In preparation for a visit to meet Northern Heartlands in County Durham, I’ve been reading about their community projects and artists’ residencies, and watching some of the videos that capture the feel of some very good work. As so often when I see this kind of initiative, I’m struck by the continuing validity of community development, as a theory and a practice, and whether or not it involves participatory art. Community development emerged in the context of post-war decolonisation – it was Congress Party policy under Nehru – and came to the US and UK in the 1960s, sometimes linked with the civil rights movement. At the time, it was defined by the United Nations as:
‘a movement to promote better living for the whole community with active participation and if possible on the initiative of the community’Craig, G. et al, 2011 The Community Development Reader, London, p.3
It’s an attractive idea, though in truth it raises complex issues, not least in the weasel words ‘if possible’. The truth is, if it isn’t possible, it’s not community development.
Still, community development was a source that fed the early community arts movement. It certainly shaped my thinking, just as its social vision was losing a struggle with the rising force of neoliberalism. That ideology places great value on individual liberty but fails to recognise that the exercise of liberty may depend on collective solidarity. That’s especially true of those who get short measures in life’s lottery and manage without assets like money, health, connections, education or security that others depend on. That’s when community development can play a vital role, equipping people with the resources to organise their own mutual support. It’s a form of empowerment, and it remains as valid as it ever did.
It is heartening, and sometimes moving, to see the work that Northern Heartlands have done with disadvantaged communities in the Pennines and the former Durham coalfields. It’s also good to see some of the activity produced through Creative People and Places and the Local Trust. And I can remember past initiatives along the same lines, from Invest to Save to City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget (to name a few). For all their differences, for all the good they do achieve, these schemes have two things in common: they’re supposed to solve problems that arise – directly or not – from past policy decisions, and they are all time limited. They are, in short, attempts to solve structural inequalities without changing the conditions that produce them. And nowadays they are financed by the National Lottery receipts that come from the areas that are supposed to benefit from them.
Like the other pilot ‘Great Place Scheme‘ projects, Northern Heartlands will end this year. Politicians, policy advisers and commentators will continue to wring their hands about ‘left behind communities’ and will, I suppose, dream up new, short-lived schemes to help them. But the public services, capital and sustained community development that could change the lives of those on the margin remains a mirage. Answers exist, they have existed for decades, but who wants to hear them?