A history of community development
Linking the stories that connect community organisers across the world, from 1940-2020
An essay by David Boyle, commissioned by Local Trust
BIG LOCAL IS ONE OF THE MOST radical and exciting grant programmes ever launched by a major lottery funder. Between 2010 and 2012, the National Lottery Community Fund identified 150 areas that had historically missed out on lottery and other funding. Each of those areas was allocated £1m of Big Local funding. This could be spent in any way they chose, provided residents organised themselves locally to plan and manage that funding, involving the wider community in the decision-making process.
This bold new approach to supporting and enabling community-led change is part of a much longer story. As chair of Local Trust, it is important to me that we hold the flame for community development while we deliver the Big Local programme – not just through enabling change in the present, but by telling that wider story our work is part of.
This ambitious essay by David Boyle, and the exciting timeline that accompanies it, aim to provide that context, which can be so difficult to see while tackling urgent issues in the present – something David noted in his previous essay for us, Counterweight, in early 2020.
David’s history is not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, it draws out and links currents in what we now think of as ‘community development’ over the last near-century, bookended by communities rallying to support each other through the turmoil of the Blitz in the 1940s and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The timeline and essay help us see how people have tried to facilitate community development over the course of these 80 years – and importantly, how they talked about it at the time. They show that, in one form or another community development has always been there, evolving from one generation to the next.
Through all these movements run individual stories. For me personally, the defining year was 1981 – the peak of Thatcherism and the community-architecture-focused ‘technical aid’ movement in the timeline. I had just turned 18 and was working for Marks & Spencer, where I was quickly realising that a career in retail management wasn’t for me. Four years later, against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes and uprisings in inner cities, I was working in a thousand-bed hostel for the homeless in Camden Town that had been compulsory-purchased from a private landlord by the council, and passed on to a housing association to manage.
This realisation that I wanted to work in something resembling community development – informed so much by what had come before and was taking place around me – started me on a 35-year career working with communities, eventually taking me to Local Trust in 2019.
Countless personal experiences like this run through the long history of community development. But all too often, individual stories go untold or are forgotten – lost to news archives, personal photo collections or the depths of Google searches. As a result, common threads in community development work can be missed.
In producing this history with David (and others who offer different perspectives on the history, whose accounts are being published alongside this essay) Local Trust aims to provide communities and those supporting them with a longer view of who and what has come before us – to help locate today’s efforts in that longer story, and provide a resource for work to come.
Chair, Local Trust
What is community development?
Your answer to this question may just depend on when you were born. So little has been written on the history of this idea, especially perhaps in the UK, that it might anyway be hard to tell. The short answer is that it means something a little different decade by decade.
Nor has much been written about the story of the idea that local communities might manage more aspects of their people’s lives. It has been said that it began among those running the British empire in East Africa, but I can find no evidence of that.
Instead, the bundle of ideas we know as community development seems to have begun in a series of sparks from people like the Chicago activist Saul Alinksy or the Quaker ambulance driver Tony Gibson in Blitz-hit Stepney, both in the early 1940s. Or, not long afterwards, from the Catholic priest Ivan Illich in the Puerto Rican slums of New York. Or perhaps the young British architect John Turner, studying self-build housing in Peru.
Nor is it clear whether those ideas were regarded at the time as naïvely radical or backward-looking (it is hard to know what the reaction was to Tibby Clarke’s script for the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico back in 1949 – it was a whimsical idea). What bound them all together seems to me to have been the rise of the so-called counterculture.
We have been living in this for so long now that it is hard to see it, rather as goldfish find it difficult to perceive the water they swim in. But I use the term in the sense that it was coined by the American philosopher Theodore Roszak, in his 1959 book The Making of a Counterculture, as a gathering revolt against the prevailing technocracy.
It was that growing sense through the never-had-it-so-good years that the solution to homelessness was not just numbers of homes, but the kind of lives people could have in them. In that sense, one of the pioneering moments was the 1957 publication of Michael Young (one of the co-creators of the welfare state) and Peter Willmott’s groundbreaking study Family and Kinship in East London, which looked at the rehousing of one community in Essex and the loss of what might later be called their social capital.
