Community Cohesion and Local Government

Involve  have just produced a really interesting new study looking at community cohesion and participation.

The report is available to download for free here.

Karin Gavelin, one of the authors has written an article about the findings here.

An extract from that article is below. I highlighted some of the points that really stand out for me.

“Many of the people we spoke to welcomed the significant investments that  government is now making to support cohesion and integration, as set out in the government’s response to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

However, they also raised concerns about the ability of national government to succeed with an agenda that is ultimately about building relationships at the neighbourhood level. They spoke of the spontaneous ways in which people interact with each other locally; meeting at the school gates, in the post office or walking the dog. They argued that for many people it is these casual interactions with other locals, perhaps not more than a nod and a smile on the way to work, that makes them feel connected to the place where they live. In contrast, a local authority initiative to build community cohesion through public participation can come across as contrived.

The idea that community cohesion can be built through public debates about citizenship or moral values was met with particular scepticism from the people in our study. Many felt that such exercises are just too far removed from the real-life problems and inequalities that are at the root of the divides and tensions in Britain’s communities.

As one community development worker commented: “Trying to achieve cohesion is a tall order when people are living in deprivation and perceive the authorities to treat them unfairly.” Other times, an activity will fall flat simply because the local authority has yet to learn that just opening the doors to the town hall will not be enough to draw in the crowds, or indeed make much difference for wider community relations. Many people will not take the time to attend events run by the local council, but they may have plenty to say if the council comes to them.

Again and again, the people we spoke to stressed that social relationships are unlikely to flourish in a formal political setting. If local authorities want to improve community relations they need to tap into and learn from the ways that people interact organically within communities, rather than solely add more opportunities for participation in council activities. Moreover, for any participation activity to have resonance with local residents, it needs to build on issues that they care about, rather than the visions and rhetoric of civil servants and elected members.

For local authorities, this means that before they embark on any activity involving the local community, they need  to stop and take stock. The research shows that it pays to take the time to find out what is already going on in the area: who lives there, what motivates people, what connects and divides them? In practice, this means going to where people are, whether at the school gates, in sport centres, the corner shop or a local pub, rather than expect people to show up at the town hall. It means talking to local residents to find out what they care about, and then bring them together around real-life issues that connect them.”

PS. The report is called “Everybody needs good neighbours”. I never did get over Helen Daniels’ death…

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