This post was first published on The Third Estate , one of my favourite left-wing blogs which ‘aims to offer a progressive, irreverent and atypical perspective on politics and current affairs’.

“It’s the spirit you see just down the road in Balsall Heath, where local residents’ street patrols have turned a no-go area into a place where people can once again feel safe.”

Thus did David Cameron exemplify the Big Society in his Conference speech – seeking to solidify an idea which many on the left have received with a questionable venom. Arguing that a smaller state, decentralisation and more autonomy for communities is impractical, or a smokescreen for cuts, is one thing. Arguing that these things are not even an ideal is another – and is no way for the left to move beyond the ‘vested interests’ label that Cameron sought to pin on Labour.

No, to my mind the problem – and a pretty big one – is how we make progress towards our ideals in a fair and just way. Credible exemplars are needed – both practically and politically. But looking deeper into the Balsall Heath example raises some broader questions which critics – and proponents – of the Big Society would do well to probe.

A few months ago, the inner city Balsall Heath area in Birmingham was examined in a report from the think tank Demos – Civic Streets: the Big Society in Action, which promises a story of “an extraordinary renewal that has involved residents, the third sector and business”. Author Max Wind-Cowie describes a neighbourhood in severe decline, whole streets openly taken over by prostitution, police who could or would not act and house prices falling as low as £5000, preventing residents from leaving.

Eventually, a meeting of a few residents and community leaders spawned a campaign of street pickets and patrols aimed at driving away pimps and kerb-crawlers. Initial success saw this expand from one street to 19, resulting in a massive and almost immediate reduction in prostitution in the area.

Wind-Cowie describes how this grassroots success saw the group able to expand its community organising remit – implementing a programme of cleanups and repairs and latterly even providing regular hampers to vulnerable residents – and to obtain £6 million in EU funding. A demonstration of Balsall Heath’s progress, both in terms of its physical environment and its social capital, came with the area’s success in the Britain in Bloom competition.

So far, so Big Society, as recognised by a recent visit from Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark. There is evidently some great work going on here.

But a tellingly throwaway phrase in the Demos report suggests that the picture is less straightforwardly rosy. Following the eradication of the prostitutes”, Wind-Cowie writes, the Balsall Heath Forum set about to improve the physical environment of the area.”

At best, the language is stridently insensitive; at worst, it exposes serious difficulties with the whole project. We shouldn’t set too much store by one poorly chosen turn of phrase from one think-tank researcher – but behind the chillingly dismissive language is an indisputably narrow outlook.

Were the prostitutes really ‘eradicated’? Or were they simply moved on to another area? Do we really want to build a society which rejoices in ‘eradicating’ people, whatever their crimes? Or would we rather try to forge an approach that – without detracting from the suffering of the local residents and their commitment and courage in confronting their area’s problems – nonetheless recognises and seeks to address the socioeconomic factors that contributed to the prostitutes’ ending up there in the first place?

Even a quick Google search reveals that the reality of this issue is multifaceted and tangled. With misogyny and prejudice, drug addiction, family abuse, time in care, archaic legislation and questionable law enforcement all looming large in the story, a nuanced, patient approach is needed to address these underlying problems and help sex workers move into a less marginalised life. The issue resurfaces every few years in political debate – usually when a prostitute is murdered as happened in Balsall Heath in 1994. But concerns about the ongoing funding of small, local organisations able to provide the credibility and personal contact needed to help solve these problems (and provide a stable path to long-term peace and security for the wider community) were rife long before the spectre of the 2010 Spending Review.

Amazingly, the Demos report quotes such a local outreach project working with prostitutes in Balsall Heath to evidence the reduction in prostitution on the estate, while still managing not to comment on this broader picture – illustrated ably by Hilary Kinnell, an outreach worker in Birmingham at the time.

So what happened to the prostitutes? The report makes some interesting recommendations, from establishing endowments to provide community projects with long-term sustainable incomes, to the more controversial idea of attracting large supermarkets to deprived areas to end ‘brand deserts’ as in the report’s second case study area, Castle Vale, just north-east of Birmingham. But it never returns to such fundamental questions about the bigger picture. There is a gap here which the Government’s continual, populist and admittedly appealing refrain of cutting local bureaucracy cannot fill.

The Government cannot glibly dismiss these bigger questions as the last throes of a dying big state. The viability of any attempt to build ‘a country defined… by the values of mutual responsibility’ rests on seeking good answers.

Advertisements