Looking at our timeline set out as it is here, it is clear not that community development failed but that its purpose and objectives kept changing every decade or so. But what those objectives were, as set out here, are based on my judgement – there is no impartial measurement of any kind that one can use to write something like this. I am bound to be influenced partly by what I was doing during those years. Yet there are some facts: Colin Ward did inspire an interest in education in the 1970s, and there has been a shift of emphasis towards capacity-building and co-production since the turn of our century.
For that reason, if no other – that it may be hard to agree about the developing multiple purposes of community development – it is difficult to decide how far it succeeded in its various objectives. These were never set out clearly, and by the time they were, they had moved again.
Once you look at the timeline, some of the reasons for this shift become clearer. The difficult moments economically, like 1973 or 1992 or 2009, mean that grant funding dries up, or gets reset by a new government. It is peculiar, once you see it there in black and white, how often there are new prime ministers at the shifts in decade – in 1970, 1979, 1990, 2010 and 2019 (though Wilson, Callaghan, Blair, Brown and May all bucked this trend).
That becomes all the more important as those activists making community development happen get more dependent on grant or lottery funding – when every three years, and maybe less, they will have to abandon their institution and wield their trendiest buzzwords to invent some new project they can plausibly describe as innovative.
That may be why the labels kept changing – to ‘urban studies’, to ‘technical aid’, to ‘capacity building’ or ‘participation’, though always with the word ‘community’ tacked on the front.
That may all have been inevitable in the history of an important idea over eight decades. What was not inevitable was the abandonment, over the years, of so much know-how and so many institutions, from the Community Development Foundation (CDF) to the Association of Community Technical Aid Centres (ACTAC). I feel especially sorry about ACTAC, because writing about the annual conference in 1988 was probably the most thrilling experience of its kind I ever found.
But we didn’t lose them all. The Development Trusts Association is still with us as Locality. So is the North Kensington Amenity Trust as the Westway Trust. It is no coincidence that NKAT never had to depend on the changing vagaries of grant funding.
Then there is the problem of the lack of history. In the policy and think-tank worlds, there is little sense that their precious community-development or participation project might have fitted into a narrative history and experience. Worse, the credibility of those who remembered was sometimes on the line when they pointed back beyond the narrow horizon of institutional memory (five to ten years) to explain that it had all been done before (most people over 50 will know what I mean).
But then, it had never quite been done before. It was now being done in a different context, using different buzzwords and with subtly different objectives. In that sense, there has been some continuity. So it was that the shift into education in the 1970s was partly in response to that growing sense – confirmed by the Inner Area Studies in 1977 – that these were impoverished generations, not people who happened to be poor for a while. In the same way, the shift in the 1980s towards providing ‘technical aid’ – expertise in planning, housing or architecture – was a response to communities that also needed access to professional advice.
Even so, the story of housing lies behind community development, starting with the fatal decisions in the mid-1950s to build tower blocks or use system-build – both of them functions of absurdly high housing targets by both parties of government. Municipal architects used to design the front doors next to each other in social housing in order to force people back together. In practice, this only made matters worse.
Housing ministers such as Harold Macmillan or Richard Crossman ten years later were, in that sense, co-creators of the community development movement. The key cities that gave birth to community development – London, Liverpool and Glasgow – were also those with the worst housing crises. This central place that housing had also suggests that the twin events of the hurricane in Glasgow and the collapse of Ronan Point – both in 1968 – may be said to mark the real beginning of the movement.
By the 1980s, when environment secretary Peter Shore said he had “put away the bulldozer” and the Thatcher government was selling off housing, the issue remained. But by then the debate was not about new housing, but about refurbishment and the blight from abandoned motorway schemes that led to the 1981 riots. A generation later, under Blair, it was the New Deal for Communities and the refurbishment of housing which provided resources for so much capacity building.
And while this was all happening, new ideas were emerging, whether it was Ivan Illich and ‘deschooling’ or Robert Putnam and social capital, or Edgar Cahn and reciprocity. All of those were Americans, and – since it was another American, Saul Alinksy, who started the community development ball rolling – I have wondered whether it is in fact an alien idea for these islands, one designed to support the poorest descendants of slaves.
