Catherine Durose, Jonathan France, Liz Richardson and Ruth Lupton
Published 1 October 2011
Under the New Labour government, the neighbourhood emerged prominently as a site for policy interventions and as a space for civic activity, resulting in the widespread establishment of neighbourhood-level structures for decision-making and service delivery. The future existence and utility of these arrangements is now unclear under the Coalition government’s Big Society proposals and fiscal austerity measures. On the one hand, sub-local governance structures might be seen as promoting central-to-local and local-to-community devolution of decision-making. On the other, they might be seen as layers of expensive bureaucracy standing in the way of bottom-up community action. Arguably the current value and future role of these structures in facilitating the Big Society will depend on how they are constituted and with what purpose. There are many local variations. In this paper we look at three case studies, in England, France and the Netherlands, to learn how different approaches to neighbourhood working have facilitated and constrained civic participation and action. Drawing on the work of Lowndes and Sullivan (2008) we show how the achievement of civic objectives can be hampered in structures set up primarily to achieve social, economic and political goals, partly because of (remediable) flaws in civic engagement but partly because of the inherent tensions between these objectives in relation to issues of spatial scale and the constitution and function of neighbourhood structures. The purpose of neighbourhood structures needs to be clearly thought through. We also note a distinction between ‘invited’ and ‘popular’ spaces for citizen involvement, the latter being created by citizens themselves. ‘Invited’ spaces have tended to dominate to date, and the Coalition’s agenda suggests a fundamental shift to ‘popular’ spaces. However we conclude that the Big Society will require neighbourhood working to be both invited and popular. Citizen participation cannot always replace local government – sometimes it requires its support and stimulation. The challenge for local authorities is to reconstitute ‘invited’ spaces (not to abolish them) and at the same time to facilitate ‘popular’ spaces for neighbourhood working.