In search of the good life

NS & Fellows' Associates round table - Running away is not the answer. If we want our lives to impro

Quality of life starts at home, claimed Reverend Nims Obunge, chief executive of the Peace Alliance, a national crime reduction charity. From the outset of the latest round table on the theme of community justice, Obunge was clear that a better life springs from opportunities, especially for employment and better education. However, he argued that it was wrong to blame public or corporate bodies for the actions that resulted from a lack of such opportunities. "We cannot have a nanny state where the government is training us how to raise our kids. It has to come from the home environment." Many of the other participants agreed.

Today's Britain lacks a "sense of values", Obunge lamented. This was a by-product of "transient communities" with no sense of ownership and hence no pride in their environments. If there was no incentive from home to counter that, the result was a breakdown of the community; all positive initiatives would fall on deaf ears. What is needed is real engagement with communities. Meetings that he has had with black and ethnic-minority groups in London have shown that, to date, people have not registered changes on the ground. Working out how to turn concepts into reality for local people must become our priority, he stressed.

There was general agreement that a joined-up approach was necessary to help empower communities, but Damien Welfare, a local government lawyer, disagreed with Obunge about where the responsibility lay. "Quality of life has to start at the front door," he said. "We have lost sight of the responsibilities we all have." He put the blame squarely on people in the community and, more precisely, on the legacy of the Thatcher years. Politics in the 1980s, Welfare continued, "emphasised the individual at the expense of the community". He accepted that there had been a collapse of values, but maintained that we should look to the pre-Thatcher generation, the elderly in our communities, to rediscover them. It is their experiences and a regeneration of local government (also devalued under the Thatcher government) that would "turn around a whole generation of devaluation".

In any discussion of quality of life, environment and crime top the list of the public's concerns, said Justin Jupp, responsible for Encams's "crime and grime" agenda in London. But he questioned whether the "fear of crime" exists or if it is magicked up by the media and by politicians in search of votes. Chris Stanley of Nacro argued that people, young and old, are fearful of crime and want antisocial behaviour to stop, but that their fear is fuelled by the media. Obunge, however, claimed it was our own fault. After all, "we don't want to buy good news", he said.

As Jupp pointed out, this session was too short to "set that to rights", but participants agreed on the need to spread the good news so that the public became aware of what was being done to improve quality of life. Obunge believed the answer was "free community newsletters". As did Ellie Bird, detective chief inspector of the West Midlands Police, responsible for crime investigation and reduction. "Newsletters are great," she enthused. She said there had been an arrogance in the public sector for far too long, with the result that grass-roots actors had not been party to what was happening in their own communities. "People who know what's going on have a responsibility to spread that good news," she said. "That is what motivates people to make a difference."

With 21 years of service in the police, Bird is a passionate advocate of community involvement in justice. The police should be a final measure, she said, but "communities should set their own boundaries". She pointed out that people asked the police for antisocial behaviour orders so that they could work together to police the communities. The idea of "taking care of our own" is one that Bird wants to encourage. "Why do we have to have media campaigns to adopt a granny?" she asked. "The community should respond to this need."

It seemed a little idealistic but, according to Alan Burnett, such schemes do exist. Burnett, senior policy officer for Help the Aged, leapt to the defence of the government, which has initiated a scheme whereby homeless but able people are lodged in an elderly person's home in return for doing ten hours of practical work weekly for them. They get companionship and support and two needs are resolved in one go. When funds are limited, all it needs is a little "imagination to think of alter-natives", he claimed. Burnett also pointed out that even in cities such as London, Manchester and Liverpool, where many elderly people had been victims of crime in the past year, they still loved living there and wanted to help improve their neighbourhoods. "That kind of commitment should be harnessed," he said.

Like others, Robin Tuddenham, head of safety at Waltham Forest Council, emphasised that tackling antisocial behaviour was just one important aspect of improving quality of life. Thinking about prevention is equally important if not more so. "We need to hear more about early intervention initiatives," engaging people in a way that benefits them as individuals as well as the community they live in. He spoke about negotiating apprenticeships with local organisations and of a youth radio station that had been set up on one estate in his borough: when people are acquiring skills and giving something back to the community, respect follows.

"What we should not do," stressed Emily Robinson, researcher for the New Local Government Network, "is make distinctions between government and community." The role of local government is very important, "to bring everything together and be the voice of the people", she said. But in Obunge's opinion, the centre determines what happens at the fringes without understanding what happens there. "In Whitehall, you rise within the ranks, but forget where you've come from and the needs of the people you're supposed to represent," he said.

What is the cause of this lack of communication? According to John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen, the problem is "the decline of party politics". "Where are Labour's representatives?" he asked. If they were there, communicating between central government and communities, he felt sure that "things would change overnight". Robinson agreed. Surveys she has conducted of activists involved in party politics are not encouraging - indeed, the levels of engagement are shockingly low.

The MP was also worried about distinctions being made between government and community. He maintained that enforcement by the police, local government or other agency should not be thought of as distinct from initiatives going on in the community. "Both, used appropriately, do work," Denham continued. "We politicians have to deal with these issues," he said. Bad behaviour and the collapse of values "cut against people's basic sense of fairness", he explained. "Politicians give enforcement agencies the tools to deal with that." In his experience, where it once took nine months to close down a crack house, it now takes only 48 hours. Giving people the powers to act quickly is part of delivering community justice. But politicians are also putting limits in place. It's all very well saying that communities need to set their own agendas, but sometimes "we have to do it", said Denham, otherwise you could end up with areas ruled by the BNP. None the less, he was clear that it was vital not to be "fearful of letting the community speak and work out solutions".

There are people who don't care about the debate: those too busy working to notice; those with second homes to escape to. The discussion certainly raised the issue of the divisions between rich and poor. Kurt Barling, a former politics lecturer, was reminded of being back at university. Discussing "quality of life" in the comfort of a west London hotel did seem a little academic. But, he added, this was an opportunity for people involved in community justice at many different levels, who would probably "never otherwise meet", to share their views and experiences.

"The reality," concluded Obunge, "is that the politics of personality is what often affects the strength of community partnerships." If the success of community justice does lie in joined-up thinking, then it is comforting that at least the representatives at this round table were talking rationally to one another. It remains to be seen whether such openness can reach the streets.

Participants

Kurt Barling (Facilitator) - Television broadcaster, BBC
Ellie Bird - Detective chief inspector, West Midlands Police
Geraldine Van Bueren - Professor of international human rights law, University of London
Alan Burnett - Senior policy officer, Help the Aged
Herbert Brown - Deputy member for crime and safety, Haringey Council
John Denham - MP for Southampton Itchen
B>Justin Jupp - Southern regional director, Encams
Steve Knighton - Director of government, Northgate Solutions
Nims Obunge - Chief executive, Peace Alliance
Emily Robinson - Researcher, New Local Government Network
Keith Sonnet - Deputy general secretary, Unison
Chris Stanley - Head of crime reduction policy, Nacro
Robin Tuddenham - Head of community safety, Waltham Forest Council
Damien Welfare - Local government lawyer