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Book review: Lessons for the Big Society

Lessons for the Big Society: Planning, Regeneration and the Politics of Community Participation

By Denis Dillon and Bryan Fanning

In 1989, I was a playworker.  As a raw recruit, my boss sent me to an estate (council managed) with money to build a new playground.  I convened a meeting for local parents, nervously telling them they had 40k to spend on new play provision, and they had a chance to design it themselves.  There were gasps. ’40k? That much??’

Then it started.  ‘Tell you what…why don’t you spend that on fixing our leaking toilets and windows and maybe getting our kids to school without being run over..?’ (I’ve edited out the swearing!)

It was my first taste of a deep, abiding issue. Somebody ‘up there’ creates ideas that have little apparent connection with the issues being faced ‘down here’.  From then on, across five subsequent local authorities I found myself trying to connect big disconnected thinking (e.g. City Challenge, SRB, ERDF, Sure Start) with small critical changes that meant something real to local people, sometimes with success, sometimes with failure…

This book delves into such issues in impressive detail, cross-referencing studies of paradigms in public sector thinking, local authority behaviour and the effects of government initiatives as well as interviews with the main actors. It didn’t tell me anything new with regards to planning and regeneration (though it did about Haringey!). It did validate and reference a view that I had evolved in my working life; there are desperate tensions for local authorities trying to positively affect the micro conditions found in their patchwork of communities.

The book goes into why.  The detail is local, but the themes are universal. To name a few,  we are given notions of municipalism, leading to organisations guarding their power with technical/rational artefacts;  we see the effects of ‘top down’ intentions of national initiatives being refocused into new intentions through municipalism and anxiety (sharing power can be uncomfortable!). We are taken through the ramifications of applying single paradigms to the complexity of a whole borough, the issues of dealing with modernist planning from the early part of last century, and the results and responses locally to shifting initiatives and thinking on regeneration and planning over the last 40 years.

There’s also considerable attention paid to the nature and impact of effective and non effective community activism and participation, right up to the current date. Haringey’s borders include the Broadwater Farm estate and Highgate; radically different localities with radically different populations. The book argues that the affluent, educated communities are effective activists with regard to their own localities. More beleaguered communities needed support that often isn’t there or was seldom implemented effectively; something I’ve encountered time and time again.

Issues?  Haringey has seen real tragedy and has arguably been a flashpoint for national social unrest.  It’s also in London. Is it representative of the other 151 local authorities? Yes and no (thankfully!)  Read through the detail and you’ll find many of the issues highlighted are all too relevant and, to be frank, delving into Haringey is strangely fascinating in its own right!

I would have welcomed more discourses on power. There are detailed descriptions of the machinations of committee structures and decision making, but I would have loved to understand the ebb and flow of influence against some theories of power (that might be a whole separate book!). In that regard, it’s worth noting one of the authors (Denis Dillon) was an actor himself in part of this story. He was a Labour member of Haringey Council, a cabinet member for regeneration from 2000 to 2005 and deputy leader from 2004 to 2005. I think that gives the text some real weight and it’s a good note to end on. The authors have created a fascinating, detailed, well referenced view of a council coping with massive issues, giving us all vital lessons and insights, whether you’re signed up to the Big Society or not!

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