Wednesday, 21 August 2013

2½ Cheers: A response to Transforming Place: Proposals for a Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham

The Green Paper, Transforming Place: Proposals for a Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham, clearly represents a great deal of hard work, and hard thinking – and the decision to submit something that, even in its own words, has already ‘been developed and agreed’ by a number of major stakeholders, to a wider public conversation is courageous, albeit utterly necessary. What emerges from this process of, hopefully rigorous, conversation should, ideally, contain some tried and tested wisdom that will help shape the future of Birmingham City Council.

I start from two key premises. Firstly, that this Green Paper is not just about practical outworkings. It is about a vision, an approach, a culture. As such, I am treating this Green Paper (I come at this as a messy mix of community practitioner, community development research student, and practical theologian) as a ‘theological’ text: its grandest aim is to describe a vision, a worldview, which should shape the way we think, and talk, and act, into the future. My second premise flows from this: that Birmingham City Council’s approach to, or better with, its neighbourhoods is quite simply the most important thing that BCC could possibly be about at this unprecedented point in its history and development. If it gets this bit right, everything else that BCC is about will fall into some kind of place. If it gets it wrong, it is setting itself up to fail in massive ways, all over the place, in the coming years.

So no pressure then!

2½ cheers!

There is a lot to affirm and celebrate in the Green Paper. Among them:

  • The centrality of the ‘Social Inclusion process’ goals, particularly around the language of ‘empowerment’, ‘participation’, ‘connection’, ‘equality’, and ‘social cohesion’
  • Seeking to offer an ‘enabling framework’, which places the importance of neighbourhoods at its heart
  • Learning lessons from past neighbourhood working, but understanding that we’re in a radically new context
  • Leaning towards the language of ‘asset-based’ approaches, and expressing a central aim of building social capital within neighbourhoods
At the same time, the Green Paper is full of tensions, some acknowledged explicitly and some not. I suggest that it is in the naming, and working through, of those tensions, that the most important insights may well be gleaned. Among the most significant, I would identify the following:

  • Between ‘shaping our neighbourhood’ and ‘shaping our public services’
  • Between ‘needs’ which result in ‘priorities’, and ‘assets’ which point towards ‘opportunities’ – with an implied (but untrue) ‘either/or’ between ‘needy/deprived’ neighbourhoods & ‘asset-rich’ neighbourhoods – and a lack of clarity about which is prioritised and invested in (with money, time and/or attention)
  • Between ‘building social capital’ and ‘service / programme delivery’
  • Between (active) local ‘initiative’ and (passive) ‘engagement’ (normally by the Council)
  • Between ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ – with the assumption that BCC can only really do the latter
  • Between BCC’s role as ‘responding to greatest need’ (a kind of ‘filling the holes’) and a ‘brokering / connecting’ role (within & between neighbourhoods)
  • Between seeking what is ‘effective, efficient and economical’ and seeking ‘resilient communities’
  • Between a vision of ‘a city of united neighbourhoods’ cf. a city of connected neighbourhoods
  • Between singing the praises of the ‘proven value’ of ‘neighbourhood managers’, and ruling out any future possibility of funding a similar role
Key questions

Where the Green Paper falls short, I would suggest, is where these tensions collapse, as they so often do, in the direction of the structural, the procedural, and the centralised, rather than in the direction of the vital, messy, detailed life of neighbourhoods themselves. The following reflections are offered (and could, if necessary, be backed up by some pretty solid evidence, both contextual and academic) both to highlight and fill in some of the gaps in the Green Paper’s understanding, and to seek to redress the balance towards the neighbourhoods which are the Green Paper’s intended focus.

1. Understanding social capital

While I am delighted that the Green Paper seeks to bring to the fore the concept of ‘social capital’ and how it can be built and strengthened, its brief analysis betrays at least two critical issues. Firstly, its description of ‘bonding’ social capital misses the vast difference between ‘residents of a [potentially superdiverse] neighbourhood’ and members of ‘an ethnically specific organisation’. The kind of work needed to ‘bond’ in these two instances are almost incomparable. Community-building in a neighbourhood, and growing a Nigerian Community Association, for example, demand very different resources and capacities. Taking this point alongside, secondly, the understanding of ‘bridging’ social capital as being primarily between ‘groups’, leaves no space for a ‘local network’ approach to neighbourhoods, where diverse individuals are connected together through a wide array of distinct but overlapping activities. The ‘working principle’ (p.8) which seeks to promote both ‘networking’ and ‘a unified neighbourhood conversation’ is an example of this tension in action: there will always be multiple, overlapping, and inevitably contradictory, ‘neighbourhood conversations’ going on in any one neighbourhood. Finding a single ‘neighbourhood organisation’ with which to ‘engage’, for example, is not going to somehow resolve that complexity. A more patient, subtle approach to local ‘networking’ would be much more beneficial. Thirdly, the descriptions of social capital here also seem to leave little room for ‘bridging’ between neighbourhoods, what we might call a ‘connected city’ approach – implicit in places in the Green Paper, but with much more potential to be developed than is given here.

