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Labour Isn't Working: urban regeneration and the myth of democracy

Colin Todhunter
A case of "climb on board the gravy train", but the taste may not be to one's liking.

... traditional jobs continue to be replaced by insecure and casualised employment.

A personal viewpoint
After September the 11th, Tony Blair strode the globe chanting the mantra of democracy for the world's oppressed, and the right of ordinary people to decide on their own destinies - all in the name of anti-terrorism. Yet in Britain itself, how much power do ordinary people have? "Democracy" should surely begin in one’s own back yard. The government's buzz phrase in recent times as a means of enhancing the democratic process has been "social inclusion" with a view to giving us all a stake in society ("stakeholders", being another lynch-pin of Tony's rhetoric). One means of supposedly achieving this has been through involving ordinary people in decision-making through "partnerships" in a raft of policy areas, including health, social service provision and urban regeneration.

I come from Liverpool, one of the poorest regions in Europe according to the EEC. As a result, it was awarded "Objective One" status and has subsequently received billions of pounds of private and public money in an attempt to regenerate the area. "Partnership" in the field of urban regeneration has been a key to promoting "community involvement" as a means of ensuring social inclusion for communities. Liverpool is not unique in this respect. Areas and communities throughout the country have also had their share of "partnerships" as a route to "involvement". So what of it?

The prevailing ideology about "involvement" through "partnership" has been shaped by the notion that a reasoned outcome based upon common interests can be achieved through the exchange of dialogue between communities, policy makers, business, and other interest groups. The concept of "partnership", however, has been confused with the notion of "democracy" and equality of opportunity to put your viewpoint across. In my experience of urban regeneration as a researcher, partnerships can deny ordinary people's capacity for defining and exerting control over their communities and destinies (sorry Tony). Partnerships are often encouraged on a superficial level which leaves intact, and fails to challenge, those processes which reinforce and legitimate residents' disadvantage. Partnerships prevail on the terms dictated by existing powerholders.
Community involvement through partnerships may be given the appearance of being democratic, but is too often neither independent of existing bureaucratic and business interests, nor is it sufficient to challenge those interests.

What is expected is a form of cooperative rationale that embraces a coalition of groups. The "goal" of integration is sought but on the terms of the most powerful. One alternative for community groups is to "go it alone", adopting a more instrumental rationale outside of the main partnership, but denying themselves access to millions of pounds of finances made available through the partnership membership. The result being that, if they remain within the partnership, they can be involved with projects that are not of their own choosing. A case of "climb on board the gravy train", but the taste may not be to one's liking.

I always remember one community activist hitting the nail on the head by asking how can local people sit in a partnership with big business that treats local people with contempt. He cited examples of what he meant, but the point he was making was that people wanted to roll back and challenge the power of big business in the area - not to form a coalition with them.


There often exists a (misguided, even arrogant) assumption that residents will cooperate with agencies involved in implementing legislation and that communities possess ready-made human resources that can be tapped into in order to develop projects. A certain level of good faith is required by both agencies and communities if schemes are to develop. What can be overlooked is that localities that have experienced decades of decline have undergone dramatic changes which have served to undermine previous bonds of communality. The basis for collective active among residents may have been weakened as communities become disjointed and sometimes divided. Further, the will to act may have become eroded.

Residents may often have often witnessed a stream of projects intended to benefit their area come and go over the years. Well-paid workers and organisations enter areas on waves of short term funding, and exit after a relatively short time span. Although areas often become transformed in places with new shopping, car parking facilities, and new housing developments, unemployment remains high, drug use and associated problems persist, and traditional jobs continue to be replaced by insecure and casualised employment. Underlying levels of social deprivation persist. Nothing much changes.

The question may be asked: how much longer will policy makers and highly paid professionals continue to be accepted with sufficient good faith in communities if localities continue to experience deep-seated on-going levels of deprivation? Negative experiences can further contribute toward an underlying scepticism toward agencies and their projects. New projects have to cope with the damage done by previous schemes that may have left a bitter taste in the mouths of residents. Any good faith which may have been present can quickly drain away leaving an embittered community which is hostile to future projects which come along.

Within communities and areas where people experience the effects of severe social deprivation, long term economic decline and overall disempowerment, policies which advocate a partnership between residents, fundholders, business and agencies may be debilitated from the outset: they are based on notions of collaboration and consensus. This is not to argue however, that progress can be made either in terms of urban development in general, but the crux of the issue is that people in those areas want to have real influence, bring about radical change, and in order to do so want to challenge the policies and practices of those agencies and business interests that may be members of any partnerships that may exist.

