A Sense of History

Recently, I gave a keynote address at this year’s Annual Conference of the National Association of Boys and Girls Clubs. The invitation came as something of a surprise but, in conversation with organisers, the reason was quickly apparent. In the years preceding Covid, as a Trustee and sometime Chair of the Forest (of Dean) Voluntary Action Forum, I had, on the basis of the changes I witnessed over half a century in our communities, campaigned and organised for the re-invention of local, universal youth services and tended the inception of the Forest Youth Association. Concurrently I had shared an analysis of the overall situation in UK societal culture drawn from my career-long experience in health and social services. I deplored the way in which government, its institutions and the professions had successfully set themselves up to be the comprehensive solutions to all our needs and then abjectly failed to deliver because, in real life, services cannot replace the relationships and interdependency that define homo sapiens as a species. Long experience tells me that the consequences of trying to do so are inevitably rationing, targeting/specialisation, failure and abandonment. In short, I argued for a rekiltering across public services that is founded upon services being supplementary and complementary to the core or relational local economy and government policies being designed to nurture and support resourceful, interdependent and caring communities. Admittedly that is a serious challenge to a political system that is solidly based upon individualisation, a binary and compromised electoral system, and consumerism.

I had set out the rationale for universal, local, community youth services at a packed public meeting at which the Association was launched. The following is from the contemporary Press Release:

Opening the meeting by setting out the purposes of the Association, Bob Rhodes (Ruspidge & Soudley Parish Council & Chair of FVAF) observed that independent research stresses the importance of Voluntary Youth and Community Work to the wellbeing of local communities:

“The local, voluntary delivery of youth and community services has been demonstrated, time and again, to promote a positive interaction between generations and to be a crucial contributor to social cohesion and community resilience…  The benefits of this way of working are great. We know, for example, that those who belong to groups are happier and healthier than those who do not; and that neighbourhoods where there is community activity tend to be safer and economically active. We also know that the relationships that workers/volunteers form with young people – because they are born out of spending time together, a willingness to have fun as well as educate, and of involvement in local community life – can be incredibly powerful.”

But he went on to share evidence that these benefits have been progressively lost over recent decades quoting research confirming that, perhaps the most significant change is related to the withdrawal of the state from a large swathe of local provision – especially in England and Wales.”

He went on to say that, in the absence of meaningful statutory support, we have chosen to work to rebuild, in a contemporary context, what we have lost as a membership-based, collaborative organisation. He thanked the local councils – West Dean, Cinderford, Mitcheldean, and Ruspidge and Soudley – that have actively engaged in the programme.

I had been privileged to grow up in post-war Gloucestershire at what might be described as a time of great resourcefulness, interdependence, and creativity. The pre-war depression, followed by war, and then the rationing and austerity that followed, had been survived communally. The lived experience of personal and associational agency engendered by this had become normalised, so that people’s first instinct was to create their own solutions to local issues rather than feel entitled to an external, governmental service ‘panacea’.

My personal experience, when my wage clerk father determined that there was nothing organised for children in our burgeoning village community, was of his personal crusade to establish a Boys’ Club, to raise the support and resources to build a club house (which after his death bears his name); and of the voluntary sector GABC/NABC staff who assisted and advised, and his local employers who gave him time off to get the initial after-school club going.

I’m clear that the ‘GABC experience’ was formative for me. Wide ranging participation in a spectrum of Sports, Arts, and Music events; the incidental social and ethical education that derived from Junior Leaders residential weekends; and the plethora of opportunities presented to design and take responsibility for the implementation of our own projects (which often involved contributing to the wellbeing of others) all, I believe, gave me confidence, some social skills, and a social consciousness. Perhaps, most importantly, it gave me an appreciation of personal agency, of the strengths and gifts of likeminded people in association, and of my responsibilities towards those around me. And, I’m in no doubt that this had similar impact on others – because some that I know still talk about it. It is hard to imagine now, but most communities in the county at that time boasted a wealth of grassroots associations providing activities, belonging and ‘social education’ for their young people.

