Kieran Breen asks what the response to the pandemic is telling us about community development and the state of local government

Following Bernard Davies’s review of Hilary Cottam’s ‘Radical Help’, Kieran Breen also draws on her work in criticising rigid top-down local government structures and advocating the creation of agile bottom-up organisation.

Here are a couple of extracts from his article, ‘Speed boats not steamships: What is the response to the pandemic telling us about community development and the state of local government.’ – which needs to be read in full.

In brief there is a broad school of thought that our current welfare model was built for a very different time. Its top down nature assumes that things are basically okay and only on occasion do you need to intervene to fix problems. It is not set up to deal with constant fast paced change. It has not embraced the huge potential of the internet to connect and mobilise people for common good.

As Cottam states 21st Century welfare should “start where you are and instead of commanding change or trying to fix you it offers support to grow capability. It includes as many people as possible given that it is our relationships that help us find work, keep healthy and care for one another.”

In praising rightly the multiplicity of voluntary initiatives that have sprung up in recent weeks Kieran comments:

It is hard to imagine a town hall cross departmental working group being able to work like this. As Cottam argues “At the heart of this new way of working is human connection. When people feel supported by strong human relationships change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration feel simple and easy people want to join in.”

There is much to agree with in Kieran’s piece and perhaps I’m being peevish but Cottam’s claim to be unearthing ‘new ways of working and new systems’ founded on human connection and relationships sticks in my aged craw. A touch of humility wouldn’t come amiss.

It’s as if Erich Fromm never wrote the ‘Art of Loving’, Carl Rogers never penned ‘On Becoming a Person’, Peter Kropotkin never proposed ‘Mutual Aid’.

It’s as if a town hall cross departmental group in 1994, including young people and the Council for Voluntary Youth Services at its centre, of which I was a member never existed.

It’s as if the working class didn’t create for itself collective and collaborative ways of educating itself that shook the world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s as if the pamphlets, ‘Gilding the Ghetto’ and ‘In and Against the State’ never appeared and those of us inspired by their analysis never tried to put it into practice

It’s as if, in youth and community work, feminists, black and gay activists did not politicise the personal, did not organise autonomously and did not turn hierarchy on its head for a time in the Community and Youth Workers Union.

It’s as if I’m imagining that I improvised within a culture of risk-taking and innovation encouraged within the Wigan Education Department in the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s as if the legacy, albeit flawed, of municipal radicalism, symbolised by the Greater London Council, has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Perhaps I protest too much, perchance I romanticise, but I find historical and political amnesia disturbing. In wishing to support Kieran’s plea that we learn from what is going on in the here and now, I would hope that we recognise too that much of it is about a renaissance, a renewal and a revival of a deep-rooted humanist faith in one another and consequent practice, which has taken such a kicking from neoliberalism over the last 40 years.


Now I’m on a roll, I can’t stop thinking of other examples of human connectedness from my history. To take but one, in 1986 I stood with hospital cleaners for two months on a picket line at the Scarsdale Hospital in Chesterfield as they resisted privatisation. Forget the supine management everyone in the hospital knew that the cleaners were more than cleaners. Making cups of tea for, taking time out to chat with patients they were an integral part of a culture of caring. They were dispensed with. Hospitals got dirtier. Hospitals became less human. And talking about volunteers, on what basis were the women of the WVS replaced by the Costas coffee chain?

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