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Some people can’t stand maps. Say ‘Ordnance Survey’ and they run screaming for the satnav. Mention grid references and they stare at you as if you’re talking quantum theory.

Others, like governments, can’t resist any temptation to segment the UK into different coloured boxes.

As a sucker for maps myself, I can see the attraction. But even the best ones are two-dimensional.

So when Hazel Blears calls on local authorities to map something as nebulous as community tensions, it raises more questions than it answers.

The new guidance on ‘Community cohesion contingency planning and tension monitoring’ won’t be on anyone’s bedtime reading list, but it’s significant in that local councils are now expected to monitor how different groups get on with each other and use this information to identify ‘hot spots’ and manage tensions.

While we all want peaceful communities where people are respectful to each other, the guidance uses a crude and subjective approach that sees the world in terms of governance and civil order and not as it is experienced on the ground.

If a community or group is oppressed and disadvantaged, the tensions that result can’t be viewed only as unacceptable behaviour to be controlled: they can also be seen as expressions of frustration at injustice.

And the solutions are very different, depending on which view you take.

To map something as nuanced and contested as community cohesion, you need more than a bureaucratic system of monitoring and reporting.

You need people who are embedded in local communities, and who can describe ‘tensions’ from the point of view of the people who experience them.

You need a rounded, holistic approach to neighbourhood development that starts with people’s aspirations rather than their fears.

In short, you need community workers who are respected and valued, and can translate between the realities of local government and neighbourhood life, rather than being co-opted into a system of surveillance.

And yet the means of doing this are under threat. Many community empowerment networks are being dismantled.

Regeneration and neighbourhood renewal are seen increasingly in purely economic terms, with scant regard for social capital.

Community development workers remain undervalued and under-supported.

Hazel Blears’ new guidance might provide us with maps of communities, but some of the most important roads will be missing.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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