Withdrawal symptoms

Tottenham descended into riots in August despite years of community regeneration. But far from proving that investment failed, argue Denis Dillon and Bryan Fanning, it shows such areas are too fragile to withdraw support from

Flytipping on the Tiverton estate in Tottenham, north London.

The August disturbances in Tottenham occurred just over a quarter of a century after the riot in nearby Broadwater Farm. Unsurprisingly there has been a feeling in Tottenham that all the efforts in the intervening period that went into improving the physical and social fabric of the area have been in vain. Tottenham has certainly received significant public investment in the past 25 years.

From 2001 in particular, the area was a major beneficiary of New Labour’s National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. What was unique about this neighbourhood renewal agenda – in comparison to earlier programmes – was the belief that improved community participation could drive improved responsiveness by local authorities and service providers to deprived localities.

Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, the scene of rioting in 1985.

But to what extent have such programmes bought sustainable benefits to places like Tottenham? It is important in the current era of cutbacks and retrenchment and Big Society rhetoric to understand how and to what extent, or if at all, neighbourhood renewal efforts have genuinely empowered deprived communities.

Lessons for the Big Society: Planning, Regeneration and the Politics of Community Participation takes the London Borough of Haringey as a case study. It examines top-down efforts over the last 40 years to promote community participation and the extent and influence of bottom-up community activism. Haringey is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse boroughs in England and a place characterised by high levels of socio-economic polarization.

Tottenham, which comprises the east the borough, contains some of the most deprived areas in England. The west of the borough contains relatively affluent localities such as Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. East-west socio-economic divisions mirror major geographic disparities in levels of community capacity within Haringey. While the west of the borough contains established networks of autonomous community groups active on planning issues and in support of local amenities there has historically been an absence of such an infrastructure in Tottenham.

Ironically, Haringey Council has long been politically dominated by Labour – for decades the local Labour Party has been strongest in Tottenham but weaker in the west of the borough – yet community groups in the west have been more successful in influencing council decision-making than those in the east. One test of neighbourhood renewal programmes in Haringey is whether these have fostered any equivalent community capacity to that long-evident in better-off parts of the borough. Now that New Labour programmes supporting community participation have been wound down there is a need to take stock of successes and failures.

We found that Tottenham’s three neighbourhood renewal initiatives did foster a degree of new community capacity. They did so by building positive relationships between community representatives and professional staff from the local authority and other public service providers who sat on the three programme partnership boards. Residents and professionals collaborated in addressing local problems, such as rubbish dumping and crime, street lighting, traffic management and improving local parks.

Some of these regeneration initiatives were designed to provide ‘quick wins’ which acted as an incentive for community participation. Others sought more long-term improvement of local public services. Examples included an integrated health centre and the development of a new children’s centre. Again, responsiveness by service providers (orchestrated by regeneration community workers) to concerns and aspirations of residents expressed in regeneration incentivised further community participation.

To some extent participation by residents in the delivery of neighbourhood renewal schemes enhanced community capacity. Our Tottenham interviewees considered that they had improved their skills in public speaking, chairing meetings, advocating on behalf of their localities and appraising project proposals. Community representatives also led campaigns on issues of concern to local residents. In one case, residents mobilised successfully to prevent the closure of the local post office. In another, community representatives negotiated with the council to introduce speed restrictions on one of the main roads in the area. But they were helped in doing so by community workers.

One of New Labour’s target outcomes for its neighbourhood renewal policy was that it would support deprived areas in developing levels of community capacity characteristic of more affluent localities. By late 2010, as remaining funding streams dried up and as Haringey Council began dismantling its neighbourhood management infrastructure, there was no evidence that community capacity generated through resident involvement with Tottenham’s three local schemes will be sustainable.

At all times community participation remained dependent on institutional support and was aided and facilitated by institutional actors. Community campaigns received help from programme staff. Most of the ‘grassroots’ community networks that emerged had been set up and supported by community development workers attached to the three neighbourhood renewal schemes. In effect there remained on life support. Once regeneration support for community participation ceased community capacity evaporated.

The limitations of New Labour’s policy assumption that targeted public investment would ultimately foster a self-reliant form of capacity within deprived communities are obvious. One of the key lessons from the Tottenham example is that deprived communities are going to need sustained government support and investment for the foreseeable future.

The difference with the west of the borough was striking. Community groups flourished without any external support. A number of chapters in in our book examine how and why community groups in well-to-do areas have flourished. These had access to levels of social and cultural capital uncharacteristic of deprived localities. Their members had the kinds of capabilities that regeneration programmes tried to engender in deprived areas. Some such groups were exemplars of Big Society ideals.

Some of their campaigns were what we describe as anti-municipalist; they challenged the very legitimacy of the local authority to make decisions affecting their communities. But the notion of the Big Society makes little sense in places like Tottenham where community participation can only be sustained through on-going investment in communities. In the case of Tottenham, which has been devastated by riots and arson and the erosion of trust in authority, such investment is crucial.

Denis Dillon is local programmes manager at Community Service Volunteers and Bryan Fanning is a professor in the School of Applied Social Studies at University College Dublin. Lessons for the Big Society: Planning, Regeneration and the Politics of Community Participation is published by Ashgate.

Download the ezine version of this article.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top