Winner of the 2017 Webb Memorial Trust essay competition: Amy-Grace Whillans-Wheldrake
‘In the light of Brexit, what can low income communities in the UK do to organise themselves to become more resilient and self-sufficient?’
Congratulations to Amy-Grace Whillans-Wheldrake, winner of the 2016 Webb Memorial Trust and New Statesman essay competition. Amy-Grace wins £1000 and her essay was published on page 32 of the 6 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman
Britain’s exit from the EU shocked many. Not least because a large proportion of deprived communities voted for Brexit, despite receiving significant amounts of EU development funding (Cain, 2016). It would appear that for many, EU grants have failed to compensate for lost economic independence and autonomy, and a sense of alienation from European elites. Through this lens Brexit can be interpreted as a response to wider dissatisfaction with a capitalist system, which has compounded inequality and failed to deliver economic growth within post-industrial areas. For many communities, a leap into the unknown has proved a more tempting option, than remaining within the European Union and accepting a status quo which failed them.
Several months after the European Referendum, and we have yet to develop a clear understanding of the impact of Brexit upon communities across the UK. However, evidence suggests that whatever Britain’s ultimate relationship with the EU, the impacts of Brexit will be profound and are likely to have a severe impact upon the country’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. Initial projections suggest that the post-Brexit recession is expected to involve withdrawals of capital investment and jobs. Alongside this, increasing inflation, higher prices, and higher import taxes are all likely to compound the pressure on the very families exposed to continued austerity and public sector cuts (Whittaker, 2016).
Austerity is continuing to reshape the relationships between national and local government, citizen and state. Whilst simultaneously restructuring the UK benefit and tax credit regime, without a full understanding of the impacts on low income communities. In recent years, benefits have been frozen, in-work payments cut, and caps on overall benefit receipt have been lowered. All of this has resulted in severe and uneven impacts upon low incomes areas (Hastings, 2015). Depending on how much of the fiscal gap, post-Brexit, is offset through welfare cuts, a lone parent with two children could lose £5,582 per annum. While the overall impact of cuts to in-work and family benefits, will be felt primarily by lone parents, disabled parents, and people under 30 (Armstrong, 2016). These impacts are also likely to be unevenly distributed across the country as urban areas often have the highest concentration of young families (Cain, 2016). Indeed, the unequal nature of austerity, has become so severe that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights conducted an investigation, which declared current government policy to be in breach of international human rights (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2016). Deprived areas, whose local economies are already struggling are therefore likely to suffer disproportionately due to a toxic combination of Brexit and ongoing cuts. For low income communities the picture looks bleak with many neighbourhoods and demographic groups, facing a future of continued socio-economic down turn with little apparent means of mitigating such impacts.
Low income communities are now living in a political, environmental and social context in which their exposure to climate change, economic shocks and social upheaval, expose them to an ever growing catalogue of risk. This, alongside the ideological retreat from the welfare state, has led to a growing emphasis upon the roles and responsibilities of citizens and communities. In the face of such challenges, the concept of Resilience has gained currency in academic and public policy. This has led to a growing ideological emphasis upon the concept of community resilience, which demands that communities are prepared for major shocks and stresses to the system; and are ‘resilient’ enough to remain self-sufficient and develop sustainable solutions (Cheshire, 2015). Previously resilience has been understood as an inherent ability to cope with period of stress or crisis, however the concept is now viewed as a variable quality derived from a process of repeated interactions between individuals within communities (Gilligan, 2001). A resilient community is therefore considered to be an area with the ability to “resist, absorb, and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner” whilst preserving “essential basic structures and functions” (Wright, 2016). In order to understand how different communities cope with such shocks, community resilience places particular emphasis on the collective nature of the response and the ability of local people to draw on communal resources for a shared goal. Social capital, and the ability of individuals to rely upon networks of trust and reciprocity, is therefore seen as a cornerstone of a community’s ability to be ‘resilient’ (Platts-Fowler, 2013).
