Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Big Sock, Hacking, Suberversion and other stuff...

I've got research funding from the AHRC's Connected Communities programme (discussed in my last post) which is causing much brouhaha for it's links to the Big Society. Because of this, at a Connected Communities event I was at recently, people were very reticent about using the term "Big Society" (hence the Big Sock). I think the AHRC have got themselves in a right mess here. Yes, they shouldn't have mentioned the Big Society so often, but the Research Councils are going to research government policy. You just have to look at all the ESRC grants on community engagement and social exclusion during the New Labour years (most of which were quite critical of the government's agenda) to see that. And I have to say, I've not seen one Connected Communities project yet that is helping the Big Society in the way the Tories might want to.

Which leads me to subservience. I had an interesting lunch with Chris Speed from Edinburgh College of Art and his work, to summarise too bluntly, hacking and QR codes. He's beginning to work with Prospect Housing Association, linking his work to their From There to Here work. I really liked his idea of hacking because from my research the history of deprived neighbourhoods is always subversive and "hacking". In Wester Hailes case, the fight for basic improvements and better services in the 1970s and 1980s that led onto an enormous amount of community development and regeneration, was the community "hacking" a political discourse in Edinburgh that stigmatised and belittled the neighbourhood. I'm really interested (now) in using hacking to really get into the problems that residents face in Wester Hailes and give them a voice and also let them celebrate what's wonderful about their lives and community.

Which leads me onto... more clumsy writing. No, for me, my knowledge of the history of community engagement and development just shows what a disaster the Big Society will be because of this "hacking". The history of radical community development is that communities know that their problems are actually problems of wider society and they will get very angry about that. As the wonderful "Gilding the Ghetto" put it back in the 1970s: 

"Their [the CDP team’s] brief rested on three important assumptions.  Firstly that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of the ‘urban deprivation’.  Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help.  Thirdly locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.

A few month’s field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions."

So when the Tories last had a go at the Big Society in the late 1980s early 1990s, with the hideous responsibilisation agenda of Housing Action Trusts, City Challenge and New Life for Urban Scotland, the policies quickly found very organised communities that knew that the problem was inequality and poor services (in Scotland see: Hastings 1998 and Collins 1999 [£]). Community groups just shoved two-fingers up at the government. And that's what will (arguably is) happening with the Big Society. So don't worry.

One final positive thing. There's loads of really good bottom-up stuff happening in Wester Hailes now: from There to Here, the West Edinburgh Time Bank, and the Calders Community Garden for a start. This is the Big Society, and it's flippin' superb.

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