After my robe and cat were such a hit, I’m loath to try to follow it up. So as they say, And Now for Something Completely Different.

Required reading for one of my lectures today (in Social Sustainability) was this paper by Dr. Silvia Gullino, a lecturer at Kingston. You have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but you can see the abstract and get a gist by following the link.

Though I didn’t agree with absolutely all of the analysis, the basic premise really resonated with what I think and I feel that it ties together some of my previous posts.

Both British and US planning and social policy (increasingly being treated, I think rightly, by theoretical and political structures as two sides of the same thing) are very keen on ‘mixed communities’. There is no one definition but the idea is one of diversity – of ethnicity, class, age etc – within a local community. The paper gives two examples of regeneration programmes in the US, in Chicago and Baltimore, that set out to regenerate low-income, high unemployment areas by making them into mixed communities – gentrifying them selectively and rehousing or relocating some or all of the original residents to make space for a more diverse crowd with a mix of housing tenures.

In Britain we link this strongly to our other new favourite phrase, ‘sustainable communities’. It is by making this link that the shortcomings of the two US examples become particularly apparent.

The idea of a sustainable community isn’t quite as buzzwordy as it seems. To me it conveys the concept that the community is self-sustaining, that it has the resources – physical but also social – to look after its members and to improve itself. The paper argued that not only did the US programmes underestimate the natural social capital in the neighbourhoods (which showed itself in the vigorous residents’ campaigns against the lack of consultation involved in the schemes) but that it also eroded this by relocating people away from their established social networks. This has similarities to the widespread practices that took place in Britain in the 1950s, which I read about recently in the excellent ‘Estates’ by Lynsey Hanley.

Silvia’s paper warns that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of treating the task of building a sustainable community – which is embedded into the new way of doing things in British local government – as a product, when in fact it’s a process. It’s not just about where we’re going, it’s about how we get there. If we fight off climate change, but do so through becoming a corporate oligarchy, is it a sustainable solution? How about if we restore trust in our democracy, but do so by reinforcing the idea that ‘politics’ is about who we send to Westminster every few years and barely think about in between apart from when we read about them (or more likely their boss) in the paper?

This is why I have misgivings about relying too heavily on consultation, as opposed to participation. A lot of the time, consultation is something we get involved in when our interests are threatened. By its very nature it can never be something we do every day. And so even when we get the outcomes we want, the way we do so entrenches the limited range of outcomes from which we will be able to choose in the future.

Direct decision making in whatever form has often been written off as impractical. But this is partly because it has become an anomaly in a system where the principle of subsidiarity no longer applies, if it ever did. Subsidiarity is the idea that any given decision should be made at the most local, smallest or lowest level that is competent to make such a decision. The idea is most often associated with the theroretical workings of the European Community, but you would be hard-pressed to find even the most ardent Europhile who thought that it was truly applied there.

The Lib Dems in local government have taken some steps towards this, devolving first Council committees and meetings and then sections of budgets to groups of wards known as neighbourhoods. It’s a good start and one of the reasons that I’m a Lib Dem is to argue that we should go much further. At the moment, neighbourhoods are administrative areas alone, little-known to anyone not interested in Council matters. But to my mind, when you have an area with its own identity and associated social capital that is also a decision-making force, empowering those within it and giving them an equal voice, that is the foundation on which a sustainable community begins the never-ending process of sustaining itself.