Wally Harbert: We need joined-up communities

Local voluntary groups should reach out to one another and help to close the communication gap between young and old, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

The proliferation of community organisations is an outstanding feature of life in the UK. They focus on everything from pigeon fancying to protecting the environment or lobbying against war – and, unlike in some other countries, anyone in the UK can launch one and everyone can join in.

In his seminal book, Bowling Alone, the American political scientist Robert Putnam identifies two kinds of community groups. The first is bonding groups that tend to be self contained, insular and inward-looking, re-enforcing existing social barriers. Some religious groups are good examples. The second is what Putnam describes as bridging groups that promote social connectedness and inclusivity between age groups and existing organisations. The task of community workers is to encourage bonders to become bridgers.

We are not reaping the full benefit from the resource that community groups represent. Despite the richness they bring to community life, there are enormous social tensions, particularly in towns and cities where mindless vandalism and casual crime are continuing problems. It is common for older people to say they feel unsafe leaving their homes. How should community groups respond to the fractured society in which they operate?

Most solutions proffered for anti-social behaviour are designed to control, contain, punish and deter. They include anti-social behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts, the deployment of community wardens, harsher sentencing, volunteer patrols, more closed-circuit television, higher fines and higher police visibility.

Although these measures have their place, they tackle symptoms rather than causes and largely ignore the contribution of local people. Costly and confrontational, they re-enforce alienation and division. Yet funds are more readily available for such interventions than for less belligerent attempts to work alongside disaffected young people.

At the heart of the problem lies the absence of dialogue between young and old. The generations lead separate lives, insulated by different interests and membership of separate organisations. They take possession of the streets and other public spaces at different times and have few opportunities for shared experiences that can develop understanding, mutual respect and trust. Some communities have a bridging deficit.

Older people who volunteer in schools frequently comment that children now greet them enthusiastically in the street instead of ignoring them. Young people helping to relieve the loneliness of frail, isolated people develop new understandings. These are vital steps in building healthy, vibrant communities.

Government and other funders should favour styles of working that encourage bridging behaviour in the organisations they support. But, more importantly, local groups should reach out to one another to ensure that they jointly tackle local problems. There is a role for councils of voluntary service and other coordinating bodies to encourage schools to have a regular dialogue and joint activities with organisations representing old people.

It is common to hear of a lack of joined-up thinking in government, but the absence of joined-up communities creates tensions and barriers to social improvement leading to a fragmented society. This can only be tackled locally but it will be easier with some well-placed nudging from the centre.

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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