2. Understanding ‘community assets’

A second area where positive language is used, but the full implications are not grasped is when referring to ‘community assets’. The Green Paper wants to base its ‘new approach’ on the ‘many community assets built over the past years [that] are still in place’. These include, it suggests, ‘buildings and other facilities owned or controlled by community organisations’, but also ‘“softer” assets’ such as ‘active community organisations and development trusts’ which ‘provide quality services’ and ‘attract investments’, ‘community engagement mechanisms such as neighbourhood forums’, and ‘the staff of many public services, community organisations and local businesses’ (p.3).

While these are all undoubted potential assets within neighbourhoods, the Green Paper’s structural emphasis on ‘service provision’ and ‘community engagement’ means it misses – or at best seriously mislabels – some of the community assets that are in fact the most vital. No attention is paid to community organisations and forms of associational life which don’t focus on ‘delivering services / programmes’ or function as ‘engagement mechanisms’ but do, in all kinds of ways, build local social capital and resilience within neighbourhoods. And again, the informal networks of neighbours – which are proven to be the most significant factors in co-producing health and wellbeing, a sense of safety and security, and the relationships in which people are included and cared for – are not explicitly acknowledged at all, when it is surely nurturing these that should be at the heart of any neighbourhood-focused strategy for social inclusion.

3. Understanding a genuinely ‘asset-based’ approach to community building

‘While it will be important to continue analysing needs, focusing on the most deprived areas, with residents prioritising which of these needs should be acted on and how, it is important that there is a shift to a community asset based approach.’ (p.9) As I have already suggested, this is one of the key tensions running through the Green Paper, almost acknowledged as such, but never addressed thoroughly. In relation to the Social Inclusion process itself, it has been clear in previous papers and summits that the full implications of a genuinely asset-based approach are still a long way from being widely grasped. The problem is not just that the traditional ‘deficit approach’ involves neighbourhoods competing against each other to ‘“prove” that their neighbourhoods is more deprived’ – it is that the culture of ‘service delivery’ itself can so often disempower local communities from doing things for themselves, a vicious cycle that is only intensified when a community is identified as particularly ‘deprived’, and so in need of ‘priority’ attention and more intensive programmes.

It is telling that, throughout the Green Paper, what is described as ‘independent action by local communities’ always seems to come last on the list of forms of agency, which tend to start with the delivery of ‘public services’, ‘programmes’ and ‘city-wide initiatives’. Neighbourhoods are valued because they are often the site of ‘community organisation and volunteering’, but even there, the tendency is to lean towards the value of passive ‘community engagement’ rather than active, local initiative. There is an important acknowledgment (p.4), that ‘communities will need to be less reliant on public services and do more for themselves... They will need to be even more enterprising... they will need to be resilient with citizens supporting each other to overcome challenges, hardship and divisions.’ But this is presented in parallel with, and secondary to, the need for ‘public services ... to be more targeted on identified priorities of local communities’ and ‘to work more effectively together’. It is almost as if self-reliance and resilience are presented as the particular (moral?) responsibility of local neighbourhoods – as ‘their side of the deal’ – with very little detail as to how this might be achieved, and supported.

What is outlined in more detail are the ‘neighbourhood working principles’ (p.8). They are tantalising close to articulating a genuinely asset-based approach – but not quite:

  • ‘start where a neighbourhood is at...’ they suggest, but only ‘for neighbourhood planning’;
  • ‘recognise the points of community...’ they say, but so BCC can conduct ‘engagement’;
  • ‘local leadership is needed...’ but primarily ‘for a neighbourhood delivery plan to succeed’;
  • and ‘provide opportunities for neighbourhood capacity building and enable independent activity to improve the quality of life in a neighbourhood’ – but as something of a low priority on the list, towards the end.
I want to suggest that maybe one of the key stumbling blocks to properly seeing through an asset-based approach is the repeated, unquestioned, assumption that the Council operates in a ‘top down’ mode, in contrast to local ‘bottom up’ approaches. It may well be true that one of the great successes of Neighbourhood Management was that it enabled ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ to meet – making its discontinuation even more of a loss – but what this Green Paper is missing more than anything is the courage to imagine the possibility of a Council that discovers ways of ‘bottom up’ working. Rather than beginning, as the Green Paper does (p.4) with the question ‘What can the Council still do...?’, with a nod, late in the day, to the ‘independent’ activity going on within local neighbourhoods, a genuinely asset-based neighbourhood strategy would start instead with something like these questions, and crucially in this order:

  1. What are the things that this neighbourhood can do for itself?
  2. What are the things that this neighbourhood can do, with help from other agencies (e.g. BCC)?
  3. What are the (remaining) things that BCC needs to do itself?
I would suggest that these questions can only be asked at a neighbourhood level, in the neighbourhood, with a broad cross-section of residents of the neighbourhood – rather than at the at-least-once-removed District level, in a forum dominated by councillors and council officers – and probably, given what I suggested earlier, in not one ‘unified’ conversation, but in a number of local, overlapping conversations.

4. The role of the Council

I welcome the Green Paper’s acknowledgment that the Council can offer different kinds of local investment – that time and attention in some places might be more valuable than money, for example. But the Green Paper is unclear, to my reading, as to how that might be discerned. It outlines ‘four broad categories’ of neighbourhood, from ‘neighbourhoods with little or no joint working and with weak or non-existent community engagement structures’ to ‘beacon neighbourhoods’ with ‘established neighbourhood budgets’ and ‘delivering a range of projects to empower local people and address social inclusion issues’. Such ‘beacon neighbourhoods’, the Green Paper suggests, ‘know how to use local assets, resources and talent to make deep seated sustainable change’ and so can therefore act as ‘mentors’ or ‘role models’ for other neighbourhoods. I would suggest that it might be much more difficult to categorise neighbourhoods – and certainly place them into a clear hierarchy – than is imagined here, for several reasons:

  • The focus on structures (for ‘joint working’ or ‘community engagement’) does not necessarily ask the questions of functional effectiveness or broad, inclusive participation. A neighbourhood with a vocal neighbourhood forum does not necessarily have a high level of local social capital.
  • The suggestion that a neighbourhood might ‘know how to ... make deep seated sustainable change’ is a red herring. There are neighbourhoods where there are ‘hub organisations’, or individuals, or networks, who know something about these things, and do them well.
  • At the same time, neighbourhoods where there is ‘good stuff happening’, and networks that work, might also have a lot of fragility to them – and by no means necessarily have achieved a ‘united neighbourhood conversation’. The places to learn from are not necessarily the most robust or resilient – even if they may be heading in that direction.
My final observation, then, is that the implication that learning between neighbourhoods is going to be primarily ‘1-to-1’, and passed ‘one way’, ‘top down’, from ‘beacon’ neighbourhoods to ‘fragile’ neighbourhoods, is distinctly questionable. The connectedness between neighbourhoods needs to be seen much more as horizontal, mutual, and widespread. We all have valuable learning to do from each other – and it might just be that working towards a more ‘connected’ city is just as important a goal as working towards a more ‘equal’ city.

So perhaps the most important role of the Council might be to invest – and yes, both time and attention, and carefully-focused money – in asset-based community-builders (see fig. below), who can ask the questions suggested earlier, in, of and with local communities, who can support the building of local social capital – as much in the form of networks as organisations – and who can enable neighbourhoods across the city to connect with each other in ways that can make mutually supportive, transformative learning to happen. I realise that one of the basic premises of the Green Paper is that ‘there’s no money’ for this – but that premise itself is based on neighbourhood work being a compartmentalised section of the wider Council’s work and budget. My argument here is that neighbourhood-focused, asset-based community-building needs to be absolutely central to Birmingham City Council’s agenda, or all its efforts and expenditures in ‘service provision’ will ultimately be futile and counterproductive.

Concluding comments

So, 2½ cheers for this first attempt at a Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham – and mostly for the vital central aim of ‘building social capital’ within and between the neighbourhoods of the city. But that central aim – put most simply, of building community – is clouded, perhaps even fatally obstructed, by an old-fashioned ‘service delivery’ perspective. Despite the frequent use of the language, Birmingham City Council still needs nothing short of a ‘conversion’, a dramatic culture shift, from the ‘deficit-focused, service-provision model, to an asset-based, community-building approach. It is, as I have suggested elsewhere before, an addiction that needs therapy. There are good therapists to hand – many of them live and work in Birmingham’s neighbourhoods – but the patient seems to be, as yet, far from cured.

