There is a sense of inevitability about the impending impact of this new age of austerity. We all now expect unemployment to rise, services to be cut and individuals and families to face hardship. Our young people already face their own personal challenges.
There seems little by way of any serious attempt to mitigate the impacts and improve the resilience of our communities. These communities are today at greater risk. In the past, societies have coped with periods of crisis by drawing upon reserves of communal spirit and by using local institutions and collective activities which are particularly important in harder times. For many communities there are now no resources to draw upon.
Our smart phone addictions have caused the decline of traditional bonds and especially the demise of local clubs and societies and the links with neighbours and within families themselves is often exaggerated, but is nevertheless real for many communities. This, combined with increasing pressures from lack of job security and economic uncertainty, creates a breeding ground for blame, tension, misunderstandings and extremism.
Many community-based organisations like us, often funded on a shoestring and run by just a handful of dedicated staff and volunteers, provide some of the vital glue that holds communities together. Cutting off cash for grassroots groups may be an easy option but could be a false economy. Given the tendency for a blame culture to emerge in times of hardship – and we have seen the biggest rise in Far Right activity in recent years – now is not the time to lose sight of any local work which is building bridges between communities.
On a simple economic level, all the anecdotal evidence points to how crucial decisions about investments by potential employers are made on the reputation of specific towns, cities and regions. Any potential for disruption is obviously bad for business, but so is any lingering sense of malaise or bad feeling about a place.
Firms will simply avoid, or choose to move away from, areas where there are community breakdowns and that will mean greater economic divide and more investment required by government to support them.
Perhaps just as important is the way that people tend to leave poorer areas as they succeed in getting a job or finding the wherewithal to do so. People will only stay in an area if they have a sense of belonging and believe it can support and provide for them. Poorer areas are often faced by the flight of financial and human capital.
Keeping charity and community activity going will be essential as a means of seeing many communities through the economic downturn, helping groups worst hit by redundancies, and preventing individual problems becoming whole community tensions.
We are fortunately already seeing more evidence of mainstreaming of community cohesion, where the statutory sector does consider cohesion issues as part of its day job in housing, education and other services.
But even if such a switch became universal, it would not be sufficient. Funding needs to be saved for the many fantastic schemes and committed local people working on projects like Aik Saath’s community cohesion project in Slough. This scheme supports inter-cultural dialogue among young people through shared activities and residential events.
Similarly, at the Side by Side project, weekly drama sessions are used as a way of interacting, bonding and learning about identity, communication, cultural misunderstandings, belonging, home, difference and similarity. Another example of great work is at the Barton Hill Together Project in Bristol, aimed at addressing a very specific community tension in a tower block which had seen a sharp rise in new migrants. The project helps the community tackle a rise in racist behaviour, violence and arrests through events, shared festivals and play schemes organised by residents.
The most effective cohesion schemes are always those that are owned and organised by local people – those that are done by them, not to them. Young Star Mentoring is exactly that – we bridge the gap and help young people have a sense of belonging.
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