Time to channel human potential

Time to channel human potential
Laurence Demarco,
Regeneration & Renewal
28 October 2005

Communities minister David Miliband has recently been promoting a radical ‘communitarian’ agenda.

At the British Urban Regeneration Association conference earlier this month (R&R, 14 October, p1) he spoke of giving our poorest communities the right to buy publicly-owned assets at discount to promote renewal and self sufficiency – the transfer of power and wealth to communities through property – along the lines of what housing right-to-buy did for individuals. Then a few days later on BBC1’s Politics Show he said that the big issue of Labour’s third term is to shift power so that people feel some control over what is happening in their community.

He cited as a model of this ‘powering down’ the Benwell estate in Newcastle: 800 homes, 3,500 people, with a neighbourhood manager coordinating all services.

Developing local democracy and community assets has been my job for 30 years, so I’m wondering why I’m not convinced by these proposals. My first reason is political. The creation of new mechanisms to foster participatory democracy at the grass roots is traditionally a radical left-wing concern.

I simply cannot believe that this Government will go there. Our democracy is reduced to a political elite competing for the votes of a mainly passive electorate. As public participation gets weaker, so the influence of private business gets stronger. All ruling elites prefer a passive electorate – they like things the way they are.

But the biggest challenge to Miliband’s vision will be to attract citizen participation – particularly in places where just getting by can be heroic.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire had a good understanding of human creativity and the conditions for its development: it is there to be reached in us all, but it’s certainly not a quick fix. To create a vibrant tier of democracy at community level across the UK would take a decade – but what a marvellous prize to shoot for. I wish I was ten years younger.

The value and creative potential of every person was signalled by Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man: ‘There is existing in man a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its facilities should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward … all that capacity.’ Paine was right: it is to the advantage of society that the ‘mass of sense’ lying dormant in our communities be utilised. Miliband’s proposals are moves in the right direction. May the force be with him.

– Laurence Demarco is director of Senscot, Email: laurence@senscot.net.