Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Empowering Communities and Double Devolution: the utilisation of language-based identity at the local level of governance


This piece focuses on New Labour’s rhetoric for urban policy since 1997 which has consistently promoted the importance of community-level engagement and involvement in the decision-making process of neighbourhood renewal.

The reality of this rhetoric implementation is one that has come under close scrutiny from critics writing on partnerships and community involvement in a UK context (Davies 2002; Daly & Davis 2002; Taylor 2003). This piece starts from a critical standpoint taking Davies’ (2002) argument that states since 1997 New Labour has been practicing a strategy that brings key elements of partnership working under tighter central government control under the pretence of giving greater decision-making powers at a local level. The piece will apply this theory to the government rhetoric on ‘community empowerment’.

Community empowerment is high up on the current political agenda shown by the recent government publication a 'Community Empowerment Action Plan' (CLG 2007) and a commitment to Community Empowerment within the Local Government White Paper (CLG 2006).

This piece looks at identity utilisation to encourage youth participation as a mode of community empowerment through capacity building. The argument within this piece states that the use of identity to promote youth involvement in community regeneration is predominantly rhetorical and inherent of a wider issue associated with Davies' (2002) argument outlined earlier.


The Welsh language is spoken by 21% of people in Wales and is promoted and supported, in the context of community empowerment, by the National Assembly for Wales’(NAW) National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales (2003). Since 2002 the Welsh language has been included as one of the four elements of the equality standards for Wales, along with disability, race and gender. It is therefore a prevalent issue in Wales and a good example of a politicised element of identity.

The issue of community empowerment in a Welsh context can be contextualised within the process of multi-level governance and specifically 'double devolution', coined by David Milliband (2006) this has been prominent in Wales since the establishment of the NAW in 1999. The purpose of double devolution is to strengthen direct communication between national bodies of power such as the NAW and local communities, instead of relying on local authorities as mediators between the two. In the process of transferring power and responsibility from UK central government to devolved bodies of governance, and from devolved bodies to local communities, this piece argues that there is an idealistic underpinning aimed at gaining support for this process, exemplified in the idea of appealing to young people's collective sense of 'Welsh identity'.

This piece will examine identity utilisation among young people in the context of Communities First, a Wales-based capacity building programme running since 2001 to tackle deprivation through partnership working. The rationale behind choosing Communities First as an example is predominantly because of its partnership structuring and its significant position as a pilot initiative in the process of double devolution. In addition it has been a programme with a strong emphasis on empowerment through capacity building.

Scoping Study

According to the findings of 'Community Empowerment in Practice: lessons from Communities First' (Adamson & Bromiley 2008) youth participation in the Communities First case studies are low. To further explore the issue of youth participation through bilingualism in deprived areas a scoping study was conducted. The study was limited in terms of solid empirical evidence to fully support the theoretical argument, however in terms of a scoping exercise to explore the empirical validation of the argument it was sufficient. The study asked 53 partnership co-ordinators for information on any youth participation programmes that involved using bilingualism to draw interest, or any bilingualism projects aimed at young people.

Responses were mixed with the majority stating that they had no bilingual projects involving young people, although most did have a strong focus on young people and youth participation. The partnerships that did have bilingual projects running in their area were doing so independently due to occurring requirement within the community One partnership has also included ‘bilingualism and youth participation’ into their future aims.

In summary the findings showed one example of a move towards utilising identity/bilingualism as a way of encouraging youth participation within the case studies. In the cases where it was a reality there was already a strong Welsh-speaking majority. The areas that had a Welsh speaking majority were all rural and relatively isolated.


The results of the scoping study has shown that little to no action is currently being taken within the case studies on the NAW rhetoric around encouraging young people to participate in community activity through appealing to their collective sense of national identity. The NAW rhetoric emphasises:

'Wales has a strong tradition of community identity and self-help' (NAW website March 2008)

In terms of theory this piece began with the aim of adding to Davies' (2002) argument that partnership working is one example of how the Labour government since 1997 has been tightening its grip on key elements of partnership working. In highlighting the contradiction between NAW rhetoric on Communities First, and empowerment through identity utilisation and delivery on the ground, this piece has added a strand to Davies’ policy theory on partnerships. This is shown by highlighting a 'rhetorical veneer' covering the fact that partnerships have little to no power in terms of acting on the wishes of local communities.

