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Cities: time to re-engage

17 August 2011

The Church needs to keep abreast of government thinking, if it is to be effective in urban ministry, argues Francis Davis

While the smoke cleared after the riots last week, there might have been a strong temptation for many in the Church to say “I told you so,” and to feel a powerful sense of 1980s déjà vu.

As the Archbishops of Canterbury and York rose to speak during the emergency recall of Parliament, they might have thought that the Church would be listened to. Yet they did so at a juncture of some complexity for church-state relations. Although there is an opportunity now for the Church to make an even greater con­tribution to community-building, it could be undermined by new trends in Conservative thinking.

In the aftermath of the 1981 riots, the Church of England rose im­pressively to the national challenges. Accused of calling for redistribution of state resources without practising the same habit in its own budgeting, it established the Church Urban Fund (CUF).

A generation of bishops emerged, influenced by the experience. By the turn of the millennium, however, with the exhaustion of the industrial-mission tradition, the cutting or amalgama­tion of posts for diocesan social-responsibility officers, and the rise of centralised policy-making under New Labour, the spaces for vigilance and innovations in church social thinking became constrained. Furthermore, this happened at just the point when Iain Duncan Smith was leading the “renewing” Con­servatives back to urban priority areas to reflect afresh.

Ironically, those close to Mr Duncan Smith in Westminster in the early years of the new century say that they heard much from Church House and Lambeth Palace then, but that their encounter with Anglican (and other mainstream) Churches elsewhere in England was negligible.

As a result of this, for those who are now in government, Dr Williams’s perceived attack on the Big Society in the New Statesman (News, 17 June) was not the nuanced words of a pastor, but a rootless and knee-jerk advocacy of Labour’s welfare state, without regard to its “unsustainable” cost.

A senior civil servant told me: “Meetings with bishops are not currently a priority,” while a Tory peer close to No. 10 wither­ingly complained: “There seemed to be a rush of ecclesial delega­tions to champagne receptions . . . but a fear of something concretely helpful on the ground.”

One government minister ob­served that Mr Duncan Smith “has taken us to the cutting edge . . . so why bother, if the Church wants its advisers to operate with clear political sympathies and not to make the effort?”

For some in the Church’s national institutions, such comments will provoke frustration. The opportun­ity, however, rests in the detail of both the claims and the mutual misunderstanding.

As THE violence subsided last week, Mr Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) emerged as central to the Government’s national efforts to address “social breakdown”. Notwithstanding CSJ’s pioneering work, this leaves the Government exposed on two fronts: first, CSJ has developed much of its work by reflecting on the Scottish experience of social need and youth crime. By its own admission, it has done com­paratively little work on other cities where factors such as race, religion, and variations in industrial structure are important.

As a result, Mr Duncan Smith’s reported plans for intense policing of gangs could provoke local responses in forms unheard of in Strathclyde — for example in the West Midlands, where the previous Government’s programmes for preventing extrem­ism caused concern in parts of the Muslim community.

A Church that was abreast of current Conservative thinking, and working with the Government to broaden its evidence base, could help here to avoid further unrest.

The Church’s memory and national reach ought also to be in play. As some in the Cabinet leapt to immediate action, discounting the need for any further inquiry, a Bishop might have been able to remind the country that, after the riots in 1981, Michael Heseltine went to Liverpool and spent nearly a month listening, before shaping the Conservative government response.

Moreover, just before his abandoned holiday, David Cameron had appointed Greg Clark MP, a senior Tory moderniser, as the new Minister for Cities. The Government wants to change the fortunes of the “core” eight cities outside London to help combat the impact of cuts, but also to rebalance UK plc away from the south-east. Mr Clark has long been convinced that the “best ideas” come from “people like charities and the faith communities”.

Could the Bishops in these eight cities now act concertedly at a local level for national impact? A co-ordinated initiative would allow the Church to bring experienced men, although relatively recently appoint­ed as diocesan bishops, to act as fresh interlocutors.

For example, the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, who had pride of place at the Prime Minister’s party-con­ference speech in Birmingham last October; the Bishop of South­wark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, now the Bishop for Urban Life; and the Bishop of Southwell & Not­tingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, would have much to offer.

This new approach would have to avoid worthy but never-ending conversation, and drive some new actions. It would also need to resist the habit, popular in some circles, to call for a return to a traditional welfare state and then to judge such words as “prophetic”. Not even the Left of the Labour Party thinks that that is possible any longer. A “core cities fund”, within the CUF, could add more weight still.

So, rather than “I told you so,” practical actions could be the order of the day — for example, by working with the most open strands in the Government by gently helping ministers to rediscover neighbour­hoods where not even Mr Duncan Smith has regularly walked.

These are not the Conservatives of the harsh 1980s. But miscom­municated words and a level of ignor­ance about what the Church is already doing (especially outside London) could unwittingly unleash a return to the bile of the Norman Tebbit years, just when the spirit of a Heseltine or other Tory moderniser, along­side a Church once again at the top of its game, would work best.

Francis Davis is a consultant to local authorities and charities. He was previously an adviser to both Coalition and Labour ministers, and was once a community worker backed by the CUF.

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