It was intended as a celebration, and it had all the right ingredients: tasty nibbles, free-flowing wine and a room in Westminster. The audience was a rich mix of think tankers, politicians and activists.
The purpose was to launch a new book, Transforming Neighbourhoods, a collaboration between the Young Foundation and the local government Improvement and Development Agency, both springs of intelligent thinking about localism.
But the good news of the book was overshadowed by the story of one activist who’s spent 30 years fighting for her neighbourhood.
Shirley Mucklow described the successes of the Sure Start programme in Bellingham, south London – and how the local people who had made that initiative work had now been reduced to a token role. ‘They have walked away and we will not get them back,’ was her verdict.
Shirley’s story isn’t shocking, because it’s happening constantly. Two weeks ago New Start highlighted the way many community empowerment networks are being systematically stripped of their funds and influence. We saw the same forces at work in the demise of Regen School.
Or I could talk about Liz, a single parent who works in a children’s centre in Sheffield: she loves her job, is passionate about making a difference to people’s lives, and is facing the prospect of redundancy in March.
The Young Foundation is right to celebrate transformed neighbourhoods, but it’s happening against the odds.
Communities secretary Hazel Blears described the waste of local people’s efforts as a sin, and there’s something appropriate in such language: it devalues people and turns them sour and cynical, and it breeds contempt for a government that talks the language of empowerment but appears helpless when local people lose the power to change their communities.
The good news is that we do have a secretary of state who genuinely believes in enabling communities to take action. Her discussions with the Audit Commission, if they change the attitudes of councillors and chief officers, are more than welcome.
But there’s a mountain to climb, and the ascent is more arduous because at every turn you hear the voices of those who’ve been let down.
The greatest indictment of central and local government policy has been that so many of the enthusiasts of 1997 have become the bystanders of 2007, and it will take a Herculean effort to reverse that.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine