Forget the Big Society - we need strong communities where individuals can feel happy and fulfilled. And we need it now.
We all know that Britain’s communities are weaker than they were 30 years ago. Successive governments have sought to tackle this problem, with community cohesion and empowerment under Labour and now Cameron’s Big Society. There are however growing fears that anger fuelled by the cuts could create even deeper cracks in our civic life, further fracturing Britain.
This is important as we know that strong communities are vital when trying to deliver myriad services such as recycling, social care and street cleaning. In simple economic terms these services are harder and more expensive to deliver in weaker communities. Strong, diverse communities can even help to stop extreme acts such as violent crime and terrorism. So the political case for investing in our communities is stronger now than ever.
But that’s not the argument I want to make today. The argument I want to make is far more important, and goes to the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be happy.
I argue that being part of a geographically specific community plugs into our innate human desire to belong, to feel safe and secure.
We all know how difficult it can be to ask a stranger for directions, plucking up the courage to admit we’re ‘not local’ or a ‘tourist’; and the deep sense of relief when that person responds in a friendly fashion giving us the information we need, ideally with some extra ‘local knowledge’. We also know how draining and sometimes infuriating it can be when they don’t know, don’t respond because they’re on their mobile, or are simply too busy to give us their time. The incident of the stranger asking questions is a microcosm of Britain today. We are busier, more mobile and with a higher dependency on technology than ever before. And the ironic thing is that as closely as we can identify with the struggling stranger, we can also identify with the busy commuter. We are all busy. And we all sometimes need the help of others.
Time poverty, technology and high levels of mobility have contributed to parts of Britain, especially our big cities and their suburbs, having low social capital and people feeling isolated.
There is evidence that this feeling of ‘disconnection’ contributes towards people voting for extremist parties, depression, violent crime and low-level crime such as vandalism.
Charlie Mansell from the Campaign Company argues that “the surge in voting we saw at last years European elections for extremist parties – was not always linked to racial issues. Sometimes it was more closely linked to anger and strong perceptions of unfairness at things like no longer being able to secure a tenancy or afford to live in the area where you grew up and your family lived; or a poorly articulated sense of community isolation. It’s what you might best call a cry for community and belonging.” It’s clear therefore that we need to act to create stronger communities not just because it’s essential for an effective and efficient government, but because being part of stable communities makes us happier as we then feel like we belong.
Insights such as these need to be at the forefront of the government’s thinking when introducing measures such as the housing benefit cuts announced as part of the Spending Review. The reforms may not lead to ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’ driving out the poor from our city centres, as suggested by Boris Johnson, but they will make Britain more, not less, transient. This is a problem for the Big Society, and for us as people in need of community.
All such measures need to be considered against a Big Society Bottom Line which ensures that in the rush to cut, we don’t undermine our communities, which provide the bedrock of the government’s reform agenda and the foundations of our personal wellbeing.