Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Newham Unveils "Building Resilience" - Its New Grand Idea

In our supposedly 'post-ideological' age, with political theory elbowed aside by moral rhetoric turning debate into battles between right and wrong instead of left and right, it seems mainstream politicians of all shades have a fondness for top-down, ill-defined but apparently all-embracing 'grand ideas' designed to change the behaviour of the citizens they govern - and to do so by coercion if necessary.

The Tories have the Big Society, which David Cameron described as "a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday live… don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face, but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities". Now Newham's Labour council is pushing its own visionary Grand Idea and it’s one that sounds remarkably similar to the Big Society: a buzzword providing an ideological basis for the local authority's opposition to what it calls ‘dependency’, in which "too many people… come to rely on the state – letting someone else determine what happens in their lives rather than taking personal control".

It’s called ‘Building Resilience’ and we’ll be hearing a great deal about it in the coming months. In an e-mail circulated last Friday, the borough's Mayor Sir Robin Wales launched a consultation on Newham council’s plans to "radically change the way we work with residents and our partners," set out in a document called 'A Strong Community: Building Resilience in Newham'.

So what does 'resilience' actually mean? It's a term that pops up in psychology, to describe people's capacity to cope with stress and catastrophe, whilst it is also associated with emergency planning and the government's Prevent anti-extremism programme. Generally it denotes the ability of people to 'bounce back' from adversity but Newham's strategy sees 'Building Resilience' as rather more: it is about providing 'positive outlook' skills like confidence-building, social awareness and motivation, about local people solving more of their problems themselves and about residents seeking advice and help from 'community networks' and their neighbours rather than the local authority. Newham council says it also wants to "embed responsibility and reciprocity in the relationship between state and citizen". What it means by this is that more local services will become conditional on people's behaviour, with "rewards and incentives going to those who help themselves and others whilst those who do not should not have an automatic right to the full range of support."

Not unlike the government's Big Society policy, with its warm and fluffy emphasis on 'empowering' local people and supporting charities, elements of 'Building Resilience' seem, at first glance, superficially appealing. Acknowledging that a circle of close friends and wider supportive networks like community groups are positively beneficial seems like common sense, as does the idea that "the broader the range of people we interact with, the more resources and potential support we have at our disposal". It is also true that the majority of local people already depend far more on friends and contacts for mutual aid than they do on direct support from the local state, not only because council assistance is often difficult to find but because most of us do not welcome state 'interference' in our daily lives. Few would disagree too that a well-paid, secure job is far better than unemployment and poverty.

But, just like the Big Society, are there other motivations behind these efforts to promote 'radical' change in our behaviour and expectations in Newham? For all its talk of handing power to local people, we now know the Tories' flagship policy turned out to really mean saving money, justifying cuts in council-run services and handing considerable influence and valuable contracts to private companies and a few large charities. Like the Big Society, 'Building Resilience' seems to advocate the gradual withdrawal of the local state beyond a core of support for the most vulnerable, leaving more of us dependent on making our own arrangements, although unlike the Coalition government's plans, voluntary groups barely receive a mention. It also seems to share an underlying belief that residents can no longer expect "something for nothing" or the certainty that local services will always be there when we need them.

Moreover, 'Building Resilience' does seem to mirror what would usually be seen as Tory morality in suggesting that, rather than the lack of jobs in the current climate or capitalism's endemic economic inequality, it is local people themselves in deprived areas like Newham who must take a large part of the blame (or 'personal responsibility') for their poverty and joblessness and must therefore be coerced into pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

One of the first local battlegrounds of this approach to changing residents' behaviour is over language. Learning English is undoubtedly a vital skill for new migrants, not only for finding work but to ensure that people are not fobbed off, talked down to, exploited and misled. However, as the majority of us who have ever tried to learn a new language will know, it's often extremely difficult to develop proficiency and requires a considerable investment in decent language classes. But it is evident that Newham council believes most local people with poor English are simply not trying hard enough. Sir Robin Wales has made it clear that his recent controversial decision to remove foreign language newspapers from the borough's libraries is an act of compulsion to "encourage people to speak and learn English". This is obviously what 'Building Resilience' means in action.

Unfortunately, Newham's new strategy document is extremely abstruse and, like other 'grand ideas', seems like an attempt to provide intellectual justification for the drastic local cuts in services we will soon be facing. Furthermore, 'Building Resilience' already seems to say far more about the Victorian moral authoritarianism of the Labour politicians who are backing it than it does the ability of people living in Newham to bounce back from economic austerity.

Consultation on 'A Strong Community: Building Resilience in Newham' opened on Friday 20 May and closes on Friday 3rd June. See here for more details


Mike Law said...
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Mike Law said...

Another excellent blog-post Kevin.

I intend to say a word or two on this on my own blog later today.

I like the way the comedy mayor likes to give the impression that his 18 years of(supposedly) Labour administration has operated in a vacuum; separate and distinct from 13 years of a New Labour government - nothing to do with me guv, blame the government and the welfare system.

Has anyone else noticed that he seems to have had new lease of life since Cameron has been in number 10 and Boris has been Mayor of London? The icing on the cake must have been the local election results _ having 60 compliant councillors who haven't a clue what's going on must be a godsend.

Anonymous said...

The Newham Nuspeak goes from strenth to strength.

On a personal level I've been interested in how the Borough has changed its approach to how it "manages" volunteers.

Volunteers now receive almost daily emails advertising the great opportunities available to volunteers when they provide assistance at Newham Council run events. Often these emails are straightforward invitations to boost the numbers at his "meet the mayor" events.

The language, strangulated and insincere, is remarkably similar to that used by private organisations running welfare to work programmes in the States.

No doubt Little Lord Wales is already planning a new role for the Council. With Tory support he will soon be using these volunteers to provide free labour and services to support the increasingly personalised local activities, road shows and "community fun" events. Of course those who prefer not to support his megalomania will inevitably have their benefits stopped.

This is the real face of the Tories Big Society and our criminal little mayor has just discovered a wonderful new opportunity to prolongue his reign. Think Charles Murray,
Mussolini and Mr Bean rolled into one and there you have it - the Big Squid himself.

Building resilience is quite simply part of his future vision for Newham. A seedy little place where he has total power and where his councillors squabble over their inflated alowances whilst senior local government officers deny their role in feeding his bloated ego.

Time to move out I think.

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