Community Organisation in the United Kingdom

Community Organisation in the United Kingdom

British community work emerged from the charity work of the Anglican Church and the University Settlement Movement. It was primarily a response to the suffering of the people in the clutches of urban poverty. In other words we can say that the genesis of community work in the U.K. was inspired by philanthropic motives; particularly of the church.

As the 20th century progressed, there began to emerge a gradual transition away from charity and benevolent paternalism towards a philosophy of liberation. This in turn led to a change in class and gender consciousness.

It was during this time that people like Sylvia Pankhurst and groups like the Women’s  Housing Association adapted ideas of self help from the Chicago settlement that Jane  Addams had modeled based on Toynbee Hall. Pankhurst set up a cooperative factory to  provide employment, and a crèche based on education through play. She also initiated  community action when during the First World War (1914-18), she supported families to  occupy empty houses, in the wake of escalating rents.

The Women’s Housing Association organized a mass tenants strike, leading the  government to regulate rents. Thus, collective action became popular throughout the early  years of the 20th century, ending in the General Strike of 1926.

Community centres were also built with the aim of integrating the marginalized groups,  and were seen to offer a form of social work response to the needs of the working class  and an intervention to control unrest.

In the 1950s, community work practice in the U.K. became influenced by the theory that  emerged from North America, based primarily on the work of Murray Ross. This inspired a  new approach to neigh bourhood and interagency work (Popple, 1995). Community work  began to emerge as a distinct occupation with a strong educational component in the  1960s, following the Young husband Report (1959), which identified community  organization as a key component of social work, based on the American Model.

Community organization was perceived to be an approach to help people identify and  define their own needs, and identify ways in which these could be met. In this context,  Kuenstter (1961) presented the first collection of community work material, relevant to the
British context. This was really the beginning of British Community Work.

The term ‘community development’ gradually came to be applied to community work that   was based on local neighbourhoods. In 1968, the Gulbenkian Report, based on research  into the role of community work in the U.K. projected community work as an “interface  between people and social change” (Calouste-Gulbenkian Foundation, 1968). It defined  community work as a full time professional practice based on neighbourhoods, which  helped local people to decide, plan and take action to meet their needs with the help of  outside resources. Within this, the key components were recognized as improving the  delivery of local services; developing interagency coordination; and influencing policy and
planning.

A number of other influential reports were also published which had impact on the  development of community work in the country. One of these was the See bohm  Committee Report, 1968, which recommended the expansion of community work  especially through social service provision and the Skeffingt on Report, 1969, which recommended increased public participation in urban planning.

The British Community Development Projects were launched in 1969 as one among a  series of initiatives designed to deal with urban deprivation. The projects aimed at evolving  cost effective welfare measures to tackle the high concentration of deprivation and  adopted a variety of strategies to work with the communities.

While some projects operated on ‘dialogue model’ of social change, and focused largely on  ameliorative activities, some rejected such approaches, as they only provided ‘support for  the status quo’. By and large, the projects rejected conflict-based community action as a  means of achieving their goals, as it was felt that such action was sporadic, alienated the  decision-makers and led to group instability. In their view the way to achieve change at  the local level was to increase access to, and democratic control over the resources that  were already available. Its goal was to radically change the organization of resources  within the local area, and not to act as an outside pressure group.

The findings of some projects however argued that people affected by inequality need to  be facilitated to influence the way in which their needs are tackled and therefore saw value  in conflict-based community action. These projects recognized the wider structural issues.

They recommended a ‘social planning’ strategy, concluding that the provision of empirical  evidence was the most useful strategy for influencing policy. In the period since 1968 a  substantial number of those professionally engaged in community work became advocates  of ‘community action’, a form of community work whose main features included a support  of disadvantaged groups in conflict with authority and an accompanying reformist or  Marxist perspective on society. There were a number of reasons for this development. The  impulse of urban community action was encouraged to some extent by the example of  urban action among the blacks in the U.S. from Martin Luther.