Sioned Pearce, PhD Student
CRESR, Sheffield Hallam University

Adamson D. & Bromiley R. (2008) Community Empowerment in Practice: lessons from Communities First, York, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Communities and Local Government (2007) An Action Plan for Community Empowerment: Building on Success, London, CLG Publications
Communities and Local Government (2006) Strong and Prosperous Communities: the local government white paper, London, CLG Publications
Daly, G. and Davis, H. (2002) Partnerships for Local Governance: citizens, communities and accountability in C. Glendinninging; M. Powell and K. Rummery (eds) Partnerships, New Labour and the Governance of Welfare, London, The Policy Press
Davies, J. S. (2002) Regeneration partnership under New Labour: a case of creeping centralisation in C. Glendinning; M. Powell and K. Rummery (eds) Partnerships, New Labour and the Governance of Welfare, London, The Policy Press
Milliband, D. (2006) The New Local Government Network, 18th of January 2006
National Assembly for Wales Website (March 2008) Community regeneration and development, Cardiff, NAW,
http://new.wales.gov.uk/topics/housingandcommunity/regeneration/?lang=en [Accessed 23rd of March 2008]
Welsh Assembly Government (2003) National Action Plan for a Bilingual Wales, Cardiff, WAG
Taylor, M. (2003) Public Policy in the Community, London, Palgrave Macmillan

International Comparisons: reflecting on research processes and problems

In the US, a new policy for addressing chronic homelessness among individuals with multiple needs – called housing first - has been gaining attention. Housing first programmes provide immediate access to permanent independent tenancies for deeply excluded, chronically homeless individuals. Support is offered but compliance with this support is not required. This approach has obtained remarkably high levels of success at stabilising those perceived to be least likely to maintain independent housing.

I was able to observe housing first policy in practice in April of this year, whilst spending three weeks in New York. The aim of the trip was to compare housing first with traditional ‘continuum’ approaches for addressing multiple needs homelessness – which had been the focus of my doctoral research. These continuum approaches advocate the need for someone to be stable and ‘housing ready’ before accessing their own tenancy.

I hope that this account of my trip provides an introduction to an innovative US policy and also provides insight for other early career researchers on the universality of research processes – and problems – that can be encountered.

The universality of the research life

I spent some time with a research team in New York, who are currently completing a qualitative longitudinal study comparing housing first agencies with those offering traditional continuum of care approaches. The researchers recounted typical stories of the challenges faced – participants to actually turning up; transcribing inaudible tapes; and the complexity of analysing detailed qualitative data - issues that may readers will sympathise with. Another issue that the research team faced was that funding for the project was coming to an end. Most of them were now moving onto doing further postgraduate studies or onto short term contracts on similar projects. Again this is a familiar challenge faced by early career researchers – the world over it seems!


The agency that I spent most of my time with – Pathways to Housing – have become synonymous with the housing first approach (and its success). Based in New York and operating since 1992, Pathways was set up by Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist, as a response to the problem he saw of mentally ill patients in hostels and on the street, with no alternative accommodation options.

As part of my trip Pathways set up a series of observation days with their Assertive Community Treatment teams. I also interviewed the founder, Sam, and other senior staff members. Perhaps indicative of the rigour of the agency I was presented with a list of locations to visit, taxi numbers and addresses on my first day at head office. They had set up and planned each day for me, with little effort on my part – that was both most welcome and rather unusual in the research process.

Conducting observational fieldwork with agency teams often involves explaining who you are and why you are there, repeatedly – and sometimes a lot of standing about wondering who you are and why you are there too. It can also involve distrust from agency workers who are unsure why their work is being ‘investigated’ or may be worried that your presence will lead to more tasks on their already busy day. When doing actual interviews there is of course the consent process, with the usual list of caveats, possible outputs and other detailed information to outline, requiring signatures at every point, until the participants may feel they are signing their first born away rather than be about to have a relaxed chat. However each of the teams I visited were friendly, helpful and happy to have me sit in on meetings, at group work with tenants, attend visits with them (with the tenants permission I visited some in their homes) and had a good humoured understanding about my need to obtain written consent and chase them with a dictaphone. Perhaps that I was a researcher from outside the US also helped, as people had an interest in where I was from, why I was interested in their work, and of what I thought of New York.

Seeing is believing

One of the challenges Pathways face – as I heard first hand at my visit to one of the Brooklyn support teams – is obtaining affordable rental properties for their tenants, as gentrification increasingly affects the previously low cost outer boroughs. In the good humoured and candid manner I encountered at all of the teams, the manager informed me that their approach was really called ‘housing maybe’ as opposed to ‘housing first’...but they were getting there and had only been operating for a short time. I felt that it was also testament to the agency that I had access to teams that were not as established as some others I visited.

Risk and ethics

Another day was spent in another Brooklyn location. There all the tenants (unlike most teams who work with the chronic homeless) have been referred from a nearby psychiatric hospital. This morning began with one of the tenants having to be admitted back to hospital, after attacking a visitor to the project (who was supervising student nurses). Ten police men (or should I say cops?) arrived to ‘escort’ him back to hospital – a reminder that despite the good humour and relaxed atmosphere, fieldwork and the lives of the professionals and individuals you are researching are not without challenges or risks. Precautions written about in the ethical procedure forms we all complete are there for a reason, and there always has to be respect for the potential risks (or upset) that research can bring to you and others.

On other days I spent time with ‘traditional’ teams based in Harlem (all of the teams are based locally in the more affordable areas, of which downtown Manhatten is not...). There I met staff and tenants, and visited apartments. Most of the tenants had stories of their past and current lives imbued with difficulties but also showed me round their houses with some pride – again a universal experience from researching previously homeless people in the UK. They had low incomes, felt isolated at times, weren’t always happy with their apartments. However these same people, often with high support needs, were living independently in their own homes, for the first time after many years of chaotic drug use, abuse, homelessness and institutionalisation. None of them wanted to return to that.

