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Dominic Llewellyn: Rebuilding British society and tackling societal problems must involve empowering communities

Dominic Llewellyn leads trade missions for social enterprises with the Big Society Network and UKTI, and runs a social innovation consultancy, and is a Governor of Excelsior, Newcastle’s only City Academy.  

The last couple of weeks have shown us British society at its best and at its worst; the horrific scenes we saw of rampaging youths rioting across some of our major cities and the inspiring internet campaign that saw thousands of us clean up our streets. The inspiring campaign however must not mask the fact that pockets of British society are broken and that our communities are fragmented. We need a stronger and bigger society.

Governments have made significant mistakes in the way they have worked with civil society over many decades. Some have sought to control people through the machine of the state, whilst others have abdicated responsibility. I am hopeful that this Government is looking at a different approach. Indeed, in his speech last Monday, David Cameron commented “Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander. Because people’s behaviour does not happen in a vacuum: it is affected by the rules government sets and how they are enforced”.

Both seeking to control society or abdicating responsibility for it have allowed the conveyer belt to speed up and not slow down. The causes of such a conveyer belt are strongly intertwined with what the Centre for Social Justice term as their five pathways to poverty - family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, serious personal debt and addiction to drugs and alcohol.

As well as addressing these causes of poverty, however, the Government needs to continue to look at another problem: how to increase the glue that holds our communities together – social capital, too many people lack aspiration, hope and a sense of belonging to society.  97% of communities have become more fragmented in the last thirty years and even the strongest communities today are weaker than the weakest in 1971.  

Increasing social capital is not about creating some left wing utopia; it is about slowing down the conveyer belt to crime. Statistics show that crime is lower in places where people know their neighbours, when parents take an active interest in their child’s school, the teachers try harder and the children do better, and connected communities are good for children: babies are born healthier, teenage pregnancies are fewer, and young people are less likely to get involved in crime.

The ways of doing this are many and complex, but Government can play a role. If social capital is not built, disenfranchisement amongst communities will only increase and we will continue to be stuck in a system of top-down control where people continue to lack aspiration and hope.

In order to facilitate the building of social capital, the Government needs to:

  • Go further in decentralising power, ensuring that we see ourselves more as citizens with a responsibility for our communities’ well being; instead of us seeing ourselves as taxpayers and clients of the state and statutory providers;
  • Encourage local governments to share this freedom with citizens in as broad a way as possible with more co-designing of public services & community engagement;
  • Re-evaluate the model of top down Government contracts. The Government’s announcement that its Community First funding is largely on a match basis (with a financial value placed on time given) is a good start but I am concerned that as long as the UK Government pursues a model based on top-down contracts without community participation, we are increasing top-down control and not enabling bottom-up societal ownership. In an age where we can buy and sell products through eBay, why can’t communities have more of a say in funding decisions or even bid for outcomes?
  • Make the engagement of communities a requirement for funding for community-based projects;
  • Ensure funding is more accountable to communities of – let’s not forget – taxpayers up and down the land. National and local governments should be looking at increasing the amount of participatory budgeting so that responsibility for decreasing taxpayers’ spending is in line with community priorities;

In short, it is no good just stopping the conveyer belt to crime; if we are to create a stronger and bigger society, we all need to walk on a different path. We must make sure that we are tackling poverty in a way that empowers communities and builds social capital; without this we will be falling into the same top down mistakes of previous years and won’t enable people to escape the cycles of poverty that many are trapped in.


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