I spent most of today at the SURF annual conference.I have a lot of time for SURF (once the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum, not Scotland's Independent Regeneration Network). One of my first regeneration policy events was a SURF event and every one I've been to since has been excellent with a lot of food for thought on deep issues.
I have two main reflections on the day that I want to share here. I started the day sat next a couple of community development workers I've met through various things. One of them was trying to help get community growing going in a neighbourhood through the fantastic Edible Estates scheme. However, they talked about a meeting with a local authority where there was some enthusiasm from other officers. All the other officers were entirely negative and highlighted all the problems: "oh it will just get trashed", "nobody will care for it". Listening to this I shared my stories of similar conversations overheard during research that belie the fact that stigma and prejudice against communities and people leads to poor service delivery (more on that from my colleague Annette Hastings' work here and here). This is where our work on middle-class community activism comes from.
Then the presentations got underway. One thing a community activist from Fife said reall struck home for me; I can't quote her directly, but it was something along the lines of, why do we have to bid for money? We have need (they're one of the most deprived five per cent of deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland) so why don't we get the resources to meet that need? We then moved onto presentations about what funding is available - of course all of it is competitive bidding. Another trend that was very clear was the move towards loan financing for community projects - particularly funded through the EU JESSICA scheme. I can see part of the thinking behind these - to make sure that projects are not dependent on grant income. But as I listened I couldn't help but ponder a comment from a colleague on my housing association management committee about the current reforms to housing finance and housing benefits, that "we're getting the poor to pay for the services for other poor people". The move to loan finance really smacks of this for me - these projects are expected to generate enough revenue, and in most deprived neighbourhoods this will be from people experiencing poverty, to survive. And I'm sure a lot of these will be projects like community halls, or youth projects, that seem like nice, unaffordable add-ons for many people, but will make a real difference to people's lives. The issue for me is, we do not expect a the affluent to run their schools on loans. They only do this is they exit from public provision through private schools. We're making deprived people exit from state provision through changes in public services.
Which brings me onto my second reflection. We discussed our Sharp Elbows work in a workshop and the same thing happened as in previous seminars - the discussion ended up back at well, we just need to make sure deprived communities are more empowered. Yet this is the very opposite of where I research was coming from and what we think it means for policies. If the middle classes are generally favoured by public service provision then we're setting up deprived communities to be like King Canute among a sea of public services that do not meet their needs - the opening conversation of my day showed that is still the case. At worse we might be making things even worse - the evidence suggests there are virtuous cycles and vicious spirals to complaining behaviour and once somebody is fobbed off or ignored they are less likely to complain in future. So, why does the debate always end up at "we must empower deprived communities?" I really don't know. And what's really funny is, our group had to leave a question for the plenary session to vote on using keypads. Our question was "is their a class bias in public service provision", and 75% of people agreed with it. If we know about it, why don't we do something about it?