God, so the saying goes, helps those who helps themselves. If you’re not of a godly persuasion, you might say you make your own luck. Action brings its own rewards.
These are truisms that have filtered their way into philosophy and social policy, but it’s worth stepping back and doing a bit of de-filtering. I was forced to do so when I was commissioned to write an essay recently by the Local Trust, which oversees the Big Local neighbourhood revitalisation scheme in 150 communities across England that have ‘missed out’ on lottery funding.
My brief, very broadly, was to examine what Big Local communities had achieved and how their achievements could be sustained. I visited three Big Local schemes – in Netherton, Merseyside; Lincoln; and Telford – and drew on my knowledge of a long history of community projects in the UK.
On my first visit, to the L30’s Million group in Netherton, I was faced with the conundrum that has become a recurring theme in my essay: if helping yourself (and your community) is a solution, what is the question?
That issue was underlined by a story told me by Debbie Stephens, chief executive of the L30 Community Centre. She described a shooting locally where the victim was still lying on the ground outside the centre when members of the Big Local partnership turned up for their regular meeting.
She also recounted the story of an evening when, as the last member of staff in the office, she grew increasingly worried about youngsters ‘running wild’ on the roof of the centre. Fearing the worst, she called the police. The response was that they couldn’t respond: they had no officers available.
So what good is community self-help when the infrastructure that local society depends on is unravelling?
Another way of looking at the idea of self-help is to say that it’s absolutely what’s needed when social infrastructure is unravelling. The author Colin Ward recounts the story1 of the postwar squatting movement, when homeless ex-service personnel and bombed-out citizens occupied redundant armed forces camps and turned them into temporary housing.
The response of Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS and Labour Party hero, was revealing: these people were ‘jumping their place in the housing queue’. Ward comments that ‘in fact they were jumping out of the housing queue by moving into buildings which would not otherwise have been occupied for housing purposes’.
There’s a tension here that public policy has never quite got to grips with. There are anarchist-utopian and small-state conservative perspectives that recognise self-help as empowering and humanising. And there are social equality and universalist perspectives that demand that all should share fairly in basic services such as housing and healthcare. And opposed to both are the kind of social Darwinist, free-market approaches that demand competition and commercialisation at every juncture.
Much of the time public policy turns out to be an uncomfortable and unworkable fudge of all of the above, often driven by ill-considered logics and towards opaque ends. It results in a ‘let a thousand flowers wither’ approach: start something, let it grow, pull the plug, do something different. Experience is seldom valued and learning is insufficiently shared, and the next big idea turns out to be more of the same.
In my essay I quote the anthropologist Edwin Ardener’s theory of ‘remote areas’: places that are distant or disconnected, both full of innovators and chocked with the ruins of the past. Their landscape is scattered with ‘the remains of failed innovations’2. They are seen as fair game for other people’s experiments, and subject to a ‘peculiar driving force of abortive innovation’. Their identity is fashioned by others, through labels such as ‘deprived’ or ‘marginal’.
I add: The risk is that such communities become defined by a kind of frenetic neglect. Because they have big problems, they experience a constant succession of small – and sometimes not so small – interventions. But the interventions tend to be a response to a problem, rather than the steady work of building the everyday infrastructure of society. In the meantime, that fabric of everyday life is neglected. Schools are built and knocked down. Shopping centres are opened and then left. The routine maintenance of social life is ignored.
Nobody gets elected on a manifesto of routine maintenance. But that, judiciously applied, is exactly what is required to enable the self-help that I’ve witnessed in the Big Local projects and elsewhere to grow and thrive. So as well as being clearer about the problems to which the mutual aid of ordinary people is the answer, we need to ask another question: in what kind of environment can self-help have the best and most lasting effects?
There are many ways of answering that question. But one response is that it needs to be an environment where time is thought of as an increasing asset rather than a diminishing one: the more time is given to reflection, evaluation and sharing what has been learned, the better the results are likely to be. This is the opposite of current rhetoric of disruptive innovation and ‘transformation’.
It does not rule out radical change. But as one academic wryly notes3, five minutes after the revolution, the revolutionaries must all become administrators. Making things grow is far harder than pulling them up. Sometimes we need levellers, but we always need diggers.
New Seeds Beneath the Snow? is available online at the Local Trust website.
1 Ward, C. (1996). Whose land is it anyway? In: C. Ward (2012), Talking Green. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications.
2 Ardener, E. (2007). The voice of prophecy, and other essays. New York: Berghahn Books.
3 Kraatz, M. S. (2009). Leadership as institutional work: A bridge to the other side. In T. B. Lawrence, R. Suddaby, & B. Leca, (Eds.), Institutional work: Actors and agency in institutional studies of organizations (pp. 59-91). London: SAGE.