Around this time, the Albemarle Report was being prepared and eventually published in 1960. As seems ever to be the case with reports for Government institutions the report contained lots of good sense and progressive recommendations, and briefly sparked what is remembered by some as the ‘golden age’ of Youth & Community Work. It rightly reported that youth work had been neglected by central and local government and had only persisted given the heroic and often innovative work of voluntary associations and organisations. But it failed, in it’s determination to engage public sector commitment, to specify that the way forward was for local government to support and maximise the voluntary/community ‘sector’ as the fundamental delivery arm of universal, associational, and social educational youth and community work. Instead – given it’s emphasis on public services, local government leadership and professionalisation – it left us later asking, “to what extent professionalisation, hand in hand with bureaucratisation, has assisted the suffocating grip of rules and regulations upon the work and played a part in the exclusion of the volunteer, once the lifeblood of the old Youth Service?” [see Jeffs and Smith Valuing Youth Work 2008: 277-283].

While it turned out to be politically naïve and inept in its consequences, the Albemarle Report said some profoundly important things:

The “problems of youth” are deeply rooted in the soil of a disturbed modern world. To expect even the best Youth Service to solve these problems would be to regard it as some sort of hastily applied medicament. [page 3]

Today’s policy makers should take heed of the advice to consider the ‘disturbed modern world’ rather than the symptoms of its dysfunction!

What was true in 1960 and likely all the more so today is the sad fact that governments, bureaucrats and professionals are, often for a variety of deeply buried and sometimes grubby reasons, devaluing and patronising of the citizens they serve. All to often they can say the words – co-production, collaboration, cooperation and so forth – but when it comes to choices about supporting the institution’s activities or those led by citizens there is no doubt where loyalties lie. And, system conditions are deeply entrenched that reinforce this ‘antisocial’ behaviour.

By the time the late Henry Moore was demonstrating the benefits of ‘Leading by Stepping Back’ in the latter 1990’s the catechism of New Public Management (NPM) was well ensconced, so maybe we should not be surprised that the neglect and devaluing of the core/relational economy characterized social policy (in practice if not in pronouncements) up to then was terminally reinforced.


While, concurrently, the broad ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) movement (Edgar Cahn, John McKnight, Peter Block, etc.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_02tS-qNzj8) had described how unobstructed and facilitated citizens in association could resolve issues that forever flummox statutory interventions, and briefly attracted the curiosity of a succession of political leaders, the dominant systems conditions deriving from NPM guaranteed the still birth of promising initiatives and good intentions. David Cameron’s enthusiasm for ‘The Big Society’ was a relatively recent example of this; utterly corrupted as soon as it was translated into the system conditions dictated by NPM. The Big Society philosophy and goals were stated to be:

  1. Give communities more powers (localism and devolution)
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-opsmutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Open government

This implies an organic, learning by doing, implicitly trusting approach to public administration that values diversity and frames central government as a facilitating, coordinating, and enthusing entity though sometimes, as the ‘grandparent’ of the vision, the disciplinary force required when ‘license’ is exceeded.

Clearly this is irreconcilable with an explicitly Command and Control governmental infrastructure and culture that is superglued to the imposition of

  1. Executive Management.
  2. Performance standards.
  3. Output controls.
  4. Decentralization.
  5. Competition
  6. Private-sector management methods
  7. Cost reduction.

Returning to the parallels with other spheres of public policy; more than a decade earlier the Barclay Committee investigation into Social Work reported in 1982, and, given how Social Services Departments had organically evolved since their inception 12 years earlier, asserted that,

“if social needs of citizens are to be met in the last years of the twentieth century, the personal social services must develop a close working partnership with citizens focussing more closely on the community and its strengths. A move towards what we are calling community social work is the start of such a development.”

It is clear that the Committee did not make this proposal naively and was well aware of the institutional challenges posed:

“We have argued in Chapter 9 that powers to take decisions in all but a minority of matters affecting clients ought to be delegated to area teams or, as appropriate to experienced social workers individually and have noted that with authority goes accountability. Development of community partnership makes social workers, however, answerable in some degree to the community and its informal networks. Social workers, their managers, and elected representatives must appreciate this and be prepared to agree to the implications. This will include in some circumstances allowing informal carers and communities direct influence on how resources are used.”

