Friday, 4 September 2009

Broken Britain?

On all the statistical indicators, where I live is 'broken Britain': in the 5% worst 'areas of social deprivation', high in the crime league table -- a shooting at the top of our road where the 'working girls' hang out in highly impractical garb, multiple shootings and stabbings scattered along surrounding streets, where the police have raided crack houses, mugging and fly-tipping black spots. The sort of thing you tend not to mention when you phone home to Mum. But that's not what it feels like -- at least most of the time, these days. Our biggest current lament is never a weekend off from the round of community festivals in local parks, civic society walks and socials, Sustainable Haringey networking, residents association street party and 'Big Lunch', the local 'crafts and produce' village show... heaps of social capital, simply lashings of social energy. Being the most ethnically diverse local area in the UK feels like part of the vitality, not a problem -- but many, particularly newly-arriving refugees, live in dire poverty.

It wasn't always thus: the first decade or so that we lived in Tottenham, there seemed almost no 'community' to get involved in. The early post-96 years of Local Agenda 21 there seemed a very scant handful of overworked usual suspects who could be bothered, and getting any wider interest seemed a very uphill struggle. Two -- okay, three -- things I think have made the difference. The first to take effect was the rise of email and Web 2.0 -- which made it easy to send information whizzing around, and allowed people to get and keep involved when they couldn't turn up to the time or place of meetings. True, it has its downside in in-box overload (and I go through spells of being allergic to turning on The Enslaving Machine) -- but when you skim through, fast on the delete button, you catch up with all the gossip, plots, campaigns...

Second has been changes in the local council. Back in 1996, when the council talked about 'involving the community', you could almost see that they thought of it as one amorphous rather menacing black cloud that they really hadn't a clue how to tackle. And they didn't really talk about 'environment' except to dismiss it as a marginal concern of an unrepresentative bunch of middle-class weeds. Now, Haringey is aiming to be 'London's Greenest Borough'. Back in 1997, Thatcherism and Old Labour blinkers had between them broken the council -- the New Labour 'democratic renewal' emphasis on community involvement, together with loosening of budget constraints, have allowed it to rebuild its confidence. And, despite the problems that central Government targets and performance indicators bring, they have also meant that well-meaning rhetoric more often now gets put into practical action. Third has been the rising tide of alarming evidence and headlines about climate change.

Three community networks are making the biggest difference. First to come together was the Haringey Federation of Residents Associations, which focuses the scattered RA together as a fairly formidable local force. The residents associations are where the diverse ethnicities, ages, faiths and other interests tend to get together on what affects them where they live -- traffic, places for the kids to play safely and other local environment issues emerge as big concerns for all. What the middle-class greenies like and want, or dislike, turns out to be the pretty much the same as their neighbours' likes and hates: what everyone wants is to be able to open their front door and step out without feeling depressed by ugliness, or threatened -- and everyone enjoys a nice bit of greenery. Next was Sustainable Haringey, which evolved from the previous LA21 group but with far more vigour, using the Interweb to draw in a whole new generation and link up a diverse range of projects and groups: the 'food' group is one of the liveliest.

Third, is the Wards Corner Community Campaign ( which brought residents and local businesses together to fight the demolition and 'clone town' mall-and-tower-block so-called regeneration of the once-elegant Edwardian department store above the Seven Sisters tube station. The Council and local NDC have scandalously misused New Deal fo Community funds for a scheme that far from being 'community-led' is vigorously opposed by the affected community, and was pushed through with furtively token 'consultation'. The campaign is currently fund-raising to appeal against judicial review decision: more info and the alternative 'community plan' submitted for planning permission can be seen on the web-site above.

So: broken Britain? We're seeing green shoots just re-sprouting after the Thatcherite freeze. What would help here is a Keynsian 'Green New Deal' and practical recognition of non-monetary community ownership, community investment, community assets. A new monetarist clamp-down would break the fragile new grassroots renaissance that has started to grow..

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