Labour Isn't Working: urban regeneration and
the myth of democracy
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 ones 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
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
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
peoples aspirations under the guise of "accountability".
message being that ordinary people cannot be trusted to "tow the
line" and have to be controlled by various eligibility or accountability
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
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
peoples 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
will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says almost
Colin Todhunter finds himself the
unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.
unique experience of going to the gym in India
Copenhagen to Byron Bay
An energy crisis and a tale of two women
India first you get married and then you work these things out",
he said with amazing casualness.
More Travel Journeys in Hacktreks
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