Whilst visiting a local church in one of the poorest parishes in the Diocese, Brother Ivo enjoyed a conversation over coffee with a lady who was deeply involved in outreach to her local community.
The Church ran a cafe ensuring a good affordable hot meal on a daily basis in sociable surroundings. They were very supportive of debt counselling but struggling to find enough time and advisors to meet the need. There was good work offered to children and young people. They were perhaps the last stable institution staring in an impoverished areas and they were anxious to stay, and serve the poor the lonely and the outcast.
It is the kind of church which makes one proud to be. Christian.
They had built their presence thanks to the receipt of grants, including good support from the local Diocese, and the Local Council, yet therein lies the problems. All such grants are limited in scope and time. Having built a functioning project for the benefit of the poor, it was threatened by an approaching end to funding streams.
The church remained dedicated and optimistic and were praying for support.
Should they be forced to contract their activities, the church will join a long list of sectors to have withdrawn from the community.
Once, the parish had housed the skilled workers for a large local defence establishment. Decline in the areas began when that facility had been closed, sacrificed to sustain another community in another part of the country. Shops closed, mutual associations and friendly societies were raided by carpet baggers intent on short term profit; pubs disappeared, and with them, local sports and other voluntary organisations all of which ceased to be active. Little by little, the structures of society ebbed away, until only the Church remains.
It is not only the public infrastructure which has departed, so have traditional local families.
That had always been the case in a modest form. As families “got on” they tended to move up the hill to slightly better or bigger houses, and young people moved to other parts of the country after going to university, but this natural turnover became worse and accelerated faster.
When the local economy sunk into depression, house prices dropped and were bought up by ” buy to let ” landlords. Their client group reflected demographic change. Set in an area close to London the community experienced a squeeze from two directions; from recent European immigrants arriving from the Channel ports, and from others moving out of London as rental costs continue to rise in the capital.
With a ready supply of poorer, socially disadvantaged, often unsophisticated renters available, absentee landlords have no difficulty letting sub-standard properties. the Local Council has other pressing priorities and are slow to enforce the law. People don’t like living there and move when they can even though the “grass is not greener” in the next property.
It is in this context, that Brother Ivo draws attention to the recently published Theos report arguing that there is a need to restore Legal Aid. You may read the story here – http://www.solicitorsjournal.com/news/legal-profession/legal-aid/legal-aid-side-angels
It is precisely because tenants can no longer enforce the law relating to housing law, because Legal Aid is not available, that the quality of the housing stock has declined. If you cannot enforce rights and standards, your only recourse is to move on – if you can. you have no pride of place, few places of common ground, and frequently no common language or culture with those about you.
It is in transient communities that drug dealing, human trafficking, and many other anti-social activities can flourish.
In the 1990’s, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pioneered policing methods which transformed first that city then Los Angeles, based upon the premise that dealing with the smaller problems of a local community paid huge dividends with the higher profile concerns. He famously demonstrated that by zero tolerance of petty crime, such as little , broken windows and graffiti, you established a social climate in which the murder rate markedly reduced.
Our Victorian forebears who founded such communities originally put it a different way. “Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves.’
The same principle applies with the building of community and Legal Aid has an important place which is easily overlooked in anti-lawyer rhetoric.
Stable community cannot be built out of transience, because so many other social problems flow from it.
This is not a party political issue. The savage cutting of Legal Aid happened under Labour after many years of persistent neglect. The Conservative/Liberal coalition has maintained that policy of deliberately ignoring the enforcement of the law by and on behalf of the poor.
Damage has already been done. Law firms have closed in such areas, as have Community Law Centres. The expertise which had been developed in earlier decades in specialist areas of law has already been lost.
In public finance terms, the savings are small but disproportionately harmful.
Community requires local identification because only if local people are cohesive and care for each other can they have the kind of society in which they demonstrate love for their neighbour by reporting the drug dealer, the violent partner, the neglected child or the exploited immigrant.
We need to identify transience as an important factor in righting these social problems, and whilst it is not popular to speak of the need for Legal Aid we probably cannot address many of the issues driving social exclusion adequately without it.