However, it is difficult to assess levels of resilience within communities, as they are often only revealed post-crisis. The resilience of a local area is often measured by assessing how the social, public and commercial spheres within an economy, function and interact with one another (CLES, 2012). Whilst such holistic approaches help us to gauge an area’s general level of resilience, little is known regarding the exact factors which shape levels of resilience across communities, which remain highly context dependent. Communities themselves often have little awareness of the resilience of their local area, and little is known regarding the extent to which people are aware of, or prepared for different kinds of risk.
Conventional approaches to resilience focus around a community’s ability to respond to future shocks, however, residents in low income communities are likely to be dealing with immediate and everyday challenges such as the cost of living, or physical and mental health issues, (Hastings, 2015). As a result, not only is their capacity to respond to potential shocks reduced, they are also unlikely to prioritise hypothetical risks in the long term, when facing tangible short term challenges on a regular basis (Wright, 2015). Low income communities by their very nature are therefore less likely to be prepared for the risks presented by the twin issues of Brexit and austerity, as residents are likely to be at risk of experiencing low skills, poorer health outcomes, poor physical and social infrastructure, unemployment, crime and reduced and fragmented public services. Low income communities are also likely to display lower levels of social capital as many areas have experienced prolonged periods of population change, resulting in the disruption of pre-existing social networks (Wright, 2015).
In the face of such circumstances, it can be difficult to envisage how low income communities can organise themselves to become more resilient and self-sufficient when presented with global socio-economic issues. However, despite such challenges, communities can begin to develop their resilience by adopting an asset based approach. While some communities may lack formal qualifications, residents often possess a wealth of detailed local knowledge, informal networks of mutual support and complex collective/individual coping mechanisms, which can be mobilised to reduce the impacts of Brexit (Wright,2016). By adopting an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach communities can begin to organise by identifying their skills, to marshal them towards improving their social and economic resilience. ABCD has become increasingly popular as a means of empowering communities, by moving away from what can often be a disempowering narrative focused upon needs rather than assets. Under this approach, assets can refer to physical assets, as well as the wealth of knowledge, skills, experience and social networks that can help address the priorities and needs of the community. Indeed, these ‘social’ assets need to be in place before communities can attempt to develop the physical assets at their disposal (Scottish Community Development Centre, 2011). ABCD therefore acts as an important framework around which communities can organise to develop local projects and build resilience. Communities can also communicate, share ideas of best practice, and source funding by joining community support networks such as Locality. Such networks help communities develop ongoing projects, and gain support from external organisations to help build their capacity and support long-term resilience locally.
However, when exploring how communities can become more resilient and self-sufficient it is important that the sole responsibility is not placed upon the community’s shoulders. In light of the many barriers facing low income and deprived areas, communities must develop relationships with both public, private and third sector organisations to build their capacity. In order to take steps towards building resilience, communities must use approaches such as ABCD to develop frameworks to partner local organisations. For example, in a deprived community in North Glasgow, ABCD was used to develop the Children’s Inclusion Partnership, a community development project which links families, children and communities. The project aimed to help residents feel stronger and more optimistic, by providing a means through which they could influence the circumstances and decisions that affect them. By mapping their local area, the community discovered assets relating to networks of local community organisations, local activists, community buildings and the local park. Focusing on these assets, the community was able to develop projects in partnership with public and third sector organisations, and successfully delivered a photography-based intergenerational ‘living history’ project. Through local partnerships the community was therefore able to build on cohesive and pre-existing networks, in order to gain the confidence and resilience needed to address local needs (Scottish Community Development Centre, 2011).
Both local and national government must also play a role in encouraging community resilience through the provision of dedicated grants, and the development of a preventative approach within public service reform (Wright, 2016). Both the Department of Health (DFH) and Local Authorities across the UK have recognised the tendency for public services to a manage the challenges facing low income communities, rather than address the root cause of the problem. This has created a culture of long term dependency (Department of Health, 2013) and (Newham, 2011). In order to address this challenge DFH and local councils have invested in localised projects developed in partnership with local communities. As part of its national agenda DFH have focused on developing activities which promote wellbeing, build social capital, develop psychological coping strategies, and implement the service infrastructure needed to develop community resilience (Department of Health, 2013).
