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Community Development must be at the forefront of services

October 28th 2010

Over the past decade or so, if you have been following the blogs and publications of what we might charitably call the ‘taxpayers perspective’, you will have come across the notion that town halls up and down the country have been squandering bucketloads of money on so called ‘non-jobs’. Many of these ‘non-jobs’ have been pejoratively labelled as ‘diversity outreach co-ordinators’ although the term seems to be a generalised term of abuse thrown at any role that involves the promotion of equality, tackling prejudice, or general community development work. Despite the incoherence of the complaints, the sentiment has unfortunately gained significant currency amongst some sections of the public.

So it would be understandable if in the current climate, local authorities may wish to protect services that are politically popular – such as care for elderly people – at the expense of services that are not.

But this would be at the expense of the prosperity of vulnerable groups.

The problem with many community development programmes is that they don’t necessarily have outcomes that are easily measured in pounds and pence. Rather, their purpose is to build Social Capital. To stick with the rather unfair stereotypes here, a community development officer who organises a dance class for single parents in a poor area may not be able to demonstrate immediate economic outputs  (such as people helped into a job). Rather the purpose is to create the conditions through which such gains can happen down the line. By creating a place for people to meet and network with each other, the event organised by a community development team can be the catalyst for improving health outcomes, employment outcomes and generally increase self confidence. Sticking with the example given, the dancing class may not by itself create employment, but by creating a social network the people who attend may be able to arrange childcare that enables some of them to enter employment, arrange car sharing so that commuting outside the area is possible, or simply provide a support network for encouraging somebody to give up smoking.

Another example of how community development is good for the economy and society is the example of local authorities organising sports events. On the surface this often provokes criticism (“all you need is jumpers for goalposts”) about wasting money. However,  Police often report how crime and anti-social behaviour declines when young adults are participating in such activities. Furthermore, by encouraging fitness, such events will clearly save the NHS money further down the line. Community Development is above all about taking the long view.

I argued recently that the budget of the government is not like a household budget, and easy savings now can lead to increase costs at a later date. Community Development is a classic example of this principle, if local authorities decide to axe community development work now by seeing it as an easy saving that won’t carry a political backlash, they will pay the price for it in years to come. The ‘taxpayers perspective’ is best served by taking the long view – savings now at the expense of the future, or investment now to have lower costs in the future

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