The peculiar persistence of place

If you live in Barnsley, I was once told, you can be as rude about it as you like and nobody will bat an eyelid. But if you don’t and you suggest it’s anything less than God’s holiday home when the Almighty fancies a break, heaven help you.

For Barnsley, read anywhere with a strong local identity that outsiders have decided is a problem, an eyesore, or – worse – somewhere that needs help. At the same time, we know that the resources to build a good quality of life are not equitably distributed. Social justice demands we pay attention to that.

A couple of weeks ago a crowd of people who’ve been grappling with these inequities for years, as well as a few relative newcomers, got together in Sheffield for a conversation labelled Power of Place. In some ways it harked back to the early 2000s: lots of talk of place-based working (think ‘community regeneration’ circa 1999), of listening to unheard voices, of inclusion and neighbourhood.

The purpose of the event was to set sparks flying, make connections, and engage a wide range of activists, provocateurs and locality-based workers in some serious and challenging thinking about what ‘place’ means in the 21st century, and especially in the light of the Brexit vote and its continuing fallout.

Place, after all, hasn’t disappeared – either physically or in policy terms. But what places need what kind of support and why, how, from whom, and when?

These conversations come around at regular intervals. And so they should. I’m reminded, again, of one of the best subtitles I’ve seen for a study of this dilemma: ‘not knowing what works‘. We still don’t. What we do know, and have known for many years, is that there are geographies and localities that are associated with persistent social deprivation and regular interventions by policymakers, many of them characterised by an institutional amnesia that can’t recall much more than the unfulfilled ambitions of the immediately preceding policy.

There was a short period when national policy on local deprivation in the UK appeared to have some coherence. Looking back, it was remarkably brief. It can be traced from the advent of the national strategy on neighbourhood renewal in 2001 until the start of Gordon Brown’s premiership in 2007. That’s not a lot of time to achieve deep and lasting change.

And that’s at least part of the problem. Despite the longer term, and less politically vulnerable, initiatives of charitable foundations, the Big Lottery Fund and the Local Trust, they tend to run programmes with more or less identifiable beginnings, middles and ends. And places don’t evolve like that: they work, as Doreen Massey reminds us, through the messy relations of ‘throwntogetherness’. As she puts it, ‘There can be no assumption of pre-given coherence, or of community or collective identity. Rather the throwntogetherness of place demands negotiation’

Places are regularly made and unmade through economics, discovery, war and disaster, but negotiating the everyday and continuous embroidery and unpicking of places is altogether more difficult to get a handle on.

It’s worth returning to the definition of place-based working offered in the blog that introduced the Power of Place event:

Place-based working addresses the unique needs of people in a specific location. It is a citizen-centred approach that emphasises collaboration and shared resources.

People’s unique needs, arguably, aren’t that unique even if they are individually expressed. We know the most important elements: they include safe, secure and affordable housing; jobs with decent salaries and prospects for advancement; reliable and accessible public services such as schools and healthcare; safe streets; good public and private transport connections; a healthy natural environment and accessible green space; family, friends and shared interests; a sense of belonging. And, in case any of us forget, the need to adjust to a very different and unpredictable world as climate change kicks in.

Place-based working is what’s needed to begin weaving this web in new situations, or to repair it when it falls apart. And you can’t put tidy beginnings and ends on that process because there are too many factors and actors involved.

So maybe we need to turn our backs on the instrumentalism that has dominated public policy as long as there have been place-based initiatives. ‘Change’ is a great banner to rally under, but as Barack Obama found, it can be a ball and chain of disappointment for years afterwards.

Should we give up hopes of better times? Not at all. But we should give up selling them as if they’re some newly discovered superfood that will guarantee health, happiness and an awesome sex life.

If place-based working is a response to something dysfunctional and an attempt to repair what has gone wrong or construct what was never fully there, policy (whether from government or well-meaning foundations and trusts) needs to recognise two things in particular.

First, it need to recognise that places don’t evolve at the pace of organisational agendas, and that the evolution of a place isn’t the same as the life changes of the people within that place. So support needs to be careful, consistent and continuous. And second, it needs to recognise that the most important capacity to build in a community may be the capacity to set and to change the agenda – even (and especially) if that involves people turning round to the well-meaning funder and saying ‘thanks, but we’ve got different priorities now’.

To be prepared to stay for as long as it takes, but be ready to be kicked out at any time: perhaps these are the hallmarks of intelligent place-based working.

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