decisions about issues like housing and employment, for example, which are probably two of the biggest issues which affect the lives of most people. A major problem, I think, is that many government organisations at local and national level are so large as to become unwieldy and many people have no real concept of what decisions are being made about matters which affect their daily lives. A lot of decision processes which should be should be transparent are taken in secret by people who are not fully accountable which can easily lead to mis-management and corruption.

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