David Blunkett’s hope for the city

May 2, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments

One of the discoveries I made on holiday was a short book called “Hope From The City“. It was written by a Methodist minister called John Vincent who’s dedicated the better part of his life to working class areas of Sheffield, and is a reflection on the hopes, frustrations, opportunities and challenges involved in trying to harness the potential for communities to improve their surroundings. Whilst there’s a little too much religiosity for my tastes, it’s still an interesting & insightful read and is blessed with an unwavering belief in people who often seem written-off.

The book contains a forward by David Blunkett, whose endorsement of community empowerment borders on the evangelical. He writes: “Back in the 1930’s, R. H. Tawney referred to the very different ways in which adult education and community learning could express itself. Now today, as this book illustrates, the melting pot of cultural diversity and religious and social influences will form fertile ground for radical ideas, for a challenge to the establishment and for improvement built from the very roots of the community”.

Of course, all of this jars heavily againsty our recollection of Blunkett’s time in the Cabinet: the ‘crackdown’ rhetoric, the macho policy-making, the preference for punishment over penance and all that gloating, dismissive statism. After finishing the book, I was left to wonder: how on earth could the author of this foreword also be the author of such awful policy?

There was a similar Jekyll & Hyde theme running through Mr Blunkett’s May Day message to Labour loyalists in South Yorkshire. When judged solely as a piece of political rhetoric, it’s a bit of a mess. He talks of rediscovering Labour’s roots, but also warns members against believing its future can be found in the past. There’s also the requisite BNP scaremongering, a weird snipe at the ‘duplicity & contradictions’ of the Liberal Democrats (seriously, WTF?), and for all the reporting about it being an attack on Brown’s leadership, it’s actually a rather tame & polite call for Labour to offer more ‘hope and optimism’.

But in those parts of the speech where he channels Dr Jekyll and gets down to specifics, the results are pleasantly surprising. Blunkett’s proposals are as follows:

  • Bringing all elected, devolved and representatives agencies at regional and sub-regional level together to carry out a financial audit of all resources going into an area; and agreeing programmes of action to re-shape priorities and consider what help the private sector could provide in areas of immediate need.
  • Civic health audits which look at the overall health and well-being of communities and what steps could be taken to re-engage, revitalise and regenerate participation from local people.
  • A substantial expansion of the allotments programme to make a dramatic difference to food production and its quality, as well as to diet and affordability and wider understanding of the environmental benefits.
  • A devolution of the welfare state and benefits programme to sub-regional or city region level, returning to “the historic pattern on which the welfare state was built”, pulling together JobCentre Plus, the Learning and Skills Council, voluntary and where appropriate private providers and the relevant local authorities. Investment for tackling unemployment, family breakdown and child poverty could all be applied more responsibly and flexibly at local level, building on the Flexible New Deal.
  • An expansion in the use of microcredit, building on a substantial and reformed Social Fund, and the establishment of community forums to localise monitoring, policy development and delivery.
  • The creation of city or regional banks, which existed up to 20 years ago, building on the experience of the Kaka Liberal Populaire in northern Spain, combining the deposits of individuals and businesses with investment in industry and services, lending back into the local community from which the resources were raised.

The aim of these ideas is obvious. With the creation of regional banks, community forums & civic health audits, Blunkett wants to localise politics like never before and provide the means for individuals, churches, charities & small businesses to invest in their environments. He is effectively saying that the power of Whitehall needs to be reduced and the days of managerialism and hyper-bureaucracy must come to an end. Whilst there’s much to debate in how this can be brought about, that debate certainly needs to be had.

Of particular interest should be the idea of devolving the welfare state to a local level. Having been unimpressed by proposals for reforming the benefits system, the possibility of localisation is one I’ve also considered in the past. It’s clear that the welfare state needs to find new ways of working, develop better relationships with welfare claimants and promote more co-operation with local business, the third sector and other social services. The only conceivable way I can think of doing that is by devolving it to a local level and bringing it much closer to those people it wishes to reach. Indeed, we should take this idea further and think about the possibility for devolving prison & rehabilitation efforts as discussed in the Aitken report.

I wrote a few months ago that David Blunkett had done a great deal to make liberal and left wing politics appear irreconcilable. It appears I was wrong. Whilst his contribution to the debate about the future of the left may be unlikely and – in some quarters – unwelcomed, it’s too valuable to go unnoticed. For that, if nothing else, he deserves a great deal of credit.

The main message in Dr Vincent’s book is simple and beaming with optimism: there is hope in our cities. There are people in disadvantaged communities who possess the energy, ideas and commitment to improve their environment, but lack the means and are often defeated by bureaucracy. Blunkett understands that it doesn’t have to be that way, and whilst he didn’t do much to reverse the trend whilst in government, it’s better to speak out now than never. Just goes to show that hope can still found, even in the unlikeliest places.

(Image taken in Pitsmoor, Sheffield, by by Flickr user polandeze (Creative Commons))

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  1. Great post Neil. With the Sustainable Communities Act, these ideas may well even be possible (at least in theory)… after a certain amount of hoops have been jumped through, and I’m not sure they’ve even told us where the hoops are yet, but still… hopefully!
    It’ll be interesting to see how many of these ideas do get followed through though, as my worry is that it’s there, but people aren’t well enough aware of it, and their local authorities not sufficiently on top of it to actually push to get these local changes made. The legislation is there to make it happen, so I hope we see places making the most of it.
    Definitely one worth keeping an eye on.

  2. Hi Jayne,

    Thanks for the comment. You make a very good point that this will only be of benefit if authorities & communities then take advantage of those opportunities. Indeed, it might take a while to happen; I think a lot of us have been so used to having such a one-way relationship with the state that it’ll take some adjustment & learning on both sides to achieve something more dialogical. As with anything which hasn’t really been done before, there are always a multitude of unknowns, but I do think this is the kind of direction politics needs to go in, and that there’s a potential in these ideas which is quite exciting. Thanks for stopping by.


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