Saturday, 9 February 2013

Birmingham: from 'apocalypse now' to compassionate city?

I've blogged here before about the devastating budget cuts that have been forced on Birmingham City Council, and the beginnings of a response. There is a growing body of comment and opinion (including this piece from Left Foot Forward) that also highlights the injustice of the situation cities like Birmingham find themselves in. But I want to dig just a little deeper into that 'how do we respond?' question - in a way that dangerously mixes politics and theology so as to quite possibly alienate and/or bemuse many readers who would rather swing one way or the other...

Apocalyptic predictions and Advent: the 'big picture' and the 'little stories'

So 'the end of local government as we know it' is beginning. The 'jaws of doom' are beginning to bite. But there is much more to come. The imaginations of Birmingham citizens are beginning to be filled with 'Les Miserables'-like images of closed-down libraries and leisure centres, rubbish piling up on the streets, isolated older people abandoned by the 'social care' system, and a 'youth service' that is merely a distant memory - not to mention thousands pushed below the poverty line and cut loose from financial support by brutal changes in the system that was, once upon a time, called 'social security'.

All of this stuff, as I've also pointed out here before, is what we might call 'apocalyptic'. It's the kind of dark and threatening future, the 'doom and gloom' in a quite literal sense, that we Christians sometimes encounter in our Scriptures, particularly in the Advent season leading up to Christmas. But as Sir Albert Bore, Birmingham City Council's lucky leader, and others know all too well, there's no need to be a religious nut to take this stuff seriously. It feels like an all-too-real possibility in the not-too-distant future, for many of us.

When Jesus in the gospels does 'apocalyptic', however - and this goes for the early Christian writers who were at the very beginning of trying to make sense of his 'good news' too - there is a clear, consistent theme: be realistic about this stuff, don't be in denial... but don't get seduced by it, sucked into its glare with morbid fascination. Instead, shift the scale and focus of your attention. Look from the threatening 'big picture' to the smallest human scale possible: to the relationships and care and attention and compassion and friendship between individual human people. Look to those for a different way of seeing 'reality' - for a 'counter-story' that challenges the dominant narrative, for the cracks in the 'big picture', for a different future opening up in the almost-invisible.

Anything but 'Big Society': some 'C' words for the Council...

This, I find myself repeating often, is anything but 'Big Society'. This is no top-down narrative of impossible ideals conveniently imposed as a cover for systematic, unjust, dehumanising cuts. The doom and gloom of the big picture needs to be seen with heart-breaking clarity, and lamented with passion. Birmingham's future is looking pretty bleak at this point in time, and there are non-inevitable decisions and systems of the powerful that are responsible for that. Our leaders in Birmingham City Council - and any of us that find ourselves with some kind of leadership at a local level - need to be utterly honest and realistic about this.

But the counter-story can - must - nevertheless be told, and lived. And alongside the micro, hyper-local, Birmingham City Council have it within their power to tell and live such a counter-story too...

At this point in Birmingham's story, we have gone well beyond needing a 'competent' city council, as if somehow, so long as 'they' do it well, we can sit back and let it happen. We certainly don't need a 'consultative' city council, if that means 'them' deciding what to do and then asking 'us' if that's OK. Or even asking 'us' what to do and thereby drawing 'us' into responsibility for decisions that will never, given the big picture, be 'OK'.

I've found myself in conversations within and around BCC, exploring what it might mean for Birmingham to become a 'co-operative' council, 'working with' other organisations and local residents to make things happen more effectively than if the council tried doing stuff on their own. But I fear that is too timid a position to be exploring at this point in time.

Co-production: a challenge and a cry

I've also been in a number of conversations around the city where the term 'co-production' has been used. It has normally, in those conversations, meant some kind of significant involvement of 'service users' in designing, and - more ambitiously - 'delivering' the services that they use. In a more radical sense, the good people in the Chamberlain Forum have used the term with more depth and clarity to remind us that co-production is always already going on in local communities: we - individually and together - take at least some responsibility for our health, for example, through the decisions we make, the activities we participate in, the support we give each other. It is not for 'service providers' to come into neighbourhoods and 'introduce co-production'. At best, 'service providers' can try to strengthen what is there already - and not obstruct it or co-opt it for the ends of their own organisations and systems.