(Para 13.62. Social Workers: Their Roles and Tasks. Report of the Barclay committee 1982)

It is salutary to daydream about how things might have transpired had this advice been followed. However, with hindsight, it’s clear that while these recommendations would have inevitably dissolved over time in the acid of statutory institutional culture, they were destined to disintegrate in no time flat in the maelstrom of ideologically driven change of the 1980’s.

I’ve entitled these thoughts A Sense of History because I lived, worked, and to a significant extent was moulded professionally, experientially and intellectually through these times. While, I’m sure, paternalistic welfare-ism persisted as the dominant culture during the neonatal years of SSDs, the explicit purpose of social work was to, wherever possible, assist people to resolve their difficulties in association with their families, friends and communities. Generic, patch-based work was commonplace and many practitioners were accorded professional freedoms to develop a praxis suited to an amalgam of the dynamics of the neighbourhood they served and their own gifts and preferences. This style of working valued and nourished citizen’s voluntary associations – constituted and informal. Concurrently, in comparison to today’s flaccid, binary manifestation of democracy, public participation in civil society was lively. Lots of people were active in political parties and Trades Union meetings were well attended. Beyond the campaigning issues of the day, in which Nuclear Disarmament and Rock Against Racism has prevalence in my life, many more citizens seemed to be much more engaged in the nuts and bolts of political debate; as co-producers rather than only as consumers.

More than half a century’s immersion in the world of human services has impressed upon me the foundational importance that our policy makers should have a grasp of the history that impacts upon their work. Only a few days ago when, in the context of a ‘high level’ professional consultation, I alluded to those radical changes in both social policy and public administration that had been wrought in the 1980s a senior social services leader asked me to ‘unpack’ what had changed. This unfolded not to be a rhetorical question. She really didn’t know and was grateful for my brief explanation. I worry that Mrs Thatcher’s, “There is no alternative” catchphrase has become so locked in that those in the statutory machine cannot envisage the inevitability that there are other ways for society to function; and, in all probability, function much better.

As I consider how the consequences of social policy have become manifest during my working life, Aldous Huxley’s cutting observation on the impact of history comes to mind:

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

At a time when our public services are so obviously in existential crisis – with the resolution of the ‘social care crisis’ tethered to an asinine construct comprising only consumption and cost – it is time to review how we have arrived at this impasse. If our leaders can do this with goodwill and humility, I think they may find that we took a wrong turning 3 or 4 decades ago. Then, they might start to invest in a more societal approach to public policy.

Hopefully, it will soon once again also be acknowledged that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and that deviancy focused strategies do society a massive disservice. Institutions can’t build strong communities but they can create the system conditions in which true democracy and relational care can thrive.

But, and it’s a big but, nothing is likely to change if we stay silent, coerced by and colluding with the prevailing system conditions.

So, I shared these ideas in a keynote presentation and subsequent Q & A session and, especially after a number of discussions over lunch, felt confident that the simple idea that we might all do our bit by intentionally reaching out a little more to the communities we serve and, in particular, encouraging citizens in to our activities to share their gifts had made sense to most of the delegates.

However, I was quickly disabused of this conclusion in the ‘how to do it’ workshop session I hosted in the afternoon. While a number of participants were totally on board – some having always taken the ‘community’ in ‘youth and community’ to heart – it was clear that many are locked into a nailed down transactional mindset and these (with a number of notable exceptions) were not the younger practitioners. I came away with the clear impression that a principled, societal vision no longer defines the intentions of many paid (and sometimes professionally qualified) Youth Workers. Many seem locked in to their role being the delivery of externally specified and resourced activities and programmes and they seem to be fully occupied in delivering and securing ‘repeat business’ for these ‘commodities’. Some told me, with no hint of regret, that there is no money for community work. The notion that the community is an abundant resource seemed to elude them and some were visibly irritated by that proposal (that they may be should apply their skills and time differently?). Hence, I deduced that social education and social cohesion is also not on their agenda for the obvious reason that no funder is specifying such aspirations.

Fortunately, as mentioned, there are ‘old hands’ that ‘keep the faith’ and younger minds with curiosity and energy. Surely it’s time to grasp the nettle? A good jumping off point might be to partner with the many Asset Based Community Development practitioners operating in various aspects of UK society.

Bob Rhodes, 19th October 2023