One problem with big housing and neighbourhood renewal projects is that they necessarily demand a lot of structures for management and community engagement ... but when the money goes you can end up with a lot more breaucracy and committees than you really need.
This was highlighted recently in a fascinating discussion with a couple of officers from a big housing estate that has benefitted from some £300 million of public and private investment over the past 12 years. The 10,000 people living on the estate now have much better homes, a safer and more attractive environment, rising education standards and better employment prospects. It has been done through enormous hard work by local politicians, officials and many residents who became representatives on committees and forums, and volunteers running local projects.
They were motivated by the strong desire to tackle some really tough problems in the 1990s - and the chance to have a real say in how money was spent.
But as one of the officers said, in match terms it is really only half time. There's a lot more to be done in helping people feel their regenerated neighbourhood is a friendly and safe community, and to continue to care about the improvements.
To this end there is now a neighbourhood partnership, a trust with some money still to spend, a set of forums for education, environment, health and other issues, and a scrutiny panel for residents to keep an eye on how all this performs.
The trouble is that many people are suffering participation fatigue. The core resident volunteers and committee people probably number about 30 ... and most if not all are over 60.
How to re-energise involvement and bring new people in?
I was joined in the discussion by old friend Kevin Harris, who blogs knowledgeably about neighbourhoods, informed by his Local Level consultancy work.
For the past few years Kevin and I, with another colleague Drew Mackie, have been pushing the case for informal methods to help build communities: mapping social networks, storytelling sessions, using a mix of informal events and social software, as I wrote here and here.
We enthusiastically expanded on these ideas. Instead of trying to recruit people to committees, why not consider whether these are really needed. Could their functions be fulfilled in other ways?
What's needed is ways to offer people information, help them communicate and collaborate, tell their stories, get organised - and make their voice heard when something comes up that concerns them. This could be done in large part by mapping the many networks and communities of interest on the estate: friends and families, sports, hobby and church groups, school and work networks. From this is it possible find the natural 'connectors' in communities, see where the gaps may be, and develop or enhance channels for communication and engagement.
Ah, said one of the officers, sort of going with the grain of the community, instead of trying to impose more structures? Treat people as individuals instead of consultation fodder. Exactly.
And so we came up with 'governance with the grain'. The next step is a visit to the estate, meet the locals, and see if our theories stand up to a reality check. Some may turn out to be passionate about committee meetings, but I somehow doubt if that goes for the majority.
Update: Steve Clayton and Chris Baker says they are happy that we identify Castle Vale, Birmingham, as the estate. I've written more here prompted by Kevin Harris's Model of Neighbourhood Change