What problem to solve?

I will start a new role as CEO of The Peel Institute in January 2017. The Peel is one of the ‘community hubs’ that operate within the London Borough of Islington.

What problems should organisations like the Peel attempt to address?

There are many answers to this question. For example, some would say community cohesion or ‘placemaking’.

No doubt these are both important issues to address. We have to continue to build good relationships between people from different backgrounds and neighbourhoods that people enjoy living in.

However, tremendous strides have been made in both these areas.

The chart below shows the percentage of people who say that people from different backgrounds get on well in their local area

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And this chart shows the percentage of people who are satisfied with their local area as a place to live.

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As you can see from both charts, people are, by and large, happy with the neighbourhoods they live in and believe that people from different backgrounds get on well together.

Contrast that with the chart below, which shows the percentage of people who think they can influence local decisions (and the percentage of people who think it’s important to be able to influence local decisions).

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The vast majority of people do not feel able to influence decisions, but think it’s important to be able to do so. What’s more, the percentage of people who do feel able to influence decisions has not increased at all in the last decade.

One of the reasons for this may be the focus on ‘involvement’. It’s often assumed that the way to give people a greater sense of control is to create mechanisms whereby their voice can be heard. These are often called things like “forums” or “panels” etc…

Actually, as the chart below shows, people are not that keen on being involved in the bureaucratic processes that surround council decision making.

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The conundrum could be summarised as:

  • People think it’s important to be able to influence local decisions
  • People do not feel able to influence local decisions
  • There is only minimal (and dwindling) appetite for one of the established solutions to this problem

Pioneering new approaches to solving this issue is as pressing a matter as building good relations and improving the quality of local places.

(Data here)

Can community development combat social exclusion?

Building open, inclusive, vibrant neighbourhoods is an important part of combating the worst symptoms of social exclusion. In fact, it is probably more important than supporting the development of charities and the voluntary sector in general.

People who launch initiatives to bring neighbours together are often accused of having a deaf ear for the problems of the most marginalised in society. Community development can be caricature as supporting retired, middle class people to run fetes or hipsters to set up incubation spaces.

However, effective community development can help neighbourhoods to be more welcoming places, where people who might otherwise feel excluded are able to meet people and build a support network.

This chart shows the relationship between the % of people in a local authority who say that they feel like they belong in their local area against the % of people receiving adult social care who are satisfied with their level of social contact.

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The more people feel that they belong in a given neighborhood the more likely people who receive adult social care in that area are to feel that they are satisfied with their level of social contact.

This chart plots the extent to which there is a ‘thriving third sector’ in a given local authority and the % of people receiving adult social care who are satisfied with their level of social contact.
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Whether or not an area is more or less supportive of charitable activity seems to have little to do with whether people who receive adult social care are happy with their level of social contact.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since lots of charities are not mainly or even tangentially interested in building open and welcoming communities.

It doesn’t particularly help someone with mental health problems to make new friends if there are lots of donkey sanctuaries in their area.

However, when organisations such as Civic Systems Lab are effective in bringing together people in a fun, creative and open way, they can help build neighbourhoods where more people feel like they belong and this in turn is likely to benefit people who are often marginalised or excluded.

This is significant since research has found that social connections are one of the principle components of recovery.

In fact, rather than replicating existing patterns of exclusion and inequality, community development, if done properly and effectively, can go some way to combating these problems.