But then it was also, in some ways, the scriptwriter TEB Clarke who raised the curtain – on behalf of Ealing Studios, at least – by setting out his belief, in comic form, that ordinary communities, and ordinary people, could achieve, run and manage things for themselves. Whether this was a railway (The Titfield Thunderbolt) or a new nation (Passport to Pimlico), they were all done in a very British way – without deaths or burning down cities.
On the other hand, there has been a sense that, as community development gets steadily and unenthusiastically adopted by the establishment, perhaps it has become a little bloodless. Gone are the days when the 12 offices of the Community Development Project could be closed by the Heath government on the grounds that they had become openly Marxist; or when Brian Anson invited leading members of Sinn Fein – then illegal – to lobby parliament about their homes in the Divis flats in Belfast; or when the inhabitants of blighted Weller Street, Liverpool, invaded a private dinner given by the housing corporation chairman, and stuck their fingers in his soup.
Perhaps with more reason, one might be nostalgic about the 1984 decision to sell the Thames-side site for Coin Street to the community – making possible another long-lasting institution for our list.
Only a month ago, I might have said that we won’t see its like again. But after a year of lockdowns, I’m not completely sure.
1940s and 1950s
I have taken 1940 as the start year, partly because it seemed sensible to start with events that remain part of the founding mythology of the modern British state. And because of Tony Gibson’s vision of self-help that he saw in 1940 and ‘41.
That was also the year that Saul Alinksy first set up his Industrial Areas Foundation, with support from Chicago’s Roman Catholic bishop and the city’s newspaper publisher, to train activists all over the USA. This is what he said:
“In our modern urban civilisation, multitudes of our people have been condemned to urban anonymity – to living the kind of life where many of them neither know nor care for their neighbours. This course of urban anonymity … is one of eroding destruction to the foundations of democracy. For although we profess that we are citizens of a democracy, and although we may vote once every four years, millions of our people feel deep down in their heart of hearts that there is no place for them – that they do not ‘count’.”
It might perhaps have been possible to push the history back to Harry Hopkins and the WPA (Works Projects Administration, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal) and the sense then – from Hopkins and his close ally Eleanor Roosevelt – that there was vital knowledge and skills locked in the poorest communities, if it was possible to provide the finance to access them.
This was part of the mix but, in the end, it was about central government providing finance and housing – and this included none of the faith in local people that the community development pioneers believed in.
Hence, the 1950s also marked a high point of technocratic thinking, which normally went hand in hand with a kind of contempt – if not a fear – of ordinary communities, expressed most egregiously perhaps by Newcastle’s chief planner Wilfred Burns in 1963.
Even so, this was a period of doubts and little more than that. Gibson went to the BBC Schools department, where so many education radicals went. Alinsky was already engaged – but then, American racism drove community development in the USA in a way that it barely did here until the Brixton Riots in 1981.
It may be that having that urgent driver has given community development in the USA more progress than it has here. They had their Community Reinvestment Act in 1977 to tackle the practice of redlining, and we had to wait some four decades before we had anything remotely like it. They also had their first black president, a graduate of Alinsky’s Chicago training programme, while we still make do with pale Old Etonians.
Perhaps that was why community development was infiltrated by a naïve political extremism, on this side of the Atlantic too, and why Alinksy was soon under attack from both sides of the political and racial divide. But Black Power had the force of history behind it. And, in the UK, without the same racial dimension, there was still a sense for the next few decades that those most involved with communities were the real radicals.
It is hard to disconnect community development from its UK beginnings in the mid-1960s and the civil rights movement that echoed through the decade. Looking back, I was unable to come up with much for this table before about 1967, when civil rights hit Northern Ireland. Otherwise the community development sound and fury was mainly coming from the USA, with its terrifying race riots and Lyndon Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’ programme.
There must have been more activity around participation, and the lack of it, before 1967, or the government would never have included its groundbreaking proposals in the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 – let alone fired the starting gun on the Skeffington Committee which reported the following year, because no report on participation has ever been quite as radical as the one that Hayes and Harlington MP Arthur Skeffington produced.
Yet the year 1968 may have been the most important of all these dates. It marked the great Glasgow storm, which forced a major rethink on bulldozing the city’s slum tenements – shifting resources into refurbishment instead (an important shift in Glasgow) – and the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block in Newham, following a gas explosion, which led to the end of the tower block programme. Refurbishment rather than new-build meant there was a far bigger opportunity for communities to take charge.