In recent times the shaping and controlling of agendas has meant that the threshold of opinions considered "subversive" has grown: forms of grass-root involvement are encouraged which seek to guarantee integration and "participation", rather than forms of action which may lead to a direct questioning of or a challenge to prevailing forms of institutionalised power. "Consensus" is manufactured both in cultural and political terms.


For example, much of the popular mass media is void of analytical debate and relatively uninformed by theory or the underlying causes of issues - even the news has become public theatre, often presented in emotive, one-dimensional, "human-interest" terms. Most news has become just another commodity in the market place for the entertainment of the mass consumer. Non-participation and withdrawal by community bodies may be one form of reaction against this trend toward consensus, particularly in those localities that have experienced decades of what
they perceive to be inappropriate agendas to tackle issues. Remember the relatively low turn-out at the last general election? Some people had indeed "withdrawn" - either through protest, disillusionment or into their own self-seeking worlds of consumerism.

The key issue is whether partnerships really give residents a voice and some power, or whether they are simply mechanisms for integrating residents and community groups into government structures; giving structures and programmes some degree of credibility and legitimacy, but not actually achieving the changes for communities and residents which they need. Is the process more do with integration rather than change? Indeed neighbourhood and community groups now often live with the language of monitoring and evaluation that was designed for the private and public sectors. Community development must accommodate to the language of "outcomes" and "outputs" which residents can clearly feel unease about. For them it is not just a matter of language but part of an unwelcome imposition, symptomatic of an inappropriate philosophy; a stifling process for local people’s aspirations under the guise of "accountability".
The message being that ordinary people cannot be trusted to "tow the line" and have to be controlled by various eligibility or accountability criteria.

If community participation is to have any substance then there has to be a considerable rethink about the nature of partnerships. Community representatives need to be better represented, be listened to and have resources made available to them to do their job - particularly given the often huge resource imbalances between them and other partners. However, it may really be that we have the wrong structures to meaningfully engage local people.

The Labour government has a commitment to a fairer and more inclusive society and favours community based regeneration initiatives. But despite the proliferation of partnership committees, much published evidence is that residents remain on the margins of the real decisions and the rules of the game are still dictated by existing powerholders. Local communities have been very much junior partners in these arrangements which can be disempowering for the most disadvantaged and socially excluded groups.

The New Deal for Communities is currently in process, and is intended to be a ten to twenty year strategy. Such a long-term programme may offer some possibilities to experiment with different structures and different ways of involving communities in change at local levels. Only time will tell if at a more regional level, through Regional Development Councils, the community sector will be strong enough to exert it's voice and to influence government and business. The danger always exist that small voluntary/community organisations which often represent or have direct access to the socially excluded may have little opportunity to influence outcomes. If opportunities are available, will they be sufficient for communities to affect change on their terms, or will it continue to be "more of the same"?.

Unless Blair's government demonstrates a firm commitment to increasing the financial redistributive of the state at national level, and in the process mounts a challenge to private business/market-led economics, then the future looks bleak. Despite all of the fine talk about inclusion and democracy, what we may be left with is that - rhetoric with little substance. Is it (too) radical to suggest that ordinary people should be fully in control of their communities, local economies and destinies? Or is the whole concept to be dismissed as old fashioned and a throw back to the apparent failures of socialism? Whatever happened to the notion of citizenship, rights and equality? I remember - they were sacrificed on the altar of consumerism whereby anything that ate into profits became a burden - the funding of education, healthcare, old age pensions and so on.

Ordinary people need to be given opportunities to mobilize their rights to active citizenship as opposed to them being more passive recipients of services. One way of achieving this would be for them to be fully involved in challenging the assumptions held about regeneration, and the wider structural issues of class and urban blight. In some ways consumerism has unwittingly thrown open the door with its emphasis on seeking ordinary people’s views about services and policies. But eliciting views and giving real power to people are two different issues.

"Customer feedback" is not the same as active politics.
Giving people both the right and power to challenge prevailing ideologies and change their environment is neither "old-fashioned" nor "socialist". Perhaps it is anti-consumerist if the outcome leads to a rolling back of the power and influence of big business and the role of the market. But maybe (just maybe) it is "democratic". Now there's a thought!

© Colin Todhunter May 2002

email: colin_todhunter@yahoo.co.uk

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Colin Todhunter
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