Get off our backs

Get off our backs


Dick Atkinson

New Start Magazine



Last week John Prescott set out his five-year plan to give communities more say over local services. But we need to start by reinventing government, says Dick Atkinson

Society and its governance are at a major turning point. Social events and eras ebb and flow. The whole country sometimes inadvertently takes a wrong turn. We go up a social cul-de-sac and have to come back down and set off all over again.


In the late nineteenth century the mutual societies, co-operators and trades unionists could have gone on to invent a welfare society in which more and more people governed themselves, employed their own doctors, ran their own schools and created a commonwealth of a country.


But they didn’t. They decided to go down the road which led to the welfare state. During the twentieth century this state came to do these things ‘for’ and ‘to’ people, just like an empire.


This worked for a long while. It fed the hungry, most of them, and housed the homeless, most of them. But we now know that it has turned out to be a well-intentioned but wrong choice.


Public housing now haunts us in graffiti-strewn, high crime, no-go areas. By the end of the twentieth century, the welfare state resulted in expensive, top-down, one-size-fits-all services which now fail to satisfy ordinary folk. We may be materially better off, but the quality of life is poorer. We are up a cul-de-sac.


One political answer to this risks turning down another cul-de-sac by saying the state is too powerful. It needs to be slimmed down, services need to be privatised and we should spend and tax less.


This is superficially attractive. For while the range of needs which people have are diverse, public services have remained uniform. People’s experience of the private sector is of choice. So they could be persuaded that introducing choice and diversity into the public sector by privatising it would work.


A better answer entails creating in the first century of the new millennium a modern version of yesterday’s mutualism, in a renewed civil society. This means a strong, but enabling state. Not fewer taxes, but spending them in new ways which empower and inspire people to take control of their lives, agreeing their own agenda for the action needed to drive up the quality of life where they live. The result will be a new compact between people and a modern state.


Hitherto, our attempts at renewal have not acknowledged this. We have known for 40 years that our great urban areas and the neighbourhoods within them are in trouble, that many people feel excluded, live in a poor environment, can’t shape their destiny. As a result they don’t vote and want to leave their neighbours behind rather than stay and help them.


Conventional renewal initiative after initiative has been launched to address and solve this problem. Two simple questions arise:



Just how much taxpayers’ money has been spent by all the separate departments of state on costly renewal initiatives over the last 40 years?




Just how many neighbourhoods have become sustainable as a consequence? A feeble ten or twenty? The Social Exclusion Unit tells us there are now even more excluded neighbourhoods than before all these initiatives started – some 3,000 of them.


The key error has been to provide all this money to help people in top-down ways on top of existing uniform mainstream services and budgets, without reconfiguring the way these services are delivered and the budgets are spent.


Renewal initiatives have been driven by civil servants who are risk averse. They simply haven’t been motivated to join together the different government initiatives or drive them through the unyielding obstacle of local authority structures to street level. So even active residents couldn’t make anything of what little arrived. We have been sending good money after bad.



Welfare society


The conclusion? Via a whole raft of methods, we need to enable active citizens to arise, resource them to build strong self-help communities and neighbourhoods, renew civil society, and facilitate a local and national commonwealth of communities. Create a welfare society in place of the welfare state.


But how? The great departments of state were formed in a different, industrial, era of material need when it was possible to deliver uniform services to an uncritical population. Today we face social poverty and a weak civil society and people require diverse services over which they can exercise choice and control.


Different bits of different departments have tried to respond to this new situation. But everyone knows they are not joined up, they confuse people, they are rarely managed by entrepreneurial risk-takers and so they can’t drive coherent solutions from Whitehall through regional offices and the town hall right down to neighbourhood level. By the time they arrive, they have been splintered, diverted and defeated by the holders of the mainstream budgets, by representative democracy.


The remedy is obvious. The different parties contesting this year’s general election should vie with each other now to create a new department of state immediately after the election.


The new government should take the Active Community Directorate from the Home Office, the neighbourhood renewal and local government bits of the ODPM and one or two other bits from other departments, and create a powerful new department whose task is to reinvent central and local government and facilitate civil renewal.


It should be given these tasks:


Knock together the heads of all other departments – education, policing, health, housing, the environment – to ensure a fully joined up government agenda. Not more initiatives, just one joined-up initiative.