The Skeffington Report, published in 1969, may not have been the best remembered report ever written. It can hardly be said to be influential, and yet there has been nothing like it since. Skeffington said that local development plans should be subject to full public scrutiny and debate. That was “participatory democracy”, he said.
Why did Skeffington provide so little impetus? Partly perhaps because the Wilson administration which commissioned it only had a few months to run, and perhaps because a new theme was emerging to bend community development in a slightly new direction – thanks to the influence of people like Illich, Freire and Reimer from Latin America – namely, that nobody can participate without a fuller education and of a wholly different kind. So the UK was bracing for Colin Ward and the emerging urban studies cult.
You can also see the emergence of the next shift but one, with the first sign of technical aid (as they were to call it in the 1980s) popping up in Liverpool in a joint venture with the new campaign group Shelter. Also, the first development trust, underneath the brand new Westway in west London. To this day, you can see the exit slip road going nowhere because this was to have been part of the notorious Motorway Box scheme.
Because, as well as being the era of big plans, it was also the great age of urban motorway development, and the training ground for community development activists of the future – Jane Jacobs in New York and Saul Alinsky in Chicago who fought those plans. What was the point, after all, of providing people with homes if they were just living on small islands surrounded by traffic?
This may also been have been the high point of radicalism in community development, when activists were supposed to display a kind of monkish element of devotion to their chosen community, as Brian Anson showed in Covent Garden. It would never feel quite so simple again.
The key date here was either 1972 and the launch of the highly influential Inner Area Studies, or 1976, when environment secretary Peter Shore consigned the bulldozer to history – thereby turning on its head a generation’s assumption about how they needed to reduce the inner city population by demolishing the slums, while moving people out to new towns.
For some years now, this had similarly ground to a halt in Scotland, where they too had new towns but, also, disastrously, their out-of-town estates – poorly designed and managed, soulless places like Easterhouse or Crownhill. The emphasis in big cities on both sides of the border was now on refurbishment.
Yet community development had lost none of its radical edge, what with the launch of Brian Anson’s Architect’s Revolutionary Council – and, in retrospect, the meeting at the Architectural Association between key figures in the self-help housing movement, John Turner and Hans Harms, and the pioneer of technical aid, Tom Woolley, which resulted in technical aid.
Even so, this was the decade of Colin Ward and The Child in the City, and other ideas for putting education first – such as the first city farm (Kentish Town), the first planning aid service (David Hall’s TCPA) and the first theatre bus (Ed Berman’s Inter-Action Trust). Also bubbling up were the organisations that would dominate debate in the next decade – the launch of the Community Architecture Group (London), the first technical aid centre (Manchester), and the first outing for Tony Gibson’s ‘planning for real’ cardboard cut-out plans (Wigan), designed so that not everything would be decided by the ‘talkers’ and people who didn’t want to speak could just move the plan around.
It was a more confrontational time, and there were so many action groups set up to draw up alternative plans, from Covent Garden to Coin Street and from Ealing to Colne Valley.
It was a thrilling time too, but – although the Bulletin of Environmental Education (BEE) survived Ward’s departure from his job as education officer at the TCPA – the next big idea was around providing people with the expertise they would need to build, design or refurbish themselves.
The big year for community development was clearly 1981, which marked the riots in Brixton and Toxteth and many other places too. It also marked Shore’s successor, Michael Heseltine, as environment secretary, seizing the opportunity with a cabinet paper called ‘It took a riot’. The result was his bid to regenerate so many of the edges of cities stuck with industrial blight, mainly by means of garden festivals or of development corporations, with legal structures based on two 1920s bodies, the London Passenger Transport Board and the BBC.
The development corporations, starting with London Docklands, ushered in a new style of regeneration based on rising property values and/or belief in them – though, almost by definition, none of these models was interested in democracy, and none was really interested in involving the affected communities. If you wanted to build Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs, then nobody seemed to care what the locals felt.
But the 1981 riots, and especially the Toxteth riot in Liverpool – which at its height had seen lines of milk floats launched at the police – ushered in a period when the phrase ‘inner cities’ shot to the top of the political agenda. On the night of her third election victory, speaking from an upstairs window at Conservative headquarters, Margaret Thatcher singled out inner cities for her new government’s attention because “we want them too, next time”.
The trouble was that Heseltine’s activities were mainly on the edges of cities. Thatcher’s contribution was Action for Cities, which meant new money for refurbishment and rebuilding – again with a minimum of participation. What did bring communities back into the policy picture was the sense that refurbishment was the way forward even on a small scale and that locals could do themselves. So we saw the emergence of new kinds of building, like the self-built village of Lightmoor, near Telford, or via co-ops at Coin Street. Or a whole housing estate at Walter’s Way in Lewisham, controversially using Walter Segal’s self-build method.
There was also the titanic battle between the community architects – by then riding high with royal backing from Prince Charles’ having propelled community architect Rod Hackney into the RIBA presidency – and the doyens of technical aid. These controversies are still alive, though, at the time, they developed around the idea of a Community Urban Design Assistance Team or CUDAT, based on the American RUDAT model, where technical aiders accused the community architects of parachuting in and promptly leaving the community to sink or swim.
What was driving technical aid were primarily the co-operative housing groups emerging in Liverpool, which had gone from being pariahs in the early 1980s – part of their internecine struggle with the Militant-run council – through to 1986, when a member of the pioneering Weller Street co-op became chair of housing.
It was also the success of the Eldonians – the residents of Eldon Street in Liverpool, led by unemployed forklift-truck driver Tony McGann – building their own homes on the abandoned Tate & Lyle site nearby, where tenants realised that having homes wasn’t quite enough. They also needed jobs.
Why the fascination then, felt by so many in community development, particularly with new kinds of money – local currencies, barter currencies and so on – starting in the mid-1990s in Canada? Perhaps it was the depth of the recession that hit so much of the world and knocked the UK out of the European Monetary System in 1992, which is why local exchange and trading systems (LETS) and time banks spread so widely across Europe. Barter currencies are known to be counter-cyclical, so this suggests that it was the recession that forced people to see if they worked.
By the time the local currency phenomenon was coming under serious attention from policy-makers – by the end of the decade, the IMF was instructing Argentina’s indebted government to suppress its local currency schemes – new currencies were becoming much more specialised. Take the long battle in Brazil, for example, between the community banks and the central bank, which objected to their specialised currency for women entrepreneurs (it all ended happily, after the supreme court backed the small banks and the central bank became an enthusiastic advocate of the whole idea).
By then, the next wave of community development was emerging – the idea that the key to success was about ‘social capital’. This was not a phrase heard much before 1995, when the sociologist Robert Putnam emerged with essays on ‘Making Democracy Work’ and ‘Bowling Alone’ (published as a book in 2000), which earned him an invitation to the White House.
But these ideas take time to filter through. The key year, it seems to me, was either 1991 or 1997. The year 1991 marked the start of Heseltine’s City Challenge, and the first competitive bidding process. This then developed three years later into the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), when Gabriel Chanan from CDF persuaded civil servants that local authorities should be expected to include a community development or participative element in every bid. The government produced official guidance called Involving Communities in Urban and Rural Regeneration, in that respect bringing community development in from the cold.
This seems to me to have been such an important decision for the sector that I am surprised it does not get mentioned more. Certainly SRB provided a model for the huge programme in the following decade known as New Deal for Communities.
The other great theme of the next few decades was going to be entrepreneurialism. In a way, this had been prefigured by the Eldonians at the end of the 1980s, without quite knowing what it would mean. By 1996, we had a social-enterprise report by Charles Leadbetter and we had a label – ‘social entrepreneur’. Even so, it may be that the community business movement around Glasgow since 1978 had been, and was then, more firmly rooted in the community development movement.
The Blair and Brown administrations had their feet under the Whitehall table by 1998, which must also be a candidate for the most important year of the decade, with the new government’s fascination with social capital and the Third Way, and a Social Exclusion Unit up and running and reporting directly to the prime minister. There is a case that community development had finally come in from the cold, with a flurry of acronyms from LSP to LEGI, and the new social exclusion policy action teams, the influential PATs.
Whether it did so or not would depend on events over the next decade.
