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.

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What’s wrong with rising house prices?

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme could raise house prices by 20% in the next couple of years, according to a report by Fathom Consultancy.

This is not being heralded as good news by everyone (although The Express has followed its time honoured tradition of solely reporting on speculation about house prices with a very positive story)

But why would it be a bad thing for house prices to go up? We don’t worry so much when share prices go up, why are house prices any different?

Three of the most important reasons for concern about booming house prices are;

  • It could be a bubble followed by a housing crash leaving people in ‘negative equity’

  • Rising house prices can make it harder for first time buyers to afford to buy (especially if they do not have help from the bank of mum and dad)

  • Less commented on, but still important, richer people might benefit disproportionately from rising house prices since they own more property wealth than the rest of us

So, as Lenin famously once said, what is to be done?

There is a healthy debate in think-tank land about so-called ‘de-coupling’, the idea that as the economy grows middle and low income people do not benefit because their wages do not keep up. This has lead to proposals such as living wage zones and representation of low paid workers on remuneration committees.

Perhaps we need a similar debate around how we can ensure that everyone benefits from rising house prices.

This could involve ways of re-distributing housing wealth including;

A land value tax

– A ‘mansion tax

– Or even more technical reforms of how we tax land and property which can be found in the Mirrelees Review

The money that these measures raise could then in turn be used to benefit those who do not have the good fortune of owning expensive properties that have gone up in value.

This could happen, for example, through;

– Funding a programme of housing associations or council built starter homes

– Funding part of the state pension as it becomes increasingly contributory

– Paying for part of a new universal adult social care system

Of course, as with so many questions of public policy, there is a possibility that any attempt to both take the heat out of the housing market and distribute gains more fairly, could be self defeating if they dampen the market too much.

However, this does not take away from the principle, that, currently, wealthy people disproportionately benefit from rising house prices and that we need to think about how we create a system in which more and more people, especially those on low and middle incomes, can benefit.

Public services in the community

The measles outbreaks taking place across the country tells us a lot about how public services, such as hospitals and schools, can be reformed so that they have a better relationship with the communities in which they operate.

Much has been written about how much the abuse and neglect that took place in Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust between 2005 and 2008 tells us about how the NHS should be reformed. Much less has been written about what the measles outbreaks tell us about reforming public services (since so much attention has been on the role the media played in causing the outbreaks).

Radio 4’s Today programme featured interviews with mothers in Manchester on why they had or had not got their children vaccinated against measles.

Strikingly, people did not mention media scare stories as the main reason for not getting their children vaccinated. Instead, they recounted stories about someone they knew being convinced that the vaccine had caused autism and said that this was the deciding factor.

What can an organisation like the NHS do in the face of these community pressures?

Clearly, simply doing traditional public information campaigns using leaflets and posters is insufficient. In addition, the NHS needs to be have a better understanding of how information flows through communities and a better ability to tap into these networks (more on this general argument here).

This leads to 1 of Tony Blair’s 7 questions that the Labour party needs to answer.

How do we take the health and education reforms of the last Labour government to a new level, given the huge improvement in results they brought about?

My answer would be that in general schools and hospitals should be reformed so that they have a better, more dynamic relationship with the communities in which they operate.

Education doesn’t only happen at school

Much of the energy around educational reforms is based on improving the performance of schools. This is an understandable but limited approach.

As we all know, a lot of education happens outside of schools. We learn from our friends and families and we do homework at home or in the library. There is an extensive amount of academic research which shows that the degree of ‘parental involvement‘ is one of the key factors determining a child’s level of educational achievement.

However, many schools and teachers have quite limited interaction with parents. There are parents evenings most terms and parents of poorly performing children are often brought into school for special meetings. In addition, there are often parents represented on governing boards and in PTAs.

This could be dramatically expanded. In America the Learning Dreams approach involves supporting the parents of children who are struggling at school, so that these parents develop a more positive attitude towards education. Closer to home, the Ocean Maths approach does a similar thing.

Health doesn’t only happen in hospitals

Talk to any doctor or nurse and they will tell you about their annoyance with patients. They don’t take their medicine, they miss appointments and they don’t do their exercises.

Behind these frustrations is the simple fact that patients have to put work in to get healthy.

Approaches like the Expert Patient Programme give patients the skills they need to manage their conditions. This is especially important given the rising cost of outpatient admissions for the NHS.

Cost of outpatient admissionsThe NHS could learn a lot from the “People Powered Health” movement on how you can work with patients to empower them to better deal with their illnesses and become more healthy.

For a practical example of how this works you can look at the “Connecting People” study. Here is the diagram that shows their approach.

What you can see is that the worker sees that their role is not just to use their skills to assist the individual being helped but also to support that person to develop their skills, connections and confidence.

Public services in the community

Many people involved with reforming public services rightly concentrate on improving the quality of these services. They are right to do so. But if we are to take the reforms of the last Labour government to the next level we need to do some from an understanding that education doesn’t just happen in schools and healing does not just happen in hospitals. Once we recognise that we can begin to think about how schools and hospitals can work with the communities in which they operate to make them better educated and healthier.

How to build popular support for social housing

What would a popular, left wing housing policy look like?

Three of the most pressing and controversial areas of government policy in the UK at present are; childcare, housing and adult social care (see for example Nick Pearce’s blog on the subject).

It was no surprise when in his recent budget, George Osborne included announcements of extra money in these three areas.

Briefly, he announced tax cuts to help families with childcare costs, government guarantees for people trying to get a mortgage and a cap on the maximum people can spend on care in later life (the cap will be £72,000).

The left in British politics has been developing strong counter arguments on these topics in recent years. However, I do not believe that the left has yet developed a strong idea that the public will back on how to reform the housing system on the UK.

The left has stronger arguments on adult social care and child care.

On adult social care, the government is doing far less than the Dilnot commission recommended (they recommended a cap of more like £35,000). More impressively, Andy Burnham has been floating the idea of a national care service that would be free at the point of use.

On childcare the government’s announcements seems to disproportionately benefit richer households. In contrast, the Resolution Foundation and others have been making the argument for more universal, high quality childcare services.

In both cases, the left has developed a case that a sizeable percentage of the public would support.

Despite a lot of work I do not think that the same could be said for housing.

For example, Jack Dromey’s response to the new housing policies announced in the budget rightly pointed out the government’s failure to stimulate the construction industry. However, it was weaker on what Labour’s alternative approach would look like.

For many on the left the default housing policy is to build more council houses. One of the major problems with this policy is that it is not popular with the public.

In general the public do not support the idea of building new homes of any type.

Do you support new house building?

By a massive majority the public far prefer the idea of owning than renting.

Would you prefer to rent or buy?

And, when asked to say which housing policies they most support they chose giving assistance to first time buyers and increasing access to mortgages more than they chose building more council housing.

The challenge for the left then is, can they develop housing policies that both address the major problems of housing need facing the country and are popular with the public.

Any thoughts from readers would be most appreciated.