Revd Al Barrett (Vicar, Hodge Hill Church; Firs & Bromford Neighbours Together; etc.)


All quotes come from Transforming Place: Proposals for a Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham (Green Paper, July 2013).

Some of the key sources that have informed these reflections include:

My own previous reflections informing this response include:

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Going barefoot!

My wonderful Curate, Revd Dr Sally Nash, was ordained priest a few weeks ago, and presided at her first eucharist in Hodge Hill Church the next morning. It was one of the many very hot days of the last few weeks, and under my obligatory white alb, I was wearing as little as possible - which (in the interests of a little decency!) stretched to T-shirt, shorts and sandals. But even the sandals were feeling a bit hot and sticky, so I slipped them off before the service, and assisted my new priest-colleague, bare-foot.

I hadn't really given it a great deal of thought. But it was noticed by at least a few of those present, and afterwards someone asked me if it was intentional. I explained the sheer practicality of it, but if I'd been just a little quicker at thinking on my feet, I could have said (as Curate's husband suggested) that I was honouring the ground that was just a little more holy having had Sally preside on it! But as this long, hot summer has gone on, and the sandals have gone on (and come off) more and more often, the bare-foot thing has begun to gather some of that significance.

Stephen Cherry's book, Barefoot Disciple: walking the way of passionate humility, springs to mind. He tells of the ancient pilgrimage to Holy Island, Lindisfarne, and of how pilgrims traditionally walk 'the Plodge', the last bit - across the tidal sands from the mainland to the island - barefoot. He reminds us that shoes are never worn in mosques or Hindu temples, and in Christian places of worship too in many countries. "Removing our shoes, and, if we have them, socks, inculcates a different attitude from walking into a sacred space without a pause, or briskly brushing shoes on coconut matting... Following the way of Christ with humility does not involve scraping the mud from our boots. It involves, maybe even requires, that we encounter the earth as barefoot disciples and pilgrims." Stephen Cherry writes of the way of 'passionate humility', "a Christlike attitude that is down-to-earth, full of life, vulnerable and transformative."

Cherry also quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, another human being of deeply 'earthed' spiritual wisdom. "Take off your shoes," she invites us, "and feel the earth under your feet, as if the ground on which you are standing really is holy ground. Let it please you. Let it hurt you a little. Feel how the world really feels when you do not strap little tanks on your feet to shield you from the way things really are." (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World) "Our attention is drawn," says Cherry, "to this point of contact, the connection between ourself and the earth. We experience in a new or deeper way both our vulnerability and our connectedness."

On holiday in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago, we spent a lot of time barefoot on the beach, and we also visited the amazing Eden Project, and did a great little 'barefoot walk' there, set out carefully to give our feet a feel of grass, stones, woodchip, rubber, and thick, oozy mud! Our 5 year-old Rafi and 2 year-old Adia both loved it - with a little bit of encouragement at times!

Back home on our estate, there are rather fewer opportunities to go barefoot. Apart from the hard and often cracked pavements, there is a fair bit of broken glass around, and the occasional dog-poo surprise. Barefoot walking here demands a level of vulnerability that I am not prepared to risk.

But there are still those places, in my own neighbourhood, where I need to take up that invitation to go barefoot - perhaps literally, as well as metaphorically. I have found myself doing it often when I am listening to someone speak of the most vulnerable and fragile things in their life, treasured memories, or heart-breaking experiences, or both. A wise friend and 'learning companion', Cormac Russell, also pointed to the value of going barefoot in more conventional meetings: in those spaces so often structured by the formality of agendas and minutes, where it is all-too-easy to focus our attention on words buried in mountains of paper and words thrown and torn apart in 'discussion', where everything so often can be 'up in the air', Cormac was reminding me of the value of what has been called 'presencing' - intentionally placing our feet on the ground - on this patch of ground here - becoming conscious of ourselves as embodied, 'emplaced' human beings, 'earthed'... and in our 'earthedness' also connected, to those other embodied, 'emplaced', 'earthed' human beings who are in the room, sharing the same place, bringing vulnerabilities and passions not identical to mine, but just as worthy of reverence. I have not done it too often, as yet - it is so easy to forget, to slip back into our ingrained ways of 'meeting' (which is rarely really meeting each other). But when I have remembered, and been a bit more intentional about my 'presencing', I have been aware of the difference it makes - at least in how I am, and speak, and respond to others.

So may the long, hot summer continue - at least so that I can practise going barefoot a bit more often!