Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Community Cohesion in the Czech Republic

I am about to spend a couple of months in the Czech Republic. I find it really interesting to compare experiences there and in the UK. It helps put things into perspective.

The biggest shock to me was after multicultural East Oxford and Lambeth was the overt and pretty universal racism against the minority Roma (gypsy/romany population) . Recent news has been very depressing. There was a march by the 500 far-right demonstrators through the predominantly Roma (gypsy) area of Prirov early this month, followed by others in other towns. Then a Roma family had their house firebombed, both mother and father were badly burnt but the worst injuries were incurred by their daughter of 22 months who has 80% wounds.

These incidents reveal a dark side to the country that I love. The racism against the Roma minority (they make up less than 3% of the population) is widespread. It came as a great shock to hear middle-class educated Czechs talk about the Roma in a way that would be unacceptable among similar people in multi-cultural Britain. Indeed the comments and anti-Roma jokes were similar to those that I heard in my youth in the 1970s Britain and even then were considered dodgy in the circles I moved in. Then there is the presence of the far-right, something I realised when a local proudly showed me a fascist tattoo on his arm. It is the acceptance of racism at all levels of society that allows such attitudes to thrive.

Amnesty International has just released a report on the plight of European Roma and highlighted the educational discrimination against Roma children, who despite it being unconstitutional are sometimes sent to special schools for children with mental difficulties. This really goes to the heart of the problem. While Roma children are segregated and educationally deprived, then there is little hope of improving the situation .

Sunday, 19 April 2009

10 Laws Of Evaluation

I don't claim to have come up with these (apart from the last one), but I have searched the web and can't find it anywhere. So here are the laws of evaluation and monitoring:
  1. The law of inverse attention
    This law states that the smallest expenditures should be subject to the greatest control and review procedures, and the largest expenditures should be subject to the least. The same is true of performance measures
  2. The dream to reality ratio (or the law of diminishing attention)
    The biggest investment should be in dreams (planning and starting up projects) and only a modest investment made on reality (evaluating the results and closing the projects down). The ratio is usually 5:1. A corollary to this law states that buy-in by other stakeholders is most important in the dream stage and not when the activity starts to deliver results.
  3. Strategy rules over experience
    This law states that it does not matter whether a project has been successful or not, merely whether it fits in with the latest strategy.
  4. Fire, aim, ready
    This law requires that actions should be rationalised after being undertaken and not before.
  5. The scale dependent nature of evidence requirements
    The larger the possible impact of a policy the less stringent the evidence requirements should be
  6. The scale dependent nature of failure
    This law requires that small projects that show signs of failing to achieve their objectives should be closed down, as soon as possible. Large projects that show signs of failure should be given more money.
  7. History began 3 years ago
    Staffing should be designed to ensure that no one has more than three years’ experience of delivery of the project. It is especially important that the staff who manage the project and those who designed it should not be the same.
  8. Evaluators can't count
    Or they don't.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Gentrification or Regeneration

Firstly let me apologize for not posting for a while - just too busy. I intend to do several over the next month (honest!)

The subject of this post was prompted by two discussions I have had recently - the first an interview with a student and the second with a local resident of East Oxford. Gentrification is an emotive word often used as an insult and often sloppily, without real evidence to support it. It also asks a fundamental question of regeneration - if what you are doing is improving an area, you will make it more desirable to live and work in and where the area involved is one where the private sector conditions the locality - eg East Oxford where all the housing stock is privately owned - then you will have more well-off people moving in and potentially displacing some of the indigenous community. The questions that follow are a) is that necessarily a bad thing? b) does this mean that one shouldn't attempt to improve areas? c) how can avoid the worst effects of this process?

I have thought long and hard about these questions and asked them constantly of myself and the regen programmes I have worked on. This has not stopped me from working on them, so I suppose my simple answer to questions a) and b) is no.

The local resident I referred to above said that the rise in the number of middle class people and students he saw on the road made him feel out of place as a member of that much threatened minority the white working class male and that he felt more at home when the road was full of druggies and pushers. His family is one of the large local families and has been in the area for years. But I am certain his is not a view held by all the local working class community or even the majority. I suspect some will criticize the number of incomers and indeed put it down to the regeneration programme, but few would take the argument to its conclusion which he did (with a degree of objectivity which I respect). My husband, who has impeccable working class credentials (better than our local resident I suspect), feels very strongly in the opposite direction that why should deprived people be expected to live in run-down unattractive areas and that we should be trying to improve things.

When I worked in community regeneration in Lambeth, an area in my patch was Lambeth Walk, where 8 out 10 shops were closed. Then came a disastrous blow to the local community - the Londis supermarket on the walk was closing down. I went to see the manager, pleading with him to keep the shop open as its closure meant local people, many of whom did not own a car, would have to walk miles to the nearest shop and in so doing negotiate the Vauxhall Cross interchange. Why was the shop closing I asked, there were always queues at the checkouts. Yes he said but they are only buying a few things at a time and then only the budget brands, the shop was not viable. The tragedy was that with Londis closing so would the few remaining shops in the Walk. In such a circumstance the only way out of the spiral of decline is to bring money into the locality and the people that have that money. In so doing you are opening yourself to the accusation of gentrification.

But it is not just about the financial support of infrastructure such as shops and other amenities, it is also about employment. Because with the shop's closure went local jobs. In such circumstances people will find alternatives - alternative ways of making money - hence the drug pushing. I always say that some of the most entrepreneurial people in the communities in which I work are dealing. The point is there is no such thing as standing still in communities and areas - market forces (on both sides of the law) will be operating.

