Thu 24 Jan 2019
One London borough has been bringing people together to work, socialise and dream. The results are extraordinary
If there is hope, it lies here, in the most deprived borough in London. Barking and Dagenham has shocking levels of unemployment, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and early death. Until 2010, it was the main stronghold of the British National party. Its population turns over at astonishing speed: every year, about 8% of residents move out. But over the past year it has started to become known for something else: as a global leader in taking back control.
Since the second world war, councils and national governments have sought to change people’s lives from the top down. Their efforts, during the first 30 years of this period at least, were highly effective, creating public services, public housing and a social safety net that radically improved people’s lives.
But they had the unintended consequence of reducing our sense of agency, our social skills and mutual aid. Now, in the age of austerity, state support has been withdrawn, leaving many people with the worst of both worlds: neither the top-down protection of government nor the bottom-up resilience of the community it replaced. I believe we still need strong state support and well-financed public services. But this is not enough. The best antidote to the rising tide of demagoguery and reaction is a politics of belonging based on strong and confident local communities.
Those who study community life talk about two kinds of social network: bonding and bridging. Bonding networks are those created within homogeneous groups. While they can overcome social isolation, they can also foster suspicion and prejudice, while limiting opportunities for change. Bridging networks bring people from different groups together. Research suggests that they can reduce crime and unemployment and, by enhancing community voices, improve the quality of government.