A citizens' charter to save our cities

A fatal powerlessness has emerged at the heart of our cities, bringing with it demoralisation, poverty and violence. `Broad-based organising' offers one realistic model for civic renewal
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The Independent Online
It is some years since Margaret Thatcher told us that there is no such thing as society. If our civic institutions continue to decline as rapidly as they have over the past two generations, she will soon be right. People have always been stronger and safer in organised networks and communities. Today we seem to be plunging into a chaotic, privatised future, recapturing medieval extremes of wealth and squalor.

Disconnected people feel, and are, essentially powerless. They stay home at night and watch their world falling apart on the TV. While the market has organised itself totally and globally in the last generation, a fatal powerlessness has emerged at the heart of our cities, bringing with it demoralisation, poverty, violence, and the surly nihilism of the street. We might remember that it is through our civic associations and relationships that we maintain and transmit our ethical values. If we are looking for the origins of the moral crisis in society, we must understand the erosion of our relational culture and its causes.

Some would have us believe that these trends are inevitable. Social fragmentation is the price to pay for our prosperity and individual freedoms. Not so. We are sociable and political animals, but we urgently need to find practical ways of building social capital. Politicians of all parties now share a common rhetoric of social cohesion and community spirit, but they don't know how to put civil society back together again.

Over the past six years, a new form of civic association has emerged in "broad-based organising". It asserts that we must tackle the structural causes of civic decline and fragmentation in urban communities. Just as workforces organised to advance their interests a hundred years ago, citizens must organise in new ways today to reverse the slide into powerlessness.

The first of these organisations, Communities Organised for a Greater Bristol, was established in 1990. Since then, sister organisations have sprung up in Merseyside, Wales, Sheffield and the West Midlands. The latest, the East London Community Organisation, is a coalition of 40 congregations and community associations, organising to fight for jobs and education, and against poverty and discrimination. All of these independent citizen coalitions are associated with the Citizen Organising Foundation, an educational trust that provides training for members.

These broad-based organisations have a strong moral agenda. One of their first actions pushed the Bristol and West Building Society into heavy donations and new policies on homelessness. They worked on Hanson to develop a vacant industrial site in the job-starved south of Bristol (where, as one Hanson executive charmingly put it, he "wouldn't let his dog live"). They have closed crack houses in Bristol and brought the fly-tipping mafia to court in Liverpool. A number of successful actions have been fought across the country to pressure complacent companies and local authorities to implement adequate pollution control or relocate dirty industries.

Although they have worked on local government and public bodies, their actions are increasingly targeting where the real power lies, in company boardrooms. The prime task is to hold arrogant, irresponsible, corporate power accountable.

How do they do it? What makes these organisations different?

First, they find the people who do still go out at night, and who have got the energy and the anger to make some real changes. In every city it takes several years to do this. Second, these organisations are BIG. They are composed of member organisations, which can mobilise many hundreds of people. At any time, each organisation may have a dozen action teams working on different issues, from high-street litter to malnutrition and the policies of the big food retailers.

Third, the broad base. They deplore the splintering of the community into weak, narrow sectional interests. They are diverse, and bring together schools and tenants groups, Christians and Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, black and white, young and old, working class and middle class. They build an agenda for action around shared interests.

Fourth, permanence. Corporate executives and politicians are skilful at handling sporadic outbursts of anger from the community, which generally fade when energy and resources wane. But broad-based organisations never go away. They form a permanent civic infrastructure prepared to research complex issues and work for years for change.

Fifth, they combine action and reflection, analysis and practice, in an exciting combination that energises demoralised people. Each broad- based organisation is a self-conscious community of learners, discovering what it means to be a citizen, how power is managed in our society, the responsibilities and the limits of citizenship. Action and learning go hand in hand. This is disciplined, deliberative democracy, discovering that big corporations and public authorities are far more vulnerable to pressure than we might often suppose.

Still at an early stage of development, these organisations have introduced a powerful new dimension into the public arena and they are ready to take action on a national scale. It has taken a generation or more for our civic culture to reach its present state of decay. It will take another generation to repair the damage. Broad-based organising offers one positive and realistic model for civic renewal. The methods are distinctive, but the principles are as old as history. We can be certain that civil society will not re-emerge spontaneously. It will need to be organised.

`Organising a Civil Society' by Peter Stokes and Barry Knight (pounds 12 incl P&P) is available from the Foundation for Civil Society, 200 Bunbury Road, Birmingham B31 2DL (0121 4768705)