Since the first decade of the century went from dot-com bubble to the Big Society and the phrase ‘broken Britain’, we have to assume that the Blair and Brown years did not really crack the community problem.
It was not for want of resources or want of trying, with ministers like Lord Falconer at the Cabinet Office and David Blunkett at the Home Office trying to think through the institutional framework. In fact, the launch of Blunkett’s Civil Renewal Unit – trying to empower communities to achieve more by having greater influence over public decisions, and doing more with public funds to meet needs identified by local people – makes 2003 the key year of the decade.
There were three problems. It may have been no coincidence that 2003 is our key year, since that also marked the notorious invasion of Iraq – rather as Lyndon Johnson had launched his ‘war on poverty’ in 1966 to demonstrate that his heart was back home, even if he was busily fighting the war in Vietnam.
Second, there was a potentially fatal division of energy between the efforts of the Home Office and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit at the office of the deputy prime minister, a revamped version of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions under John Prescott. Rather than relying on short-term regeneration programmes, central and local government were expected to develop joined-up ways of working, re-directing more of their existing budgets to areas that needed it most. But there were criticisms of the vague term ‘empowerment’, much used but never defined by the Blair government, which was supposed to be created by participation.
The problem was that, thirdly, there are consequences to bringing a bundle of ideas in from the cold to Whitehall. They lose their radical edge and that gets replaced with the ideas around process and conformity to targets. Those radicals, from the age of hippies who first adopted communities to fight for, had been slowly replaced by sharp-suited civil servants or advocates, with a sharp eye for funding opportunities.
Part of the difficulty was that the Blair regime was obsessed with counting achievements on the ground, and it was hardly clear either what communities should look like after regeneration or what should be measured. It still isn’t – nor is it clear that anything can be counted in this way.
At the same time, social capital and social exclusion were being replaced in the community development lexicon by buzzwords that implied something else, such as capacity-building, or which I have called ‘co-production’ – an idea borrowed from Americans like sociologist Elinor Ostrom and radical lawyer Edgar Cahn – which put the emphasis back where it had been traditionally, on the wisdom and importance of impoverished communities and individuals themselves, and on ordinary life skills. The message of co-production was that, if anyone was going to tackle social exclusion, it would need to be reciprocal. It implied an element of a two-way street.
I have interpreted that idea as broadly as I can, to include pioneering community support structures for new business, or business coaching like BizFizz and similar. But despite all these, it may be that – so far at least in the UK – this decade marked what is so far the high point of community development funding. The Cameron-led coalition ended central government funding of local projects, and austerity squeezed the ability of statutory bodies to take up the slack locally.
Rightly or wrongly, the austerity story may be the dominant force for the following decade. But let’s not leave the first decade of the century without a mention of Total Place. Starting in 2009, this was an attempt for the first time to look at all government spending in a few areas from the point of view of local communities. A vital insight, sadly abandoned.
It is extraordinary looking back on the first decade again and wondering why – despite all those resources, the flurry of acronyms and all that thought – it could still leave those ‘left behind’ areas so left behind that they took such a hearty revenge on their rulers in 2016 and 2019.
Was it the municipalisation of community development, as hinted in the last decade, even as social housing was being “demunicipalised” (a Major government phrase)? Was it the over-emphasis on bricks, mortar and the property values, which has been the besetting sin of governments of all political colours – a faulty justification for regeneration and the reason we no longer use the phrase ‘inner cities’ (most of them are still there, but they are where rich people live)?
We are too close to this debate to be clear what it means or where it is going, or what the new wave after COVID might be about to take us. All we can do is to point out a few recent events which seem to reek of the future and to let readers draw their own conclusions.
This has been the decade that took us from a fascinating experiment in two-party government – Conservative and Liberal Democrat – to Brexit, President Trump and the lockdown. Nothing is very clear right now, except that policy-makers have tended to repeat the same mistakes but that, nonetheless, some progress has been made. We might, for example, mourn the loss of community development’s radical energy, and specific ideas that demand re-invention – such as technical aid, for example – but we have the Local Trust experiment of funding small neighbourhoods to organise themselves.