Reflections on the research process

I did not get the sense that I was shown only a positive side of housing first programmes. For this I felt it was an entirely positive research experience, because the reality of such programmes – in the UK or US - is that it is challenging and can be challenging to research. However these programmes, and research into them, are also important. That is why I feel the opportunity we have as researchers to investigate them is a privilege - and requires rigorous planning, ethical considerations, and effort, to ensure maximum data collection is achieved with minimum upset to the agencies being researched. Ok, so I admit it may be even more of a privilege to do it in New York and it was a memorable trip.....but wherever you are, I found the principles, challenges and value of research remain the same.

Carol McNaughton, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
CHHP, University of York

More New Titles in the CIH and HSA Book Series

In addition to the new book ‘Housing, the Environment and Our Changing Climate’, noted last month, CIH is pleased to report that the long-awaited new edition of the guide by Douglas Robertson to housing research, ‘Looking into Housing’, will shortly go to print and will be available from September. The previous edition, now unavailable for some time, was constantly in demand and was reprinted. The new edition has been completely revised to reflect current research techniques. For details of new publications see www.cih.org/publications

Also in the pipeline are new titles on homelessness (edited by Suzanne Fitzpatrick) and on housing market renewal (by Peter Lee and Ed Ferrari). Suggestions for new titles are always welcome (to Peter Williams at consultpwilliams@btinternet.com or to John Perry at john.perry@cih.org).

Academic Publications of Interest

Flint, J. and Robinson, D. (eds) (2008) Community Cohesion in Crisis: New Dimensions of Diversity and Difference. Policy Press.

There is an alleged crisis of cohesion in the UK, manifested in debates about identity and ‘Britishness’, the breakdown of social connections along the fault lines of geography, ethnicity, faith, income and age, and the fragile relationship between citizen and state. This book examines how these new dimensions of diversity and difference, so often debated in the national context, are emerging at the neighbourhood level. Contributors from a range of disciplinary backgrounds critically assess, and go beyond the limits of, contemporary policy discourses on ‘community cohesion’ to explore the dynamics of diversity and cohesion within neighbourhoods and to identify new dimensions of disconnection between and within neighbourhoods. The chapters provide theoretically informed critiques of the policy responses of public, private, voluntary and community organisations and present a wealth of new empirical research evidence about the dynamics of cohesion in UK neighbourhoods. Topics covered include new immigration, religion and social capital, faith schools, labour and housing market disconnections, neighbourhood territoriality, information technology and neighbourhood construction, and gated communities.

McKee, K. (2008) Transforming Scotland's Public-Sector Housing through Community Ownership: The Reterritorialisation of Housing Governance? Space and Polity 12 (2): 183-196.

In recent decades, UK public-sector housing has increasingly been problematised, with government solutions focusing on modernising the sector by transferring ownership of the housing from the public to the voluntary sector through stock transfer. This promises to transform the organisation of social housing by devolving control from local government to housing organisations located within, and governed by, the communities in which they are based. The Scottish Executive's national housing policy of community ownership is the epitome of this governmental rationale par excellence. Drawing upon empirical research on the 2003 Glasgow housing stock transfer, this paper argues that, whilst community ownership is underpinned by governmental rationales that seek to establish community as the new territory of social housing governance, the realisation of these political ambitions has been marred by emergent central-local conflict. Paradoxically, the fragmentation of social housing through the break-up of municipal provision co-exists with continued political centralisation within the state apparatus.

Murie, A. & Rowlands, R. (2008) The new politics of urban housing Environment & Planning C 26(3): 644-659

The significant changes in housing policy in the UK over the last three decades have been widely described and discussed. Public housing has moved away from centre stage because of privatisation and the decline in new public sector building. In the last decade there has been a renewed concern to provide affordable housing, but policy has not reverted to the earlier model where the affordable-housing drive was led by local authorities and new towns. Instead, it has turned to the use of the planning system to deliver different kinds of affordable housing, and one consequence has been the advent of a different style and density of urban housing development. The authors address the change in housing provision from a perspective related to the politics of construction. They play off earlier work by Dunleavy, and contrast the new politics of urban housing with those described in the era prior to 1975. They draw on research on mixed-tenure developments and regional housing strategies in England, and suggest that there is a new technological and ideological shortcut which is affecting the pattern of housing in major urban areas. Although there are some profound differences from the era of mass housing, there are also some important similarities in the factors that underpin the new politics of urban housing. The authors discuss key issues and provide suggestions for future research.

Social housing and worklessness

A new report presents the key messages for policy to emerge from a study commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions that explored possible explanations for the relatively high levels of worklessness among tenants in social housing. Contributors include Del Roy Fletcher, Tony Gore, Kesia Reeve and David Robinson from CRESR (Sheffield Hallam University).
The report is available from the DWP website.