Richard Nixon once said “People react to fear, not love; they don't teach that in Sunday School, but it's true.” Perhaps this explains why David Cameron had so much more popular success with his idea of Broken Britain than with his idea of The Big Society.
There are plenty of approaches to solving community level problems which stress the importance of identifying problems and designing solutions to those problems (for example the LEAP method).
There are also a number of approaches which seek to identify what is good about a community and to build on that. Examples include appreciative enquiry, asset based community development and positive deviance. Tessy Britton’s Travelling Pantry project would be an excellent example of this type of approach.
The RSA’s Connected Communities project is commencing work in 7 areas of England to see if projects built on an understanding of local social networks can improve people’s well being. We are trying to ensure that we do not use a “deficit model” of these areas and instead build on each area’s “hidden wealth”
One of the areas will be the Wick estate in Littlehampton. Some people speak poorly of the estate and the area scores badly on many of the measures that the government uses for the index of multiple deprivation.
I went for a walk around the estate with a local resident and a council employee. Regular readers of this blog will, I hope, forgive me if I go in to some detail about what I found.
One of the first stops we came to was the Wickbourne Centre.
From the outside it looks slightly foreboding but inside there was a great deal of activity. A busy coffee shop selling very cheap drinks and snacks and dozens of toddlers happily causing chaos as their parents (mostly mums) watched on. The building is run by a local church and was paid for through the government’s SureStart scheme.
One of the workers from the church explained to me that they run Alpha courses at the centre. These are rehab courses for men coming out of prison. ‘Alpha’ here has religious connotations as well as meaning something like “top dog”.
As well as the Wickbourne Centre there is a youth centre and a drop-in centre for young people.
The staff at the youth centre were quite suspicious of us. They asked me what I knew about the forthcoming cuts. I suppose that I seemed like a member of the establishment to them.
A couple of people told me that the youth centre used to be run by a local milkman. Back then it had seemed very welcoming. However, allegations had been made against him and it was now run on much more formal lines.
I was surprised to find out that there is only one, modestly sized, pub in the estate.
There used to be more pubs but these have closed down. People told me that there are lots of informal drinking establishments. The local shopping parade was not particularly noteworthy.
Walking along the parade did bring out a bit of nostalgia in one of my guides. He explained to me that when he was growing up the local shops would let you buy bread on trust and would tell your mum you had been in. Now they were much more likely to be chains with little local connection.
One of the most visible signs of public investment in the area is the new housing.
There is a mix of tenures in the area but the council is still a major landlord. Some of the properties are empty and there are active discussions to turn one of them into a space for community use.
One of my guides explained to me that there are people in the area known as “mums”. These are people who have an open house which teenagers can come into to get away from things (including drugs). One of the ideas for the converted flat was to be a sort of official mum; a place of quiet and solitude for anyone to retreat to.
Many of the people we talked to made reference to the rivalry with Worthing. I was told that this rivalry could be seen in the outrageous refereeing of football matches between the two towns. Someone told me that he had been sent off for “aggressive shrugging”.
The people I spoke to in the Wick were quite clear that there were problems. People mentioned problems with drink, drugs, unemployment, anti-social behaviour, stigma and insufficient public services. However, people were much keener to talk about what they liked about the area.
When I asked people “what do you like most about the Wick?” they invariably said “the people”.
I would not want to draw any dramatic conclusions from any of this.
As I walked around I kept thinking of a quote from King Lear; “Nothing will come of nothing” Perhaps policy makers are too quick to assume that deprived areas have nothing to recommend them. This leads to a desire to introduce solutions to these areas; Enterprise Zones or New Deal for Communities depending on your politics. This tendency needs to be balanced with an understanding of what is good and valuable in these areas and how this can be connected, galvanised and enhanced.