Neighbourhood Renewal - Less Haste More Quality

Last week the Trades Union Congress (TUC) unanimously passed a motion calling for long term statutory underpinning for the Youth Service and Community work. The first session of the Congress this year was dominated by the concerns of trade unions to play their part in the campaign to rid Britain of racism in the workplace and in our communities. We also discussed a General Council statement on the Bradford disturbances and recognised the scale of work to be done in healing the divisions in many of our inner city areas. The later motion on strategic funding was very timely because most of the resourcing for community development and anti racist work has relied on short term grants for over three decades now.

Before the TUC I visited the neighbourhood where I used to be a community worker. It is one of the most deprived in Britain. It comprises basically of seven high rise blocks of flats. Drug related murders are frequent and there are intense territorial rivalries. Recently the best block was emptied and its residents dispersed and refugees from all over the world were moved in. The prospects of disturbance were high. But qualified JNC youth and community and childrens’ workers set to over the summer. They drew down new resources, helped co ordinate agencies who could support, worked face to face with the children and parents, spotted points of resentment and tension, and organised a range of community activities. As a result new and established residents are building new shared lives as yet free from the animosities and jealousies that have blighted other parts of the country.

Yet if I look at the resource bases for this work I find that they are vulnerable and fragile. For any multi disciplinary youth and community work team it is still a question of multiple grant applications to a dizzying variety of funding streams. Such streams have one thing in common. They are all short term. A three year planning horizon is the exception. Most are one year, some less. We are expecting the services at the heart of the neighbourhood renewal and social exclusion agendas to live hand to mouth.

But two other common features are evident in the fragmented funding regimes for essential programmes. There are insufficient conditions of grant aid attached to the new money and there is a lack of accountability on the part of many of the organisations that receive it. Many community organisations or groups seeking to improve the lot of children and young people have tremendous good will and great intentions, but many lack the capacity to employ professional staff and deliver effective programmes. Some lack vital protective policies and operate blissfully unaware of essential legal requirements. The threadbare infrastructure of such projects has led to a rising caseload for the union and some scepticism about the progressive policy drives behind the funding. The absence of basic ethical frameworks and professional guidelines in many of the groups working in the front line of child care and youth intervention is frightening.

Governments have said that skilled youth and community and play workers are critical to success. Yet they and others fund thousands of organisations that do not even require a qualification. Our members work in the most divided and disadvantaged areas of the UK on the streets and in the youth and community centres with the residents. They are trained to empower communities and young people to become active citizens free from prejudice and fear. They advise befriend and counsel those who need support and lack opportunities. They help build a community’s capacity to respond collectively. Above all, they combat the hatred that grows up in divided communities whether in Belfast, Burnley, or Bradford.

There have been many excellent government initiatives to rebuild this part of the social economy. Billions of pounds have been allocated. While we often criticise governments for being too slow, in this area, we have to counsel less haste. Many of our tinderbox communities rely on incoherent, quick fix funny money.

The short termism we see in industry is mirrored in community regeneration. Both need long term strategic support. To sustain a healthy nation you need consistent investment in the NHS with its skilled staff. To rebuild civil society and vibrant communities you need sustained national investment in youth, community and play services. You can’t just will people into raising self esteem and better understanding of each other. This involves professional application of informal education skills. This sector needs urgent legislation to put it on a level playing field with schools and universities and mandatory funding and a better system for monitoring all of the funding streams that pour into it.

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