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November 1, 2007

Building Confident Communities

The key to building confident communities is to stay in touch with the old and distinctive and allow local people to get on with things, says Steve Wyler

Steve Wyler

In 1954 Michael Young, who created the Open University and the School for Social Entrepreneurs and much else besides, wrote an article -‘Changing Life in a Village Community’ -after a visit to Joseph Rowntree’s model village of New Earswick. Even then, Young felt that transport and mass communication were eroding a sense of place, of belonging. In the modern age, he said, we all belong to the world, but ‘the trouble is, the world is too big. It is too big a place for anyone to feel at home in.’

So community of place still matters, but what does it really consist of? Young identified three ingredients. The first was length of residence, a place where people have lived long enough to put down roots: ‘they have not had to change their friends or their grocer and milkman every few years or so.’ The second was a place with a character all of its own. Houses, shops, open spaces should be distinctive: ‘a place you can belong to because it is different.’ The third was a place where people share a common, history: ‘the shared knowledge of old experiences, or old stories of experiences handed down, is one of the intangible things which make people feel they belong somewhere.’

If this is what it takes to provide a sense of community, what does it take to make a community thriving and confident? Young pointed to one answer: active self-determination. He said that Rowntree did not set up a village council, but rather allowed residents to do it themselves. ‘Consciously or unconsciously he knew that people must be allowed to make their own history and create their own community.’ Nowadays we might add that, because every community is so extraordinarily diverse, the challenge is to create a community of communities, building bonds within groups and bridges between different groups.

If Young were alive to expand his article, I feel sure he would draw attention to the revitalising nature of community enterprise, where organisations trade for social purpose and reinvest surpluses into their community. Within the development trusts movement, £97m of trading income was produced in this way in the last year. Such activity stimulates the local economy, creating wealth and locking it in. It reduces dependency on grant handouts and so reinforces a community’s scope for self. determination. And it builds skills and common bonds among those engaged in the enterprises, in times of adversity and in times of triumph.

Finally, I think Michael Young would have celebrated the power of community asset ownership. As a means to bring underused or derelict land and buildings into productive and beneficial use, as a foundation for trading activities and income generation, and as a beacon of hope in places where people have been written off, sometimes for generations, the value of asset ownership in creating confident communities is hard to overestimate. With £430m of assets in community ownership across the UK, development trusts and others are showing that this approach works and is sustainable. But if we are to create confident communities everywhere, we do need much more of it.