Bob Holman writes periodically to The Grauniad from his home and base in Easterhouse, Glasgow, and did so again a few weeks ago. As his letter explains, in response to the intriguing decision by former minster James Purnell not just to leave politics at the next election but to join the ‘community’ sector, Bob made a life-scale decision in his mid-thirties to forgo the comforts of academia so as to put into practice what he had hitherto been researching.
I first came across Holman’s work in the second half of the 1990s when, at a time when I was about the same age he had been when he made his life-scale move and when the excitement of the New Labour government and its commitment to tackling social exclusion was still in its pre-war flowering, I began working in the field of economic development and regeneration. I found myself working in south Birmingham, where I encountered the remarkable Balsall Heath Forum and its Holman-esque chief executive Dick Atkinson. Atkinson, like Holman, is a gifted, idiosyncratic, driven former academic with a passionate belief that ‘bottom up’ solutions to prolonged deprivation and disaffection are always and infinitely superior to ‘top down’ solutions.
Working with Dick – as I found myself doing, despite the anxieties and protests of the City Council (who in general thought the regeneration fund that had initially supported my involvement meant that I should in perpetuity be on ‘their’ side rather than the residents’) – I grappled with questions such as: “What does community capacity really mean?”, “How can we foster self-confidence and leadership in a damaged community?”, “What are the propellants that produce and sustain an Atkinson or a Holman?”, “How can we ensure that decisions at community level are genuinely democratic rather than dominated by a self-appointed clique of usual suspects or a charismatic leader?” and – most controversially – “How bad does it have to get before a community pulls itself up by its bootstraps?”
A decade or so later it is fascinating to see that questions of this kind are rising to the top of the political agenda. A decade ago, Atkinson and I sat in a dilapidated community building sketching on the back of an envelope our estimate of the total state spending taking place in Balsall Heath. Compared to the regeneration funding – the millions that at first sight looked substantial and over which the local communities had been given some modicum of control - all the housing and social security and education and transport and all the various types of government expenditure added up to a figure some fifty times as large. This, we thought, is the prize: if this spending could be co-ordinated to address the various social and economic and environmental problems facing Balsall Heath, then the legacy of decades of neglect could, perhaps, be overturned.
We used our calculations in discussions with politicians ranging from local ward councillors to Secretaries of State. Give communities this money, we said, and transformation is possible! We got short shrift at the time, but the new Total Place initiative is based on the same idea: pool the resources, line up the partners and reap both efficiencies and impacts. Total Place hasn’t yet gone as far as Dick and I were proposing – actual residents are still kept from the table by their elected representatives – but Total Place is but one illustration of a more general movement in this direction. Whether in terms of the language of social capital, or ‘new localism’, or pre-election possibilities such as co-operatively owned social services, a common thread that eludes easy right/left description is running through the discourse. Briefly, it would seem that the political classes in general have acknowledged that the traditional command-and-control instruments of the state are inadequate for tackling either our established social and environmental issues (housing, education, waste) or our new ones (climate change, obesity, excess consumption). Communities, it is now being said, need to be at the heart of the means by which these issues are addressed, and the various political parties are falling over themselves to explain how their particular propositions will enable communities to fulfil these roles.
Witness, for example, the recent launch of NESTA’s new pamphlet Mass Localism. [Full disclosure: Brook Lyndhurst was responsible for the formal evaluation of NESTA’s programme Big Green Challenge, the experience of which provided much of the basis for the Mass Localism paper.] Full of admirable ideas, the pamphlet prompted an unsettling and recurring question among the invited audience, a question to which the panel had no easy answer and which had perturbed me back in Balsall Heath.
And the question is: who is in charge? And are they any good? If we – you, they – devolve power and money and authority to the (ultra) local level, who will receive that power and money and authority?
At the moment, one answer to this question is ‘councillors’. I have met a few, and among their number are some admirable, capable, respect-worthy individuals. I salute their hard work and their commitment.
As a class, however, they are stunningly mediocre. Dominated by petty party politics, closed to outsiders, underpaid and unloved, given little or no real authority by central government, councillors draw their numbers from an ever smaller base of ever less representative people. Would you become a councillor?
A possible alternative leader at the ultra local level would be the figure known as the ‘social entrepreneur’. Motivated by social and/or environmental objectives as well as financial ones, the social entrepreneur is a figure with the ‘can do’ mindset that characterises the business entrepreneur but with a broader sense of what that attitude could be used to achieve. The term didn’t really exist when they started along their paths, but it is possible that both Dick Atkinson and Bob Holman are social entrepreneurs.
How many social entrepreneurs are there? No one really knows.
It’s possible that the question is not quite right. Go backwards a little and ask – how many entrepreneurs are there (irrespective of what kind of entrepreneur they are)? Well, no one knows that, either. A few million in the UK, perhaps, if you think that an entrepreneur is probably a sole-trader, or a person running a very small business. But isn’t the person who set up a business ten years ago but which is now employing twenty people an entrepreneur? Isn’t Richard Branson an entrepreneur? Are there not people deep inside large organisations whose energy and creativity and can-do attitude is the means by which that company thrives, or the means by which vital public services are delivered in sensitive and effective ways? Isn’t this entrepreneurialism?
So the correct question is: how much entrepreneurialism is there? Everyone has a degree of entrepreneurialism: some have more than others. It’s some mixture of creativity and drive. Those with a great deal set up businesses and grow those businesses and become rich and all the rest of it. Those with less perhaps direct their energies towards their family, or their leisure time, or within the parameters of their job, or their community. All of us, to a great or lesser extent, are making up our lives as we go along, and are thus being creative; and we hurl ourselves into those lives, with more or less energy, which is the drive part. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, entrepreneurs.
So it’s not enough simply to say “We want more entrepreneurs” or “We want more social entrepreneurs” or “We want an army of community activists” to mobilise the country. We need to understand what are the factors that shape how much creativity and drive we have; and, perhaps even more importantly, we need to understand what are the factors that influence any given individual to direct their talents in this direction rather than that direction. Why is Richard Branson a millionaire rather than a spiritual leader? Why is Bob Holman a community activist rather than an academic?
If we can understand a little more about the circumstances, the ‘fitness landscape’ that shapes these kinds of choices, then we may be someway to designing and putting in place the infrastructure to bring about an evolutionary shift in the distribution of desires. Imagine if thousands of entrepreneurs thought not of being a millionaire, of being some cool captain of capitalism, but of being a caring person, of being thought wise, of building social capital for the greater good.
Utopian? Of course. But if we carry on like this, relying on the one in a thousand that is a Dick Atkinson or a James Purnell or a Bob Holman, there seems little prospect we’ll fix this ship.