For example, Newham council has developed a workplace employment programme, which focuses on helping residents to gain the personal resilience skills they need to find sustainable employment. The programme therefore provides residents with one-on-one time with a personal advisor trained to identify needs like confidence-building, social skills, as well as meeting practical skills and qualification requirements. The programme ultimately aims to get people into work, whilst developing sustainable levels of personal resilience, to ensure residents are able to sustain employment (Newham, 2011). However, such initiatives remain limited in their ability to address structural issues within local economies, which are a symptom of wider economic trends.
External organisations therefore play an important role, within long term resilience building in low income communities. In the case of North Glasgow, the local partnership was able to act as host, networker, bridge, catalyst and partner in new developments. Such partnerships provide an important mechanism for communities to begin to develop their capacity to address resilience (Scottish Community Development Centre, 2011). In the long-term the adoption of collaborative and co-produced approaches such as ABCD can enable low income communities to develop the capacity and resilience to take over local assets such as libraries. In such circumstances the transfer of local assets to the community could be said to represent a form of “associational democracy.” Such initiatives can be indicative of the development of collective action, mutual-aid, and self-help organisations (Hoggett, 1985) which stem from a community’s capacity to “work together to meet shared needs and address common problems” (Lyons, 1998). This can be viewed as the expression of the levels of active citizenship, social capital, and the capacity needed for low income communities to become more self-sufficient, and resilient to the joint impacts of austerity and Brexit (Nichols, 2015).
However, whilst ABCD has proven effective at enabling low income communities to effect positive change within their local area, such initiatives remain highly localised and limited in scope. Indeed, there is a question as to whether neighbourhoods or communities are the correct scale at which to deliver long-term resilience initiatives. Social networks are often inherently complex, and can be both a positive means through, which to empower communities or a negative mechanism of social control (Wright, 2015). The challenges experienced by many low income communities and their low levels of resilience are also reflective of wider socio-economic and structural issues within society. The networks and social capital needed to become resilient are therefore subject to constant change and are highly context dependent and localised. If we wish to support communities to organise to become more resilient, new networks at both the local, regional and national level are needed to build sustainable levels of resilience within local communities. However, as our current understanding of what makes particular communities and networks resilient, remains limited, it may not be possible to artificially build networks of resilience at the correct scale (Wright, 2015).
This raises the question as to whether low income communities will ever develop the resilience to allow them to deal with the scale of socio-economic shocks embodied by Brexit. Therefore, whilst encouraging communities to become more resilient to insulate themselves from the worst impacts of Brexit is a positive step, there is a danger that the language of resilience shifts responsibility to communities, who may lack the resources to do so. The language of resilience could therefore be seen to form part of a broader shifting of responsibilities to local levels, in an attempts to encourage self- sufficiency within communities as a means to mitigate or justify current austerity measures (Wright, 2016). This creates a danger that by placing too much emphasis and responsibility on communities to develop resilience, we risk interpreting a community’s inability to address local needs as a failure of the communities themselves, rather than the result of complex socio-economic and structural issues within society.
Resilience must therefore be tempered by an accurate understanding of the lived experiences facing communities, and the inherent limits of their capacity to develop sustainable and self-sufficient responses to large scale economic shocks. If we are to address the root cause of the challenges facing low income communities, it is essential for us to challenge the concept of resilience in favour of alternative local and national solutions. If low income communities are to become more resilient in the long term, we must recognise the complex and fragile nature of relationships, networks, social capital and resources so essential to resilience building, or risk leaving low income communities behind (Stark, 2014).
The debate around community resilience must therefore move beyond placing sole responsibility on communities to develop a holistic approach, which is able to explore how various elements of social and political systems can work with communities to enable future resilience. This will require the commitment and development of long-term relationships between key stakeholders, services and communities, alongside significant time and resource commitments. Resilience must therefore be seen as long term solution to the challenges facing low income communities, and should not be interpreted as a panacea to solve the immediate and profound changes represented by both austerity and Brexit.
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