This was a bumper conference: more and more good speakers kept appearing at the podium like rabbits out of a hat. The morning chair, Sue Charteris of Shared Intelligence, kept up a brisk pace and the remote control for the slide show couldn’t work fast enough for the man who is himself on fast-forward, Ben Paige of MORI.
Dan Corry of NLGN set the scene: the challenge for local authorities is to bring the two strands of neighbourhood management, and governance, together. Not just bringing service delivery closer to the people but facilitating the people to share in decision-making too.
The Government defines neighbourhood management as a way of joining up the different agencies, including housing agencies, working in deprived neighbourhoods and offering a single point of contact for residents and businesses so they don’t keep getting passed on. It’s giving managers at a local level the clout to sort things out.
Dan Corry argued the case for new localism and devolving powers down to neighbourhoods, because the model is pluralistic (bringing different groups of people together) holistic (seeing things from the user’s point of view, not professional silos) and can move faster than the higher tiers of government.
He also voiced the anxieties: as a tier of government, are they unrepresentative if not elected? How do they relate to the democratic role of councillors? How to get local people involved? The danger that richer neighbourhoods will operate the system more effectively, get more resources and more results. And of course new structures mean new effort and new costs. But he saw it as a great opportunity and a challenge to be taken up.
Tony Breslin of the Citizenship Foundation defined citizenship, community and neighbourhood, and in doing so raised several issues which became themes during the day. The first is that the citizenship education his organisation provides aims to build political participation by bringing politics to the people, not trying to bring people to politics. This was echoed by Richard Hewgill of the Tenant Participation Advisory Services who was a lone voice speaking for tenants, residents, ordinary people – the people who this agenda is supposed to be for.
He said that local authorities used to tell tenants what was good for them. There was some evidence of change but still a lot of cynicism. “We don’t want to be seen as customers. Residents don’t really have customer choice. There has to be a meaningful partnership”. And he told the professionals: “Don’t do training for tenants to teach them to speak your language, the professional gobbledegook”. I.e. break down the barriers that stop people participating in local government rather that trying to teach a few to mount them.
The cynicism of the professionals and council officers who say, “When we try to consult the public, they just want to watch television” was palpable. Richard Hewgill argued earnestly for more imaginative and genuine effort to work with people. “Don’t write people off just because they don’t come to a meeting. My Housing Association has just drawn up 15 ways to communicate and even then it’s not exhaustive.
“Negotiate the structure, agree the rules of engagement and stick to it. Don’t promise what can’t be given. Treat everyone with respect. Everyone has a right to be heard.”
Polling can make you cynical: Ben Paige of MORI provided the evidence the cynics already knew: people want their council to listen to them and put that far above wanting the council to actually tackle problems or act on what people say. 26% of people say they would like to be involved in community partnerships but only 2% actually do. “We are lazy as a nation. Just accept this” he said. But he echoed Richard Hewgill in saying that councils need a more radical and committed approach. Consultations need to be followed with information on what’s been done as a result. The public can spot short term initiatives which serve the politicians or officers. They are switched off when decisions are taken behind closed doors. He pointed to NDC (New Deal for the Community) areas as giving genuine community participation and leading to genuine results.
ODPM (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) civil servant Joe Montgomery of the tackling Disadvantage Group agreed that NDC is delivering: “You can achieve a lot where the machinery is on the ground”, he said, “but it is a big financial commitment”. NDC achievements challenge the idea that people don’t really want to get involved, but also raise the question of funding.
Star speaker Hazel Blears, Home Office Minister, supported the idea raised by several speakers that the learning and the funding needs to be mainstreamed. “We know what works; now we need to embed that learning for the long term”. She said the Government was simplifying funding streams and letting go of purse strings. Now the challenge was for local authorities to let go further to neighbourhoods. She conjured up a picture of what’s gone wrong: of government having withdrawn into the town hall leaving people ignorant and disengaged. “The old view, that people need managing, led to mistakes. Experts, particularly planners, imposed solutions, like streets in the sky and slum-clearance”.
There were impressive reports from local authorities – Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Rochdale, who have tried neighbourhood management and found it works. Kerry Bolister of Wolverhampton City Council explained the ingredients of their success: the neighbourhoods are not ward-based but designed to tackle deprived areas; the management teams are freed from day-to-day service delivery; they are not reliant on temporary funding streams; they are strategically involved in services and offer a one-stop-shop for enforcement.
In short, the future is looking bright but not easy.