The Government promises a massive house-building programme, yet there’s little mention of how to build communities. I don’t mean the specious so-called communities of BAME-this or trans-that. I mean the real ones, where neighbours of every kind look out for one another, share a sense of home, and show it by their actions.
Modernity does little to nurture communities, more often leaving the fabric of neighbourliness in tatters. Attempts to preserve or renew a communitarian culture come and go, most invariably ending in failure. Money is thrown at the problem. However, ultimately idealists perhaps pay the highest price, in disillusionment. Two such idealists are Jan and Mike Davis.
Where London meets Essex, on the Havering council estate where they’ve lived for 30 years, the Davises run the Petra Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). TMOs give social housing tenants and leaseholders a chance to take on responsibility for managing their own estates. A TMO enters into a legal agreement with its landlord and is paid annual management and maintenance allowances in order to carry out its duties. Grassroots democracy begins here.
The Davises have been at the helm since Petra’s inception in 2003, taking it in turns to be chair, steering a small staff team and variably attentive committee through the day-to-day challenges of managing an estate of 150 households.
An elderly couple, old school ex-Labour councillors and divorcees both, they met in the chamber of Havering Council. Community activists to their bones, these comrades became soulmates, and their thoughts turned to making a home together. Naturally for the Davises this home-making extended beyond their own cosy flat to the Parkhill Estate as a whole.
Some may be unaware of the fact, but Parkhill residents have benefited greatly from the Davises commitment to community. It’s no coincidence the estate and its grounds are among the best maintained and least crime-affected in the borough, with many former tenants taking the opportunity to become leaseholders.
But now in their 70s, fed up with the lack of support, and with health problems mounting, they have decided to retire. Properly this time, even perhaps moving away from the estate. Perfectly understandable decisions these, of course, but there’s a problem. No one in the community appears remotely interested in, or capable of, filling their shoes.
If social reconciliation is the essential task of democratic politics for the next generation, how is it to be achieved when even a couple as capable and committed as the Davises cannot stir that civic spirit into life?
We can’t, as Bertolt Brecht once fantasized doing, dismiss the people and appoint new ones. We have to work with what we’ve got: an increasingly fragmented, poorly-informed, easily-distracted miscellany of ‘world citizens’ largely oblivious to history and what it took to achieve all that we have in this country.
We social democrats talk about a ‘values and virtues-led cultural renewal’ because we know how fundamental – how radical – the change needs to be. All must play their part, from grassroots to government, the latter reshaping our institutions and democratic structures to stimulate interest and effective participation from below.
Common-good constitutionalism would be a great place to start. It’s why the SDP supports electoral reform, the creation of an English parliament, the abolition of the House of Lords, and increased powers for local councils and backbench MPs.
But an even greater challenge is the one the SDP must tackle from here at base camp all the way through to that electoral Everest of a summit we intend to scale one day – that of successfully nesting common-good ideas in the hearts and minds of the British people.
The fate of the Parkhill Estate hangs in the balance. Will all that Jan and Mike have achieved over the years be lost, their former home becoming just another sink estate? Or will, at the eleventh hour, their example inspire others to step up, shoulder responsibility, and help themselves to a brighter, shared future?