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We don’t talk enough about…the things communities can’t do

Kate Jopling argues that we’re putting too much pressure on communities to tackle problems they shouldn’t be expected to solve: the structural issues that can’t be masked with bunting and good intentions.

I’m concerned that the myth of the ‘power of communities’ is becoming all consuming.

Don’t get me wrong, I like communities. I’m convinced that when people come together and start to feel a sense of shared endeavour and belonging, it is powerful. I also believe that most of the time services that are of the community, not for the community, do a better job. Community-based organisations have long been quietly welcoming and picking up those left behind by statutory services, offering a more flexible, responsive and human face.

So it is great that this power is now being recognised within the health system (late to the party though it is). But I worry that we are starting to forget that trusting people and communities to understand and respond to their own issues a lot of the time, is not the same as leaving people and communities to take care of everyone, all of the time.

It feels like communities are being asked to solve problems that public services have tried and failed to do for years. And what’s more, they are expected to do it better, and more cheaply.

The leaders of our health system seem to want communities not just to offer people a place to belong, but also to reach and respond to those who are most lonely; not just to help us stay healthy, but also to help us get better. Initiatives like social prescribing and peer support hold much promise, but I wonder if our expectations are too high? It feels like communities are being asked to solve problems that public services have tried and failed to do for years. And what’s more, they are expected to do it better, and more cheaply.

I worry that in our rush to empower communities we’re ignoring some of the realities of how communities come into being – and the risks that these create.

Community limits

Communities are groups of people who feel a sense of ‘us’. Between ‘us’ we can organise to share resources and skills, we can support each other through difficult times, we can get to know each other and spot when things are going wrong, and we can work out how to fix things.

But there are limits to what communities can do – here are three:

  • First, while communities might be able to teach the public sector a thing or two about reaching people, they won’t resolve the problems of exclusion. Because where there is ‘us’ there is always ‘them’. Ranks close and people are left out. Of course, there are things we can do to help communities be more inclusive and outward-looking. But these things don’t come free, or even cheap – they require constant investment in building capacity, in looking out for who is left behind and in building new communities around them.
  • Second, communities can’t overcome the massive inequalities that exist between different groups and areas. Building community is much easier when the people within them have more. And while every individual and area has assets and strengths, we can’t pretend it makes no difference whether your community space is a grass verge, or a five-star village hall. Communities, however empowered, can’t overcome the fundamental problems of low income, poor work, depleted public services and crappy environments.
  • Finally, communities can’t create resources from thin air. Ingenuity and creativity abound – and people working together with a shared purpose can often do more with less than the public sector ever could – but community groups can’t and shouldn’t be asked to step into the gaps left by our failing social care and mental health services, or to take risks that the statutory sector won’t.

So please, can we talk more about what communities can’t do – the things that are frankly beyond groups of ordinary people coming together, the ‘them’ that will be left behind if things are left to ‘us’, and the structural issues that can’t be masked with bunting and good intentions.


Kate Jopling has more than 15 years’ experience working on ageing and has particular expertise in the fields of loneliness, health and care, and equality. She is Director of Programmes at the International Longevity Centre UK and the former director of the Campaign to End Loneliness

This topic will be discussed at our Super Melting Pot on 16-17 January, where we will be exploring the things that we don’t talk nearly enough about.


Blog
Kate Jopling6 January 2020

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