I blogged here about Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book on social capital, Bowling Alone. Since reading it, I’ve started to think about more of life through the lens of social capital: aware that it’s just one way of thinking, but nonetheless finding it enlightening.

This view of things coloured my experience of an evening hosted by Transition Town Kingston at the Mayo Centre, United Reformed Church last night. Entitled ‘The Power of Alliances’, it was organised by two intrepid members who brought the idea to the TTK steering group, asked for the support they needed, got on with it and did a fantastic job. The idea was to bring representatives of local groups – not necessarily environmental – together to explore shared challenges and see how TTK’s role as a Kingston-centred umbrella organisation could be helpful to existing groups.

Immediately I was keen on the idea: by helping each other out, we can make our social capital go further, particularly if it’s dwindling as Putnam says. In particular, the idea of formalising our social capital by forming associations was explored by the guest speaker, Peter from Ham United Group, who have attracted considerable funding for some very ambitious projects (some not mentioned on the website as they’re still coming together) simply by virtue of being a hard-working, visible, place-centred community group with a structure and regular meetings. Formed a year after HUG, this is starting to be TTK’s experience too, with an approach by ARTGYM leading to a joint bid for government funding and a very exciting project, due to come to fruition in March 2010 (website coming soon!)

The community garden at Ham Library
The community garden at Ham Library. Photo: Richmond Environment Network

The new partnership orthodoxies of local government depend heavily on such formal, constituted groups as a consultation base. I’ve argued before that this can lead to views of individuals being overlooked – not everyone identifies with a faith group, or a charitable association, or an environmental group – and also to an excess of conformity, stifling new ideas. History continually demonstrates that the rebels of today are the vested interests of tomorrow.

But such groups are where much of the achievement and improvement in a community happens. They are a crucial way of giving people the confidence and desire to stand up and be counted in local politics. So as well as changing the structures by which we do things in order to draw in individuals by offering more power, perhaps society (as Putnam posits) would be better if more, and different, people were involved in groups.

Thinking about it, my anxieties about groups and the democratic process are in large part to do with the ways in which groups often position themselves. One of the many people I enjoyed meeting last night was a representative from a local residents’ association. He told me that it was in danger of collapse, with activists standing down from committee posts for a variety of reasons, and no replacements coming through. When I pressed him on possible reasons for this, he said that paradoxically, it was because the association had already achieved a great deal; what problems there were have either been solved to residents’ satisfaction or have proven intractable.

If they are to succeed, such groups must reposition themselves positively: my knee-jerk suggestion for the residents’ association was to ask residents ‘How do you want your area to be in 10 years?’ and draw up campaign priorities accordingly. This positive approach necessarily leads to a widening of scope: not so much an interest group, but an interests group. For example, around a core theme of sustainability – which, as legislation and corporate rhetoric constantly show, is interpretable very broadly – HUG have started a community magazine, investigated energy projects, created both productive and ornamental gardens, run craft and sport sessions for local children, and more. The key to their success, said Peter from HUG, was perseverence, but also the idea that whoever had an idea would run with it and be able to draw on the group’s resources for support. This was inspiring and affirming to hear: the way in which the evening itself had been put on was a major shift towards that model of operation for Transition Town Kingston.

This sort of thing is surely the resurgence in civil society that David Cameron cites. But to see volunteers as a substitute for funded programmes would be a mistake. Volunteers can and do burn out. Funding for projects often does not cover labour costs and so necessitates volunteer involvement anyway.

Decentralisation and community empowerment do not mean a laissez-faire approach – far from it. Cut too much and you risk derailing positive objectives in favour of negativity; After all, if everyone’s at the Poll Tax riots, who’s going to grow the veg?

To discuss any issues around Kingston, politics or both, just comment on this post and I’ll get back to you, or feel free to email me at any time at majeed@cantab.net

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