Postal workers, refuse collectors, publicans and even the local branch of Sainsbury’s may hold the key to creating a ‘big society’, according to a Lewisham-based think tank.
In Connecting Communities, just published by respected social consultancy RSA, the agency has been fleshing out Prime Minister David Cameron‘s much-publicised concept of a ‘big society’ where everyone has a part to play. The think tank believes that any such scheme must be based on what it calls ‘social capital’. With this in mind, it has drawn up an intricate map of the social networks operating in New Cross Gate, with a view to allowing more isolated individuals to benefit from other residents’ ‘social connections’.
In New Cross Gate, whose ten-year New Deal for Communities programme will end in March of next year, more than half of all residents live in rented social housing, compared with a figure of 19% nationally; just 29% own their own home, compared with 69% nationally. At the same time, there are pockets of relative affluence, such as the middle-class areas up on Telegraph Hill. The report talked to 280 people across a range of backgrounds in the area, in order to identify the individuals and places that can link people within a local community to each other. Two thirds of those they spoke did not know anyone who worked at the local council, a quarter could not name anyone they thought had influence, power or responsibility to change things locally and a third did not know anyone in a position to provide jobs. A majority could not imagine influencing the media in any way. Single parents had fewer connections than average, and 2% of respondents were completely isolated. For RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor, this shows that a majority of people in the area feel completely disempowered: “Don’t underestimate the number of people who feel it’s not just they themselves who don’t have any power, but that they don’t know people who do either.”
The report tried to establish what people saw as ‘community hubs’ that would bring together residents from all walks of life. Community gardening emerged as a sure-fire winner, with the Green Shoots project bringing together people from the widest range of social and economic backgrounds and the Barnes Wallis community centre brought together people from the widest geographical area. The report’s authors were surprised that no libraries, schools or Sure Start schemes were identified as community hubs. Perhaps equally surprisingly, Sainsbury’s, the only supermarket in the area, was identified as a place where opportunities could be created for people from different backgrounds to interact regularly. Manager Glenn Rogers feels this is reflected in the wide range of products the store provides – from basic, own-brand cheap essentials to its top-of-the-range Taste the Difference label and organic produce. The store has an ethnically diverse workforce, adopts a local charity and encourages customers to volunteer, has had Shakespeare performed in the aisles and plans to let a free newspaper, the Gate Post, use the Sainsbury cafe to hold dispute resolution meetings between residents. It has also promised to support the creation of shops, community facilities or a creche in the space outside the supermarket.
Is this not a return a kind of 19th century benign paternalism, last practised by the big industries and mines of Victorian Britain, where you in all but name ‘sold your soul to the company store?’ RSA say not – and point out that postal workers and local pubs that, for example, have quiz nights and support community events also play a pivotal role. But even they are sceptical about how far a ‘bigger society’ can bridge the social divide. As one respondent told them, “You could draw a huge black line between Telegraph Hill and New Cross Gate. Not many from Telegraph Hill pass down this way”.
Nonetheless, in a future of public sector cuts, they believe their research can play an important role in shaping the communities of the future. As Taylor says, “If we’re talking about fewer resources in the public sector, it may be that a more effective way for us to invest our money is in enhancing the roles and resources of people who are already active in the community”. While they do not suggest it is a panacea, they point out that “social network interventions are small, risky and cheap. But they will occasionally achieve remarkable results.”