How can we build a stronger community in Croydon?

By - Wednesday 2nd July, 2014

Sean Creighton examines the meaning of community and asks how Croydon can meet the needs and aspirations of all its residents

New administration, new approach? The Town Hall in Katharine Street.
Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

The new emphasis that the Croydon Citizen is giving to ‘community’ is welcome. We need a wide debate on where we go given the alienation of some communities within the borough from the previously Tory-controlled Council. The council is now controlled by Labour with a more constructive approach and Tony Newman, its new leader, has agreed to meet with community and voluntary organisations on 30th July at an event organised by Croydon Council for Voluntary Action. This is a welcome first step.

When people from different agencies and organisations are in joint discussions, they often talk about ‘community’, ‘sustainable development’, ‘community cohesion’ and ‘respect’ (the relationship between different social groups), yet attach different meanings to these words. Croydon needs a common understanding of such concepts.

The word ‘community’ is often treated as a single entity. It is not – it is comprised of many different overlapping communities. These include communities of geographic interest, such as those people living in a neighbourhood or on an estate, communities of interest, such as service users or the disabled, ethnic and faith communities, and others.

So what are the communities of Croydon? Which are privileged? Which are excluded?

People move in and out of different communities and can belong to more than one community at any one time. However, some communities are more privileged than others. Communities can be excluded and tensions can exist between different communities within the same geographic area, especially on ethnic and religious grounds.

So – what are the many varied communities in Croydon? Which are more privileged than others? Which are excluded or perceive themselves to be excluded? And which areas contain tensions between different communities?

The answers to these questions should form part of an analysis of how to meet the needs and aspirations of residents, both individually and collectively in their different communities.

Safe, fair, welcoming: to what extent is Croydon such a community?

The following ten styles of community functioning have been identified as healthy and effective:

  • a learning community, where people and groups gain knowledge, skills and confidence through community action
  • a fair and just community, which upholds civic rights and equality of opportunity and which recognizes and celebrates the distinctive features of its cultures
  • an active and empowered community, in which people are fully involved and which has strong and varied local organisations and a clear identity and self-confidence
  • an influential community, which is consulted and has a strong voice in decisions which affect its interests
  • an economically strong community, which creates opportunities for work and which retains a high proportion of its wealth
  • a caring community, aware of the needs of its members and in which services are of good quality and meet these needs
  • a green community, with a healthy and pleasant environment, awareness of environmental responsibility
  • a safe community, where people do not fear crime, violence or other hazards
  • a welcoming community, which people like, feel happy about and do not wish to leave
  • a lasting community, which is well established and likely to survive

How can Croydon become a better-functioning community?

We should now consider whether current strategies in Croydon reflect these characteristics. To what extent is Croydon such a community? And do current priorities and objectives help Croydon to become a better-functioning community?

Community development involves helping people to acquire self-confidence and skills so that they can take action and exercise influence either to improve their neighbourhood or to strengthen their community of interest. If future plans are to be produced with the local communities, the council and other official bodies require a community development approach. It is therefore important to ascertain how strong current policies and provision are as regards the community development aspects of building a stronger civil society. This will in turn ensure that local people influence the decisions that affect their lives.

This is about changing power structures

The community development approach starts from the assumption that most social problems are rooted in political, social and economic structures. Community development is the process of building active and sustainable communities based on social justice and mutual respect.

It is about changing power structures to remove the barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives. Community workers, whether paid or unpaid, support the participation of people in this process. They enable connections to be made between communities and the development of wider policies and programmes.

Community development also expresses values of fairness, equality, accountability, opportunity, choice, participation, mutuality, reciprocity and continuous learning. Educating, enabling and empowering are at its core. It is therefore important to assess what is known about the extent of community development in Croydon: where is it strong and where is it weak? How well do the council and other agencies implement a community development approach and what improvements could be made? How do community development workers (both paid and unpaid) network? How does funding promote equity within and between communities and how are communities themselves involved in setting funding priorities?

Let us hope that the 30th July meeting organised at the Croydon Community Voluntary Action Resource Centre (CVA) can begin to address some of these questions. To see more about the event and to book a place, click here.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Stephen Giles

    In Selsdon, we just get on with it!