Drive the civil renewal agenda forward with the help of entrepreneurial officials drawn from the voluntary and private sectors who are used to taking risks and who can modernise the civil service.


Get the state off the back of ordinary people, putting them in control of their destiny and enabling them to enter into a new compact with a new state.


Co-ordinate regional government offices and, through them, say this to local government: ’We love you dearly. But, unreformed, you have become part of the problem. You are as relevant to today’s voter as is the dock and mine of yesteryear. While they have moved forward and been replaced by flats, offices and high tech industry, you have not. Move with the times or even fewer people will vote for you. Become strategic, devolve all that you can right down to neighbourhood and street level – not all at once, or it will go pear-shaped, but in a managed series of rolling programmes of neighbourhood, civil and civic renewal which will take a generation to complete.’


The government should state clearly that it believes in choice and diversity. But we can’t give people a private choice between two or three different parks or primary schools or streets or neighbourhoods. That’s daft and impossible. But we can give them a collective choice about how their own park and neighbourhood is managed, and who manages it.


Putting people in control entails enabling citizens to rediscover and fulfill their duties and responsibilities to one another.


If we can double the amount of care in the community we not only create active citizens and strong neighbourhoods, we also reduce the need for some parts of some services to be delivered at all. People will look after themselves and each other. They won’t need a nanny state to do it for them. This is participatory democracy. It is mutual self-help.


But it won’t save money. It won’t reduce taxes, because the army of capacity builders and social entrepreneurs needed to help empower people must be paid for by the money saved. It uses existing money differently.


That money is the people’s. Let them spend it on building social capital in their own neighbourhoods. This will create a new locally managed workforce of local social entrepreneurs who identify and meet local needs, who work on prevention not cure.


That leaves many services still to be delivered. They can now be more carefully tailored, targeted at specific neighbourhoods and managed either by integrated neighbourhood teams of statutory providers or by residents themselves, in the same way that schools are locally managed.


Indeed, in place of the 15 councillors on an LEA committee who once managed all schools, we now have 15 ordinary people managing each school with its own budget.





So why not also have neighbourhood budgets, neighbourhood management committees or associations of ordinary folk managing neighbourhood teams? But, at peril of failure, keep these pioneers of civil renewal and participating democracy well removed from the politicians and habits of representative democracy. Let them pioneer new forms of neighbourhood governance and participation. Do not impose standard models from above. Let them grow from below.


It took the environmentalists 30 years to persuade us that there is a hole in the ozone layer. We now need to check the hole in the social ozone layer and discuss how to repair it. Just as strong government action is needed for the former, so also it is needed for the latter.


But the national debate which is needed can’t just be driven by the government. It also needs a formidable coalition of forces which includes all the faiths and the private and communal sectors.


In my judgement the tipping point is at hand. Now is the moment to reinvent government to enable civil renewal to take place, to strike a new bargain between the individual and the state.


So put the need for the new department in the manifesto of every party. Let them compete to win the confidence of the active citizen by saying how they will put empowerment and liberation of talent at the centre of their thinking and post-election action.


Dr Dick Atkinson is chief executive of Balsall Heath Forum in Birmingham. His book, Civil renewal: mending the hole in the social ozone layer, is published by Brewin Books,, price £18. Alternatively, tel: 0121 446 6183/2 or email:




an agenda for action


The following are some of the questions that need to be answered in the process of reinventing government:



Which bits of which departments should come into the Department of Civil Renewal?



Who should head the department and who should staff it, bearing in mind that it should include many outsiders to the civil service who are entrepreneurial risk takers?



How can we create an ‘Ofsthood’ to inspect neighbourhoods and rescue failing ones, and what will its role and powers be?



How can we disseminate models of success?



How can we achieve ‘quick wins’ that show we mean real business – for example, putting one or more local authorities, neighbourhoods or local strategic partnerships into special measures?




John Prescott’s agenda for action


The deputy prime minister last week launched the ODPM’s five-year plan. It includes:



A ‘neighbourhoods charter’ to give communities more say over local services



Working with local authorities to pilot new approaches to leadership and governance, including a drive for more elected mayors



Extending local area agreements to a further 40 areas



A ‘mixed communities initiative’ to completely remodel three of the most deprived neighbourhoods



‘Neighbourhood improvement districts’ to fund regeneration initiatives locally


The full plan, People, places and prosperity, is at: