News and Comment

Building resilient communities: an obvious way to cope with budget cuts or an abrogation of councils’ responsibility?

Wednesday 28 November 2012

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Andrew Kaye, Policy and Planning manager at the RNIB, writes a guest blog on building resilient communities, ahead of our related public interest seminar on December 4th.

Who talks about the ‘Big Society’ these days? Few politicians dare mention anymore, but for those in the know, the 28th November (today), is the latest Big Society Awards Celebration Day. And there is much to celebrate. Up and down the country charities and groups working to improve their communities and the lives of others have made a massive impact. Recent Big Society awards have gone to, among others, the Hangleton and Knoll project in Brighton and Hove where volunteers boost adults’ IT skills, give young people a voice and look after vulnerable groups.

It was Lord Nat Wei who likened the Big Society to an ‘ecosystem’, which arguably served to confuse people about the concept more than it enlightened. But the basic point he was trying to make was that the core support councils and other public bodies provide to local people in greatest need – the ‘seabed’ – would in future years need to be supplemented by a mix of different groups contributing to communities in their own unique way. These groups can be viewed as the colourful ‘coral’ that make our communities so vibrant.

Since then much has been written and said on the topic, none of which needs repeating here. Suffice to say whatever charitable endeavour and community action takes place today, very little of it is deliberately initiated with the intent of creating Lord Wei’s ecosystem, or winning a Big Society award for that matter. Local groups of blind and partially sighted people, the topic on which I am most familiar, are delivering high-quality support because there is an obvious social need and the state and market fail to provide specialist enough services. The question many of these groups increasingly have to ask themselves, however, is whether they can survive in a climate of increased demand, fewer grants and a drop in fundraised income.

There are limits to what local volunteers and charities can do. In an environment where public services are confronting the very same questions about juggling resources, it perhaps comes as no surprise that councils like Newham are looking at how they can build their communities’ resilience.

In Newham’s case the council argues that building resilience means supporting local people to develop the personal skills, community networks and economic opportunities required to succeed. In other areas like Plymouth, Leicester and South Tyneside, where the RNIB and OPM found examples of good practice involving councils that have worked in partnership with disabled people, we are also seeing signs that local authorities are prepared to move away from the paternalism of old and empower local residents.

The premise of course is that with scarce resources councils will need to think more creatively about how they can achieve social outcomes. Councils could enter a new and mature type of relationship with service users, one that involves an emergent ‘quid pro quo’ dynamic between council and resident, where the former provides the basic tools that the latter requires to live as independently as possible.

Presuming that building our communities’ resilience is a good thing in and of itself; we need to consider what the acceptable limits are to promoting self-sufficiency for groups who still need high-quality council care and support? A suspicion remains, rightly or wrongly, that unless councils meet the needs of Britain’s disabled, elderly and other ‘hard-to-reach’ communities, building resilience risks ending up looking like a convenient, cheap substitute for delivering the services local taxpayers expect. Like decent adult social care, or services to support parents and their children.

We all understand the trade-offs required in a period of unprecedented austerity, but interestingly this year’s British Social Attitudes survey showed a rise in the proportion calling for an increase in taxation and spending for the first time in nine years – up five points to 36 per cent. NatCen Social Research say this is a modest increase, but it could be the first sign of a reaction against public spending reductions, which are set to accumulate between now and 2017 at the very least. There is a danger that building resilience might come to be seen as a fig-leaf for more spending cuts and that won’t be in anyone’s interests.