The nature of urban policy in United Kingdom (or at least in England) in recent years seems to have set the agenda for the commentative literature to an unexpected degree. Writers on the subject (mainly urban specialists or geographers) appear to have become preoccupied with the same presentational and promotional matters to which the government devotes so much of its energies.
Certainly, there is no want of critical discussion of competition as an allocative mechanism, but what is striking is the volume of wordage devoted to partnerships, synergy, community empowerment, sustainability, exit strategies and the like, with precious little reference to how they are to connect with the problems of poverty, unemployment, the never-to-be employed, the demoralisation of long-term or possibly permanent dependency, the intractability of the dependency ratio, the enormous social and economic divisions opening up between minority ethnic groups and between some of them and the white majority, the exclusion (both forced and voluntary) of some groups (definable on a number of dimensions) from civil society and effective citizenship and the denial of social rights that this entails. All these manifestations have spatial dimensions; all of them ought to be the subject of urban policy as well as social policy. And yet the urban policy literature is devoted (metaphorically speaking) to the synergistic qualities of multi-participant partnerships.
(There are of course notable exceptions, but the literature that treats urban policy as social policy is very small; Dily Hill’s most recent work (1994) is one example. ) Any attempt to make sense of the direction that inner-city policy has taken in recent years and of the way the commentative literature has added its gloss, must therefore pay regard to the apparent gap between policy form and strategy on the one hand, and the substance of what needs to be done on the other. Does the seeming preoccupation with form in fact reflect, contrary to appearance, a considered interest in strategies and structures that are genuinely and strictly problems-directed? Is the gap between problems and policies, in other words, more apparent than real?
The following paragraphs therefore will consider a number of key components (both organisational and conceptual) of urban policy in England to see how close they bring us to making at least some potential impact on those aspects of urban life that we consider undesirable (if not unacceptable). Community Empowerment There is a clutch of related concepts, each of which is difficult to discuss in isolation from the others. Besides community empowerment there are ‘sustainability’, ‘capacity building’ and ‘exit strategies’ These last three are more closely related to each other, however, and community empowerment has been around for much longer–although under a number of different guises. For ease of discussion therefore we shall deal with community empowerment first. More rhetorical fluff attaches to ‘community’ than to most other words in the social science lexicon (with the possible exception of ’empowerment’).
We still seem to have a romantic conception of community; all unitary values and communitarianism. It is far more likely that the first thing a family living on a ghastly peripheral estate would do were it to be ’empowered’ (like winning a million on the lottery or–better still–finding a permanent job) would be to get out. Does ‘community empowerment’ really connect with peoples’ everyday lives? How do they feel when they have been empowered (or not)? Davoudi and Healey, commenting on the manner in which local issues had been discussed with residents in a City Challenge project, observe that “Community participants often remarked on their sense of ‘discursive marginalisation'” (Davoudi and Healey, 1995, p. 173). Just picture it.
There are so many possible interpretations of community empowerment that it would be pointless to enumerate them. Its rhetoric derives from the earlier rhetoric of ‘powerlessness’ as being possibly the main functional disadvantage from which some of the urban deprived suffer (Cockburn, 1977; Sills et al. , 1988). However, since there was never any clear analysis of in relation to whom and in respect of what they were powerless, what is required of any subsequent process of empowerment remains unclear. Some of the uncertainties concerning empowerment in relation to the current debate about urban policy would include the following. What sort of communities are we mainly concerned with?
Much of the literature, and most of the practice, assumes that it is spatial communities that need to be empowered and this must in part be driven by the fact that practically all regeneration policy requires the specification of a locus in which resources will be used. A number of consequential questions then arise. First is the point noted above about whether empowerment (whatever it means) would override commitment to the spatial community. Is it not more likely that given more ‘power’, and hence presumably more choice, people would exercise it by moving out? Secondly, it is at least debatable that peoples’ community attachments and allegiances are increasingly with ‘interest’ rather than with spatial communities. The ‘ties that bind’ for many religious, ethnic and racial groups are only incidentally spatial (proportional to the extent of their residential segregation).
Thirdly, the argument for community empowerment, to the extent that it assumes . the acquisition of more power, influence or choice (or any combination of these) by ‘the community’ vis-a-vis other agents and agencies outside the community, necessarily entails the existence of a community interest or value that is to be promoted in the face of external agencies. Now whilst there will be some interests around which all or most of the community’s members may unite, there will be many other interests over which members will be in opposition. The idea that a spatial community can be empowered in any significant way assumes the existence of a unitary set of values and interests.
That simply is not plausible. Even in socially and ethnically homogeneous council estates, it would be naive to assume that everyone’s interests were common and it certainly would not be plausible in an ethnically and racially mixed area. In such a case, the ’empowerment’ of some may be at the expense of the influence of others. It follows then–and this is our fourth point–that in heterogeneous communities or groupings, either someone has to exercise a bit of paternalistic influence over who gets empowered (with any luck, not self-styled ‘community leaders’) or you allow a hands-off, free market in internal power struggles and let the weakest go to the wall (again).