In the case of East Oxford - this was always an area with a large turnover in the population. The student population was part of this and undoubtedly the rise in student numbers has not helped. But also the large amount of private rented accommodation meant that a lot of those moving in were people with problems - homeless, drug users, people with mental health issues. It still does. A major regret of mine re the regeneration programme was our failure to persuade the powers that be to crack down more on the appalling conditions in which such people were housed. But had we done so we almost certainly would have been even more guilty of gentrifying the area in the eyes of our accusers.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Recession and Community Cohesion

I have just come back from a British Council Conference in Manchester on Community Cohesion - my work with the Cowley Road Carnival was a good practice example in a workshop on the arts and cohesion. I will talk in a future post about what the workshop was discussing but here I think I will talk about the cloud that hung over the conference - the impact of the recession.

Before I start talking about this - to clarify: the definition of community cohesion I use is the
Local Government Association/Home Office's definition that a cohesive community is one where:
  • there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities;
  • the diversity of people's different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued;
  • those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and
  • strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods.
Ok, that sorted, let's move on.

Community cohesion has been an important focus for our work as regenerators over the last eight years. In fact the attacks of the September 11 and July 7 have made it essential to understand and address where community cohesion does not exist. The arrival of the recession makes it all the more important to do so. As I write there are wildcat strikes in Lincolnshire and further afield in response to the perceived injustice of employing "foreign" (EU) workers instead of locals. Whilst there are plenty of jobs to go round, we are more likely to accept the outsider and when this is not so the semblance of community cohesion disintegrates. This should not be seen as a white working class reaction to foreigners, some of the most vociferous views on the subject that I have heard come from ethnic minority members who resent new arrivals threatening the jobs they have struggled to obtain.

I was interested to see on the slides shown by a Government civil servant that the area around the Wash (which includes Lincolnshire) was identified of one of two areas where community cohesion was weakest. There was a comment that this is an rural area where the central European migrant workers have moved in to take agricultural jobs and where there is no recent history (as there is in cities such Oxford and London) of absorbing immigrants. Near where I live, in the Vale of Evesham in the Midlands, a few years ago the crops were picked by gangs of sari-wearing women bussed in from Birmingham and other neighbouring cities. Now they are picked by Poles and others. In my childhood the workers in the strawberry and onion fields were gypsies, who moved across the country following the harvest north. Thus a succession of ethnic minority communities have replaced each other in this lowly paid economy.

One of the major problems with this area of our work is its evaluation - you can ask people about how they feel about their communities, but such a measure is open to interpretation and influenced by our perceptions. I have observed that one of the by-products of improving a locality is that the community's standards will also rise. Hence our local park which once was a literally a dumping ground (on several occasions I watched as white vans would pull up and throw out black bin bags onto the grass) was transformed into a much loved meeting place. Now the community complains if there is a few pieces of litter. The British Council conference was a welcome attempt to look at what works, but we need more. Another problem with evaluating what we have achieved is the "dog who barked in the night" syndrome. What we are doing is trying to stop something from happening, if something does not happen, can we show it was down to (or even partly down to) our interventions?

The strikers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery remind us of the tensions that lie under the surface of our country and which could boil over with the recession. We cannot afford (and nor can the Government) to take our eyes off the issue of community cohesion.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Recessions and Regeneration 2

I was in one of my local charities recently, where they were facing a major cut from their main funder (the PCT) and only two months to replace the money. The CEO looked as if he hadn't slept for a week. On the front page of the local newspaper (Oxford Mail) the City Council was also announcing cuts to local VCS organisations.

I confess I am glad that I am no longer the CEO of a third sector organisation any more. There seem to be no options to replace the money (given the short notice and the lack of money available on all sides). So all you are left with is to cut staff levels and services to your beneficiaries. And it is heartbreaking to have to do this at a time when demand for your services are rising, as people suffer as a result of the recession. You don't go into this business to turn people away, but that is what you will have to do.

The local VCS was an important part of our regeneration programme's strategy for delivery and sustainability and I still believe that because of their commitment to local delivery they remain so, but it is tragic that they are having to fight to continue delivering (increasingly) important services.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

A Czech Social Enterprise?

Just before Christmas I had coffee with a young Czech friend of mine, who after several years working in a social enterprise in East Oxford, was returning to his homeland to take on the management of his father's company, which manufactures equipment for the baking industry. I think I might have commented about him becoming a capitalist, but he laughed and said that the business was not really for-profit, indeed he said it's a social enterprise that really only existed to keep its workers in employment rather than make money.

I was rather taken aback by this definition of a social enterprise. But this type of approach is not so uncommon in the Czech Republic, a legacy of communist times, there are plenty of other unprofitable businesses out there. What will become of them when the recession bites? If they could not make money in times of boom, what will happen in times of bust? I wished my young friend good luck, I fear he will need it.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Recessions and Regeneration 1

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the RTPI Successful Regeneration Conference on (get this) Innovative Financial Tools. It was their choice of title not mine! In the context of the current economic crisis such a confident title is misplaced. I therefore decided to ask questions of my audience in the light of this. All are related to one big question - what can we do as regenerators in the face of recession. I will come back to my talk in a number of posts over the next few weeks.

My first point is this: many of the problems we have been solving for the last 18 years have their source in the recessions of the 1970s 1980s and 1990s. The areas featuring badly in the Indices of Multiple Deprivation are often those areas where those recessions hit most - e.g. the coal mining areas and areas which had been the heart of heavy industry. The first question therefore is what areas will be hit this time? The second - what will the regeneration legacy be for us practitioners?