The last decade has seen how communities have armed themselves with their rights to buy and their community share issues, and they have acted – sometimes more successfully than others – and in ways they could not have done, even at the end of the previous century.
Thanks mainly to the National Lottery, it may now be relatively easy to raise small amounts of money to make things happen locally. The problem is that it is next to impossible to fund proven successful projects where they have a track record that is long enough no longer to seem innovative.
Given that, the continued existence of successful institutions like the Westway Trust, the Bromley-by-Bow Centre and the Rushey Green Time Bank is at least heartening. It may even be that this is a potentially unique moment in community development history. Who knows?
One of my earliest memories of television – it must have been around 1967 – was watching presenter Fyfe Robertson at a window high up on a tower block, perhaps somewhere along the Westway which was just beginning to emerge at the time.
“The bloody planners,” he stormed. “They never ask us, do they!”
That was the background two years later to the Skeffington Report, which must have been, in its commitment to participation, one of the most radical government reports ever published. The real question is: have we made progress since then?
This is important to ask, because it sometimes seems as if the community development story may just go around and around, forgetting nothing and remembering nothing – as Talleyrand said about the Bourbons.
Evidence against progress is pretty obvious – that still, fifty years on from the dawn of community development, we are about to pour money into ‘levelling up’ without really having much notion, officially, about what works. Even the huge sums spent on the New Deal for Communities under Blair and Brown seem not to have made enough difference to the people who live in them, though it clearly did for the fabric of the places.
Large sums anyway don’t seem to be effective, partly because they tend to go into property (in the UK) or into bureaucracy (in the USA), as critics of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’ found nearly six decades ago.
If there was progress, it was based partly on the idea in 1066 and All That of simply changing the questions. So what began in the UK as a series of questions about how you create humane housing for people and communities became questions in the 1970s about how you shift entrenched generational poverty, and that became by the 1980s – after a brief return to the usual UK property dead end – about how you provide communities with the expertise they need. Then, how you help people fend for themselves economically, via community business or social entrepreneurs or shifting the money flows.
And through it all there have been some consistent answers to the questions: people need to have a participative role, as the experts in their own lives. But that wasn’t enough either. Edgar Cahn, involved as a young civil rights lawyer with Sargent Shriver in the ‘war on poverty’, developed a critique – based on insights by Elinor Ostrom and Marcel Mauss (‘charity wounds’) – about the transformative effect on people of giving them a useful role, without which they will not participate.
And there matters kind of stand. So yes, there is progress – community development has grown out of housing but it remains a misunderstood adolescent, rather than yet a well-adjusted grown up.
So, let us end on two concerns. First, that neither officials nor the political world understand this history: they don’t know what they don’t know and will not ask. It is tempting to wonder how many more projects, and how much more money will flow wasted under the bridge before they realise that community development wasn’t just invented a month or so back and they need to do a little digging (and anyway, much of it has been about exhuming ideas from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and modernising them).
Second, it is clear looking at the timeline that this is a bundle of ideas that came mainly, though not exclusively from the USA – from Alinksy, Illich, Jacobs, Ostrom, Putnam, Etzioni and Cahn – and radicalised by people in Latin America, such the liberation theologians and the self-build housing experts or the purveyors of new kinds of education.
When community development reached the UK, by the late 1960s, these were deeply radical thoughts. But, over the years – thanks partly to the National Lottery, partly to the Blair government and partly to an alphabet soup of acronyms – we have an unimaginably more timid and besuited, professionalised set of processes.
The days have gone when the Heath government felt it had to close its flagship community development programme because it had been over-run by Marxists – and that may be just as well – but it may be that we need a hint of stubborn radicalism back.
The amazing way in which new institutions emerge and die is set out in this timeline. There is no shortage of energy or creative imagination out there, or of the correct buzzwords that denote innovation for funders, but there is still rather a long way to go and you can’t help wondering whether a bit of iconoclasm might speed us along.
About the author
David Boyle is the author of a range of books about history, social change, politics and the future. He has been editor of a number of publications including Town & Country Planning, Community Network, New Economics, Liberal Democrat News and Radical Economics. He is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation.
This essay is accompanied by an interactive timeline of events that make up a history of community development, also authored by David Boyle for Local Trust.
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Published March 2021
© Local Trust 2021