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April 26, 2007

Local Initiatives in Great Britain

The Local People Leading campaign has a growing army of supporters and now a website.  Fellow enthusiasts of community empowerment will appreciate this article by Stan Windass – from 1982!  25 years later it is entirely topical.

Stan Windass

Local People Leading


The Local People Leading campaign has launched a website so there is now a contact point for its growing army of supporters – including 150 Senscot readers who registered their interest.

Fellow enthusiasts of community empowerment will appreciate this article by Stan Windass – from 1982!  25 years later it is entirely topical.


Local Initiatives in Great Britain

Edited By: Stan Windass
Feburary, 1982


1. A Parable
A certain Mrs X was once recruited as a volunteer in a Good Neighbour scheme. She had never met the organiser, but one day she was asked by telephone to call on an old man in her street who, she was told, might need a spot of shopping done. This was the first time, after 18 months membership of the scheme, that she had been asked to do anything. When she went round she discovered that the old man had just come out of hospital, and was quite incapable of looking after himself; he had no food, no living relations and no resources other than his pension; his house was filthy. Moved by his predicament and impressed by his spirit she cooked, washed, cleaned and shopped for him for several weeks and then approached the organiser to see if anything could be done about a grant to buy some new bedding for her client who was by now fast becoming her friend. The organiser, horrified, told her that it was not the policy of the scheme to deal with such cases, that she should never have taken on such responsibilities and that the ‘case’ would at once be referred back to the relevant social services agencies. The ‘case’ was effectively referred back and the old man was returned to hospital.

2. The Outer Meaning
At first sight this parable draws attention to the ‘two worlds’ -the world of formal care and the world of informal care. On the one hand, informal care means the natural loving and caring human relationships which are fostered in the family and develop naturally with any human community; and on the other hand, formal care means care provided, through organisations governed by rules and statistics. Formal care relates to ‘patients’ or ‘clients’; informal care relates to people.

To some extent, Local Initiatives can be said to represent the informal world rising up in revolt against the formal.

There is an element of warfare between these two systems. Large-scale formal caring systems, it could be argued, have been tried and found wanting. The idea that the welfare state could somehow provide health and care for all through some vast administrative system has now gone by the board. Once health and welfare are perceived as things to be provided and organised from above, by the state, demand becomes infinite, and human , beings are thought of as passive receptacles. Yet the reality is quite different. When we M step back and think about what goes on in society, we can easily see that at least 99 out of every 100 acts of healing, support or caring are carried out informally within the family and neighbourhood, without any large-scale bureaucratic intervention or control.

The world of the administrator depends on defined categories, on counting, on rules; and it has a kind of built in imperialism. There is a tendency for the bureaucratic system to extend its definitions, its rules and its counting, and to try to ‘colonise’ the heartland of the human community, in a way that destroys its very life.

One of the major decisions that local initiatives have to face therefore is whose side they – are on in this battle. Are they outposts of the invading bureaucracy, merely unpaid servants of the colonising system, or are they the vanguard of the community, the storm troops of the resistance movement which will supplant the welfare state?

3. The Inner Meaning
There is however a second meaning to our parable.

It will not have escaped the observation of the shrewd reader that the bureaucracy which destroys human relationships in our parable is not the state, but a voluntary organisation -a good neighbours scheme; in fact, a local initiative. And this leads us nearer to the heart of the matter.

Like most problems of opposites in human life, the problem of the conflict between organisation and spirit, structure and spontaneity, form and matter, cannot be resolved by opting for one side or the other. We will never escape from this conflict, because it is part of the very structure of existence. The sap which rises through the trees in Spring and bursts into blossom, flows through the intricate channels of the structure of the tree, which its flow helps to create. The human family, the most important and durable of all local initiatives depends for its vitality on complex structure of rules and relationships which are only too easily ruptured. Organisation and spirit are complementary in the most radical sense, that neither can exist without the other.

The way forward then is to reconcile and to heal, to make sure that each side appreciates its dependence on the other, understands that its vitality derives from the other; and that apparent conflict should be resolved into a deeper unity.

This means that we have to move towards the concept of the ‘enabling’ state. The state does not exist to provide, but to enable; to release and channel energy -in particular the energy of local initiatives. But local initiatives are not ‘pure spirit’; they are themselves organisational systems, they also contain potential conflict, and have to learn the art of enabling, the art of releasing energy. They are certainly pioneers in defining the role of local communities in relation to the state -but this is by no means a conflict of pure spirit versus dead matter, of good versus evil. It is rather one aspect of a problem which local initiatives must also cope with in their own organisations -and which every individual has to cope with in his own life. Even the good lady in OK” parable had to cope with the organisation of the old man’s household chores.

4. The Profiles
We have indeed erred on the side of large-scale provision and bureaucratisation in health and social services. But the answer is not just to remove the superstructure. An organisational response is needed, and that is precisely what all the local initiatives described in the following pages are. They are all organisations. In many suburban areas, where more basic human kinship communities have been destroyed, a system must be developed to enable them to be re-formed. In the same way the state must enable local initiatives to grow and prosper; for the essence of the local initiative response is that it is on a human scale. Local initiatives are able to tap the formidable creative energies of local leaders fired with a vision, to channel the enormous capacity for love and care which are latent within all communities but which need to be released through personal contact and infection. Government at all levels must learn how to relate to this powerful force; and this learning process is happening wherever vital local initiatives exist, at the interface between the local initiative and the government structure. It is only through the living experience at this interface that the ‘enabling state’ can come into being; and that is why it is vital that the lessons implicit in these profiles are learnt and assimilated.

Releasing the energy of local communities is like splitting the atom -it is very hard to do, but the results in terms of energy release are incalculable. This energy however also needs to be channelled and directed, in order to create the vital fabric of a healthy and caring human community.

The following profiles provide the text for this learning experience.