When ‘Community Development’ becomes a pejorative term?

I recall starting a community development job in Merthyr Tydfil on a small, predominantly social housing estate in early 2003. Within a couple of days of starting I noticed a house scarred by an apparently recent house fire. It turned out that a parent with three young children lived in the house in which a chip fan fire had extensively damaged the kitchen and downstairs. It had happened no more than three weeks earlier and fortunately there were no injuries incurred other than minor smoke inhalation on the family’s part.

Within a couple of days the estate had had a whip round and raised over £250 for the family to help with the costs of repairing the damage. It didn’t seem a huge amount of money but for households with limited incomes the sentiment was obvious and the donation was heartfelt.

In order to take up this role I had relocated from north Wales to Cardiff and was renting a flat in what was very tenuously Cardiff Bay. We lived in Windsor Quay which was one of the first housing developments in the south Cardiff regeneration scheme on reclaimed land on Ferry Road.

As time went by and my wife and I saw so few of our neighbours, let alone interacted with them, an irony struck me. That in Merthyr a neighbourhood had demonstrated very clearly a greater cohesion, solidarity and sense of community and belonging than the one from which I commuted every morning. Yet was a community that was in need of ‘developing’ and intervention.

I previously blogged on how the concept of Civil Domestic Product helps redefine affluence in a way that considers, among other things, social connectedness (see Timebanking Wales for further information). The Merthyr estate may not have been home to as many graduates as Windsor Quay was, and there are presumably stark health inequalities between the two neighbourhoods but the two would swap positions in a notional league table if social connectedness was assessed.

There is a danger that Community Development becomes a pejorative term in that it becomes associated with areas that are labelled in other pejorative ways: deprived, disadvantaged, run-down, unambitious. On a  number of measures Windsor Quay is not deprived or disadvantaged but its reservedness and insularity made it a very disconnected and incohesive community; even isolated and isolating.

The term community development ought not, of course, be taken so literally. Rather it is the name of a specific approach to challenging inequality and redistributing power in communities, but more needs to be done in order to convey this. The experience of living in Windsor Quay might suggest that it is also a component that has been lacking in property-led regeneration that has proliferated in Cardiff with the expansion of high-rise city centre and Bay living, much of it privately rented. Sadly, there is little doubt in my mind that though the land and property values of such developments are considered a virtue and the areas do not figure prominently on indices of deprivation, these communities fail to fulfill some of the fundamental social and emotional needs that many of us would wish our communities provided us.

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