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COMMUNITY SPIRIT

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

What's the similarity between David Miliband MP and a synthetic phonics teacher?

Well, both want to emphasise the central position of 'u' in community and both will drum it into you until you finally accept it.

After leaving the Department for Education and Skills in the latest government reshuffle, Miliband is now the minister for said community.

Or 'communities'. Or 'diverse communities'.

Rather quickly, he realised that he has to create communities to represent them. But also that this is a difficult thing to do. After all, real communities can often contain oiks who do not always show the necessary respect to government ministers.

So, in his speech to the Core Cities Group in May, Miliband noted that the 'third sector' - voluntary and community organisations - 'reaches parts that we simply cannot reach', promoting innovation, tackling distrust and engaging communities 'in ways that we in the statutory sector often talk about and fail to do'.

So this is a minister who will be implementing yet more unelected tiers of community liaison support because he feels unable to represent them directly. It's one thing having a transport secretary who can't drive, but a communities minister who finds himself unable to engage with communities makes a bit of a mockery of the democratic process. Unfazed, it seems that Miliband would rather delegate.

Ironically, fearing we have become increasingly isolated in society, the government thinks that by giving people a sense of what it means to act communally, all will be well.

In this way, the ODPM's Sustainable Communities plan - 'People, Places and Prosperity' - hopes that 'people's sense of belonging and pride in their community will be renewed and revitalised'. The problem is that because it doesn't really trust people in the first place, the government can't then have any confidence that they will develop the correct sort of communities. Hence the rise of so-called 'multi-agency approaches' that have been invented to monitor and mentor our actions and guide us to the path of righteousness.

The New Economics Foundation's Clone Town survey is a case in point. It is a report from a (wait for it) 'do-tank', pretending to reflect apparent public concern about the homogenisation of cities and towns; a concern that simply doesn't exist in any formal sense. Ironically, the report warns of 'ghost communities' but this is a ghosted study representing a fictional engagement that will then undoubtedly be used to draw more people into a process that they didn't know they wanted in the first place.

And worse still, the consequences (reinforced in Graham Towers' book, overleaf) are very conservative. There are many downsides to high street corporate capitalism, for instance, but I have to say that the design of shop facades is pretty low down the list.

Nor does the 'homogenised' shopping experience aggrieve me - or hardly anyone else - particularly strongly. In fact, I look at it as having the opportunity to purchase a range of top-quality products under one roof. That's actually a good thing. On these issues and many others, we are in danger of throwing the positive baby of efficiency out with the romantic bathwater of diversity.

The reason that I tell you this is because the books reviewed over the next couple of pages are all, in some way, contributions to the debate about reforging communities.

And in many of these texts about the liveability of cities, many architects and urbanists appear to be Miliband's willing 'third-party' foot soldiers.

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