For a week before Easter, I observed at close quarters the passion and commitment that goes into community organisations and social enterprises. I watched ordinary people express ideas for projects to make their estates and neighbourhoods better, and start turning them into business plans.
Anyone who’s serious about community empowerment needs to start somewhere like this: a place that brings together people with the seeds of a vision, and others who know how the system works and can show how to open the necessary doors.
I was in Wigan, where a community action charity was working with the local economic partnership to help start new social enterprises. If you want to understand empowerment, think of the difference it will make to a man with a learning disability to run his own market garden and sell fresh flowers and organic vegetables. Think of the impact when a group of older people develops plans for a network of 5,000 over-50s who will campaign for better services and run social events. Imagine the potential when start-up social enterprises have a network to support them and connect them with opportunities.
Some of the people I met are those officialdom calls hard to reach: those who are furthest from the labour market, who live on isolated estates with few amenities, or don’t have English as their first language. There have been no end of policies to support them, yet policies neither inspire nor enthuse them.
I met people living in difficult conditions who have passion and are willing to work their socks off. Yet the structures designed to support them don’t even speak their language. And they need that support: the ideas developed in Wigan were fragile, and consistent advice and encouragement is needed. But far from encouraging ordinary people with passion and ideas, the structures and policies of central and local government consistently squash and frustrate them.
They do so not through intent, but because they scarcely consider their impact on the poorest and least powerful. When you reorganise and restructure, it destroys relationships and networks. Setting up and then dismantling representative bodies is disempowering and breeds cynicism. Shutting down organisations deemed unfit for purpose and creating new bureaucracies wastes people’s time and fails to address the real issues, which lie in the attitudes of officials who treat ordinary people as irritants and show them little respect.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine