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April 23, 2008

Community Development and Empowerment are different

Community development is about enshrined rights, independence and the need for a sophisticated awareness of power – there are conflicts between this philosophy and the new community empowerment agenda. Good piece by Billy Maxwell in this week’s New Start which asks if community development is dead.

New Start

I feel like someone with rourette’s wanting to shout out ‘community development’ all the time.

Why? Because it seems to have become so unfashionable as to be unmentionable.

If only someone would declare community development dead, then we could have a wake. At least that would clear the way for a proper overhaul of empowerment theory, for which community development has been a torchbearer for a generation.

But no signs of this as we prepare for the empowerment white paper.

Only words such as involvement, localism, participation, civicness, responsiveness and citizenship are in.

Plus of course empowerment, which since Ed Cox became top adviser to Hazel Blears has been elevated to the number one DCLG word to sprinkle liberally over government announcements.

Personally, I can’t see an empowerment revolution rooted in the

23 proposals mooted in the community empowerment action plan.

I don’t want to sound cynical, though, as the empowerment agenda is most welcome. While cornmunity development has for many years made a big contribution to the thinking and practice of government, that just adds to the argument that, as a well-developed theory, it needs reinvigorating to take things even further forward.

Here in Blackburn with Darwen this shift began several years ago when the former community development service became the neighbourhood engagement service. Since then it has developed the policies and structures to operate more effectively at a neighbourhood level. We’ve found our tentative trial of participatory budgeting so useful that this year there is now a substantial mainstream pot to roll it out further. We’ve experimented

with new ways to engage, such as encouraging local participation from the thousands who contact our call centre, effectively moving from responsiveness to inclusive problem solving with citizens.

Local events have been organised entitled ‘neighbourhood voices’, directly gathering raw comments from people and then tracking these into actions within area plans and outcomes within the local area agreement. We’ve recognised that there is a strong link between developing skills and employment opportunities and developing civic participation generally, and have merged the neighbourhood engagement and lifelong learning services to meet this complementary agenda.

On this last area of worklessness and empowerment there may be a clue as to why community development has fallen from favour.

Community development enshrined rights, independence and the need for a sophisticated awareness of power. Toby Blume from Urban Forum politely described conflicts between this philosophy and that of the new empowerment agenda as ‘tensions’.

As an example, Hazel Blears recently supported Caroline Flint’s plan to demand that the
unemployed prove they are seeking work as a condition of tenancy.

This was in the same week that she described empowerment as ‘less social engineering and more social enterprise’.

Here is the nub of the issue; can you take an empowerment approach alongside using government powers to cajole people against their will?

Is empowerment about the broad values of taking people on a journey to develop their own power or just a shallow soundbite applicable to well- behaved citizens?

I can hear community development officers muttering expletives into their beards at these contradictions in a way that doesn’t seem to trouble the bright new things of empowerment theory. Is this a good or a bad thing? No doubt time will tell.