Skip to Main Content
Organising and deciding Power and leadership

The struggle against powerlessness

As we launch David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development, political writer Henry Tam considers how that long story is tied up with the push and pull between communities and public bodies over power – or lack of it.

For people who have been extensively involved in community development, it is undoubtedly an approach that can help communities to improve their lives. However, for others who know little about it, it might conjure up images of aggravated residents delaying projects that were meant to benefit them. One might think that the impact community development work has achieved over time would have closed this knowledge gap. Unfortunately, many policy-makers and funders still seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the value of helping communities build their collective influence.

A balance between top-down and bottom-up

An underlying problem is that public bodies, which should welcome and support community development, often view it as merely an instrument for meeting top-down targets. When as a result those targets wind up being questioned, the processes for attaining them challenged, and alternative plans sought, those in charge of setting and meeting their own organisational targets tend not to be happy.

If solutions and programmes are imposed on people without their involvement in shaping them, it exacerbates their powerlessness.

What these public bodies don’t realise is that the central issue here is power – the power of people living and working in various communities to deal with the problems they face. Targets, objectives, outputs and so on need to relate to communities’ experiences. Problem-solving must connect with people’s understanding of possible options. If solutions and programmes are imposed on people without their involvement in shaping them, it exacerbates their powerlessness, and leaves them even more disillusioned with how things are organised around them.

The role of history

To appreciate the real importance of community development, one should see it in the historical context of collective struggles against powerlessness. Thanks to David Boyle’s essay on the history of community development, anyone can now follow his excellent decade-by-decade retracing of community development in the UK and US. The driving force throughout is a refusal by communities to accept an unpalatable state of affairs as unalterable. From racist practices, appalling housing conditions, neighbourhood crime and disorder, to widespread poverty, diminishing employment prospects, and environmental degradation, whenever communities are galvanised into working together to formulate and press for better outcomes, community development takes another step forward.

Boyle’s essay also illustrates how different techniques emerge over time. Far from being defined by any single approach, community development is about inventing and applying a wide range of practices that allow communities to tackle obstacles that individually they would stand little chance of overcoming.

Explore a history of community development

Community development as an evolving trajectory

It is ironic that often when the spotlight falls on any particular technique – be it community organising, Planning for Real, participatory budgeting, community enterprise, time banking, neighbourhood plans or deliberative conference – it is seen as being distinct from any wider story of community development. In truth, they are all means that have been devised and adapted over time to enable community development to work holistically in dealing with interconnected social, economic and environmental problems.

The Civil Renewal Unit promoted the community development ethos across local and central government.

Looking back, the closest that community development ever came to being recognised at policy level as a core discipline in empowering communities was when the UK government established the Civil Renewal Unit (CRU) in 2003. It went on to promote the community development ethos and the adoption of diverse engagement techniques across local and central government, in partnership with the community sector.

The CRU established a network of ‘Civic Pioneers’ to widen local authorities’ engagement with local people, a series of ‘Take Part’ hubs to help people exert greater influence over public policies and services, and a group of ‘Guide Neighbourhoods’ to facilitate peer-to-peer learning amongst communities in shaping local priorities and strategies. It acted as the government sponsor of the Community Development Foundation (CDF), and ran national and regional ‘Together We Can’ awareness-raising campaigns to encourage collaborative working between community groups and statutory bodies. It also invested in dissemination infrastructure to increase the take-up of practices such as participatory budgeting, neighbourhood plans, and community asset transfers.

For the struggle to secure a fair share of power for all, we need sustained community development.

But despite the impact of these activities in raising community confidence and satisfaction in a wide range of areas across the country, what had been put in place by the CRU was dismantled by the next government. Coordinated and long-term support for community development activities ceased, and the CDF itself was closed down. At one level, this might be regarded as myopic policy-making; opting for short-term cuts over more durable community improvement. But at a deeper level, it reveals a callous disinterest in addressing the problem of powerlessness in society.

Rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ will not get us far (and worse, it can cover up even greater losses of power). History tells a clear story: for the struggle to secure a fair share of power for all, we need sustained community development.

This blog is part of a series responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development. Explore more brilliant insights here.

About the author
Henry Tam

Henry Tam is a political writer. He has lectured at the University of Cambridge and was the Head of Civil Renewal under the last Labour Government. His many publications include Time to Save Democracy, Whose Government Is It? The Renewal of State-Citizen Cooperation, and Tomorrow’s Communities.