Edgar Cahn, who developed the idea of 'Time Banking' in the USA, and must take a lot of the credit for developing the idea of 'co-production' too, found himself in the late '90s shifting his tone from 'promoting' the values of co-production (seeing people as assets; redefining work to include anything human beings do to make human beings, families and neighbourhoods flourish; replacing one-way 'services' with two-way reciprocity; and investing in the 'social capital' of communities) to a passionate lament that the way things are is not the way things should be:

Assets became: No more throw-away people.
Redefining work became: No more taking the contribution of women, children, families, immigrants for granted. No more free rides for the market economy extracted by subordination, discrimination, and exploitation.
Reciprocity became: Stop creating dependencies; stop devaluing those whom you help while you profit from their troubles.
Social capital became: No more disinvesting in families, neighbourhoods and communities. No more economic and social strip-mining.[1]

So 'co-production' gets us as far as the cry of 'no more...'. It would be interesting to hear Council officers and elected Councillors beginning to inhabit such language from day to day.

But language urgently needs to turn into action, and good language is the kind of language that readily makes that shift to 'doing things'. I'm not sure the language of 'co-production' can cut it in these demanding times. But I wonder if 'compassion' just might.

Birmingham: the 'compassionate city'?

What might happen, if Birmingham as a city was disarmingly honest about how tough life is going to be in the next few years, how many taken-for-granted 'services' will no longer be provided - but at the same time, began to tell and live out a powerful counter-story (to the ConDem government's 'there is no alternative') of a compassionate city?

How about if Birmingham as a city took over control of its Job Centres and refused to allow the merciless 'benefit penalties' to be imposed for those who haven't met the demands of the Work Programme due to sickness or disability, caring for family or neighbours, or doing valuable voluntary work in their neighbourhoods and communities?

How about if Birmingham kicked out the farcical Atos assessments, and introduced a new, more compassionate process which deals face-to-face with people as human beings rather than boxes to be ticked?

How about if Birmingham commits to becoming a genuine 'city of sanctuary' for those seeking asylum, welcoming them as gifts to the city, whatever the UK Border Agency might be told to think?

How about if Brummies from our multitude of backgrounds, in our multitude of languages, cultures and faiths, could speak proudly of a city where neighbours young and old care compassionately for each other, even - or especially - when the systems that we used to rely on for 'care' are crumbling around us?

We could be, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have suggested just today, a 'policy laboratory' - experimenting at the cutting edge of our rapidly-changing society. But more than that, we could be a place which tells and lives a different story to the heartless, divisive, scapegoating stories that are churned out daily from this government and its comfortable friends in the media.

I've talked quite a bit about the city council in this - we do, after all, still look to them and their 'leader' for some kind of leadership.

But of course it isn't about them. It's about us. It starts and ends with us. Birmingham, the compassionate city? What can you or I do tomorrow to start making it so...?

[1]Cahn 2000:29

Friday, 1 February 2013

On the evils of food banks...

I am involved in setting up a local Food Bank. It's a great project...

  • Churches are working together that hitherto have not even spoken to each other.
  • Ministers who might sometimes be preoccupied with more introspective tasks are giving time and energy to something that meets a genuine need in their wider local communities.
  • Volunteers are putting up their hands enthusiastically to get involved.
  • Congregation members are already keen to buy a bit more food in their weekly shop, to bring to church to donate to the food bank.
  • 'Secular' partners locally think we're doing 'a good thing' - and consequently seem more inclined to think 'we' might be 'a good thing' too.
  • We face, ahead of us, a golden opportunity to work alongside, and to be alongside, neighbours whom we know but have had little contact with, and strangers who might, in the process, become friends.
  • And best of all, we feel good. We're 'plugging a gap', 'coming to the rescue'. We, the old archaic, strange old Christian church are doing something useful.

All of these, in one way or another, are good things. But they also have the seeds of unspeakable evil. The fact that, on the surface, and even a little underneath, this looks and feels like 'a good thing'; the fact that good things will inevitably come out of it - these can, if we're not careful, seduce us into thinking we are invested in an enterprise of the highest good.

But we are not. We are responding to the callous dismantling by a powerful and detached government, of the 'social contract' that preserves an element of compassion within the mechanics of the state, and that ensures that the most vulnerable in our society do not slip through the net. We are concealing what is going on. We are sticking plasters over great fissures opening up in our society. We are slipping the ultimately disempowering practice of 'charity' into chasms that, ultimately, only justice, truth and reconciliation can bridge.

I will keep working with my sisters and brothers on the developing food bank here, because I do not want to participate in the sin of passively watching my neighbours going hungry. But I refuse to participate in the even greater sin of celebrating the 'opportunity' of colluding with an evil, socially destructive government, either by silence, or in words of mis-placed hope.