Secondly, developments in community work practice in the form of the Urban Programme  in 1968 and the Twelve Community Development projects which emerged from this  programme in 1969 also impacted the emergence of community action. The Projects which  focused on twelve poor communities, closely reflected on the impact of poverty on people’s lives and advocated that it was the radical/structural Marxist analyses of  discrimination which was responsible for the continued existence of poverty and the plight  of the urban poor.

Thirdly, the work of community organizers like Gramsci, Paulo Freire and Saul Alinsky  started impacting the community work practice in the subsequent phase. They wee strong advocates of the radical tradition of community action were largely instrumental in  popularizing the radical stance in community work.

Fourthly, the early seventies had witnessed an increasing recognition and expansion of  community work, both through the voluntary and government sectors. However as the  decade progressed, there was a  greater emphasis on state sponsorship of community
work. This resulted in some inherent contradictions.

While community workers were working with the local people to organize them and to  facilitate them to demand better public services, they were employed by the very state  which was responsible for the provision or the ‘non’-provision of these services. As a result  of all of the aforementioned developments, two spilt/distinct approaches to community work arose.

The first approach believed that there is a multiplicity of competing power bases in society  which are mediated by the state and that community work is only capable of ameliorative  small scale neighbourhood organizing and small scale reforms. This approach was  conservative, with an emphasis on consensus and cooperation. On the other hand, the  alternate approach strongly proposed community work as the locus of change within the  struggle for transformation of the structures of society that were recognized to be the root
cause of all oppression. This approach, also known as the radical approach to community  work, took on the ‘hard issues’ of social justice and sustainability, while the former  ‘consensus’ approach focused on the local ‘soft issues’ such as provision of services and  interagency work.

Many community practitioners realized the advantages in combining these two   approaches, which had in common the ultimate objectives of enabling people to cope with  their life situations and of developing improved provision of services/resources. It was also  felt that both approaches could support each other. Community action might ignore  the immediate needs of people, in the interest of collective cause, while provision of social services might ignore the importance of such conditions and attempt to deal with  community problems as though they were individual problems. However, working with
and against the state continued to pose an ongoing challenge for community work, with  the state acting as both employer and oppressor.

After the election of the Thatcher government, the antistate approach of radical  community work became an increasingly ineffective mechanism to challenge the
Neoliberal ideology that emerged and which embraced: a free market economy; minimum  government; acceptance of inequalities; nationalism and the welfare state as a minimal  safety net (Giddens, 1998). The welfare state ideology which had survived until the
1980s now started receding in the wake of economic recession and the immense welfare  burdens on account of rising unemployment. Ideals of collective responsibility which had  formed the basis of the welfare state, gave way to a competitive culture driven by  consumerism.

Under Thatcherism, social reforms devoured rights and reduced benefits for some of the  most vulnerable groups in society. These risks of poverty were further multiplied on  account of class, gender, ethnicity, age and disability, all of which went to imply that  poverty was not a result of personal failings of an individual but arose on account of  structural anomalies.

With the election of the Blair government in 1997, a small change took place. Community  and civil society came to be recognized as the interface between the people and the state.  With the state playing an enabling role, voluntary organizations were encouraged to tackle  the new needs. There was increasing concern about those neighbourhoods which  had a high incidence of poverty, unemployment and associated problems of crime, poor  health, poor service delivery, poor quality schools etc. The focus therefore became the  regeneration of poor neighbourhoods. In the year 2000, the National Strategy for  Neighbourhood Renewal was initiated for this purpose. Area based programmes emerged  to tackle the specific local problems. The idea of community cohesion was revised.

Although it is too early to assess the impact of the National Strategy, limited research  evidence has shown that the community involvement programmes are poorly planned,  inadequately resourced and not very effective (Burton, 2003). Thus, in the contemporary  phase of community work in the United Kingdom, both the radical perspective and the  more moderate and consensus based approaches to community work co-exist. There is no  consensus on which approach is more effective and workable in dealing with the current  dilemmas faced by community work professionals.