The results of the Civil Society Futures inquiry are challenging and thought-provoking. But more than this they are so timely. The world feels a difficult and dangerous place and it is unlikely that rising levels of unfairness and inequality are ever going to be solved by massive national programmes. Brexit appears to be the only game in town and it is difficult not to feel ground down by an increasing number of seemingly intractable problems. We need to find another way.
I saw the draft of the inquiry report at the same time that I read Julia Unwin’s work for the Carnegie Foundation ‘Kindness, emotions and human relationships: the blind spot in public policy’. They really do need to be read together.
I set great store by kindness. It costs nothing and helps us build meaningful relationships. But it’s not enough. We also need to talk about power, and nowhere more than in the housing sector.
Many housing associations were established as a response to great unkindness, but also to redress the balance of power that was manifested in the story told in ‘Cathy Comes Home’.
There is a specialist supported housing scheme for young people in Colchester called Bernard Brett House. It is named after the founding secretary of Colchester Quaker Housing Association (now part of Peabody). Bernard Brett had cerebral palsy, he was a wheelchair user and communicated using a letter board. And he ran a Housing Association from the front room of his house.. It is hard not to imagine that were he alive today, rather than running the show, he would be seen as a recipient of services, someone with ‘needs’ and ‘vulnerabilities’.
Too much of the time, well-meaning and socially motivated people, ‘nice’ people, see those lacking power over their own lives as somehow deficient. The solution we often come up with is that we seek to ‘empower’ residents. The way we frame the problem is not that a professional class is holding on to power, but that local people don’t have the skills, confidence, desire or ability to take power from us. So slowly… over years, decades… we will teach them to use power properly.
But what if we were to just give some of our power away? Yes, the world is different to how it was when three Quakers set about finding housing solutions in Colchester. Our housing organisations are large and complex, leveraging private finance and operating elaborate business models.
There are ways to share power though; different structures that could give real power back to communities.
Giving power away is not what any of us do. For some people it feels deeply uncomfortable. Having power is what makes us who we are, it is what makes us ‘important’. But have you ever imagined what it would look like if we did do that. If we began to see the problem not as the people who fail to take power off us, but the people, like us, who cling on to it.