Monday, 28 June 2010

Breaking the chains of community.


There has been a terrible hoo-hah about the suggestion from Iain Duncan Smith that we might consider making it a little easier for people to relocate so as to get work. The criticisms fall into three camps: those from the Labour Party that involve making up what IDS said and comparing it to something they pretend Norman Tebbit said; those from well-meaning activists who claim that the proposals would “force” ordinary folk away from the bosom of their community thereby destroying everything good about society; and finally those who say it won’t work because there aren’t any jobs to be had anyhow.

It seems to me – whichever of these criticisms is taken – that they all rest on the supremacy of one particular take on community. And on the protection, sustenance and development of that “community” - even when the community has, for lack of employment, become wholly dysfunctional. We should “fix” the community rather than encourage its break up and decline. It strikes me that this belief in a sort of community stasis is potentially very damaging and does not reflect the reality of human nature or the evolution of societies.

In parts of our Northern cities (and in other places such as the mining villages of the Welsh valleys and County Durham) we have whole places that exist because of the need to house and support people who worked in particular industries. Today, whatever we may think about the reasons for the demise of those industries, they are no more and the reasons for such places must be questioned. Yet we persist – as we have done for thirty years and more – with the pouring of resources into these “deprived communities” hoping vainly for some miracle cure.

With the decline of mass industrial employment we have to question the point or purpose of places such as Bradford’s Holme Wood estate or the Seacroft estate in Leeds. Today, rather than these being full of homes for proud industrial workers they are become places where society’s flotsam and jetsam washes up. Approaching 70% of all “social housing” is now filled with vulnerable people – the folk housing people call “general needs” (who we would call ordinary folk on ordinary wages) simply don’t get housed in these places. Instead former council housing fills with the workless, with single parent families, with drug addicts and with alcoholics. Places that once were proud working communities have become sinks of despair – with the worst schools, the poorest access to care and the highest rates of crime.

As IDS put it a while back while speculating about the proverbial Martian's view of British social housing:

Let’s imagine the proverbial Martian were to land here in the UK today. Knowing nothing of our housing policies, you might ask him to go out and establish the purpose of social housing from what he sees.

On his return I fancy this would be his summary:

"Social housing is clearly there to separate the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional and vulnerable people from the rest of society. It’s an objective you have achieved very efficiently."

With nearly half of all social housing now in the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods, you couldn’t fault the logic. As you all know better than me, the contraction in social housing of the last thirty years has residualised the tenure. Many areas of social housing are blighted by fractured families, worklessness, educational failure, addictions, serious personal debt, anti-social behaviour and crime.

Too many tenants find themselves on estates where welfare dependency is a way of life, cut off from the job opportunities, social networks and wealth the rest of us enjoy. Inadvertently and incrementally, a damaging social apartheid has emerged as social housing has changed.

So why do we want to keep such places going? Why not provide routes up and out from these places for those who have the motivation to get up and go look for work elsewhere – somewhere there might just be some? Why not provide a little incentive for people to escape from the stigma of the sink estate? And why do we seemingly insist – with our tales of “hollowed out communities” and reinforcing decline – on sustaining the unsustainable. On some kind of depressing ‘all for one and one for all’ principle – if y’all can’t have then no-one gets.

We are told all the time that “community” is good. That we shouldn’t challenge the idea of community or question its basis as the centre of social policy. And that the protection and development of community must sit at the centre of government actions in deprived places. Sometimes – just sometimes – community might not be the right answer.

Sometimes breaking the chains of community might just be a liberation for people.


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