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de Volksrant interviews Phillip Blond

26th April 2016

  • ResPublica

— The below is an English translation of the original Dutch article–

The government preaches the participation society. But two working class neighborhoods experience how narrow the margins are.

Bea Moed could hardly believe her eyes when she read the letter. Yet it was there: she was as an independent community worker no longer allowed to encroach the Wielenpôlle, “with the exception of family birthdays. Signed  by Welzijn Centraal, the employer she had just said left.

Wielenpôlle, that was her neighborhood. A simple but cozy district in Leeuwarden, the domain of roofers and traders from the trailer park. Moed grew up as the daughter of a carpenter. Her mother only finished the elementary school. Yet she herself went to the gymnasium when she was 11. “That’s nothing for people like us,” her parents told her, but she struggled through, went to university to study law and found a job at a bank. Untill deprived areas became of political interest. “It brought me back to where I came from. I wondered: what the hell happened in these neighborhoods?

She left the financial sector and started working at a welfare organization. Immediately she was asked to take the Wielenpôlle to take under her care. Other social workers got nowhere in the closed community.

The reunion at the community center Kobbekooi shocked her. The popular bravado had turned into distrust and apathy. In 2010, the survey Kinderen in Tel appeared. Wielenpôlle appeared  to be one of the worst neighborhoods in the Netherlands to grow up.

Such a list is a goldmine for institutions, noticed Moed. Professional auxiliary forces massively  turned out. But she watched how dutifully hours were registered and concluded that this was not going to save the neighborhood. She resigned and started working for herself. The Wielenpôlle wanted to keep her as a child of the neighborhood, but this was not the intention of the welfare institutions. They had already divided the territory with the corresponding grants.

“The Frisian Jordan” the white working class neighborhood is called. In a front garden at the Tynjedyk white goods are stacked. Unemployment is high. A quarter of the families live on benefits. A ‘focus area’ in policy jargon.

Though there is no lack of social cohesion. From his living room Kramer points to the other side of the street. In the morning the neighbor hangs the bedding out of the window. “If it doesn’t blow there, I’ll go see. It will not happen here is that someone will be dead in the house for three months before being noticed ”

The retired harbormaster is chairman of the district foundation. His living room is full of porcelain figurines. Kramer lives here almost as long as he lives. He saw social workers come and go. But new generations are still dependent on benefits. If you keep doing what you did, he says, it  will remain as it was.

Big Society

It has to be different, Bea (44) and Kramer (70) thought. But all roads seemed to lead to the classical social work. Until political philosopher Phillip Blond in England launched the idea of the ‘Big Society’. The bureaucratic welfare state has suffocated the public sector, Blond argued in his book Red Tory (2009). People are dependent. Market thinking has driven out community spirit. Control over their own area is gone.

People in working class neighborhoods must take control of their destiny again, taught Blond. With emphasis on self-development, neighborhood enterprises and care for each other. Prime Minister David Cameron embraced the philosophy in 2010 in a policy. Local organizations could compete for contracts, there were district budgets and a social service for young people. Blond also received much acclaim in the Netherlands. “Maybe Mark Rutte should go read his book,” welfare thinker Jos van der Lans wrote.

Blond described what Moed had seen happen in Leeuwarden. “The reciprocity was gone. The Wielenpôlle had become a parallel world. ”

Under her admonition  the neigbourhood decided together with the adjacent neighbourhood Schepenbuurt to do things themselves. They wanted to take over the youth work, reintegration of unemployed and green  maintenance. Recapture the district. Not as social workers, but by enabling people to solve their own problems.

Political tide was agreable. The participation society dominated the Queen’s Speech of 2013. Premier Rutte spoke a month later laudatory about neighborhood initiatives in his Willem Drees lecture. Minister Plasterk presented a paper on the ‘do-democracy’. The cocktail of self-reliance and elevation tasted both left and right.

But the Wielenpôlle is not a cargo bike neighnourhood where higher educated strive for a herb garden in the park. Alderman Harry van der Molen (CDA), then councillor: “Some groups found it quite exciting, to put it euphemistically. The municipality was used to dictate. ”

Yet in 2011 green light was given to a social experiment in accordance with the philosophy of the Big Society. The ball was in the neighbours’court. But the experiment had to deliver measurable results as fewer benefits within three years,. And there was no additional budget.

Bea Moed knows what she is working for: Sao, Marian Said, Sabah, Maria, Monique and Fatima, the women who come together every Thursday morning in a conference room in the church. For years they had disappeared without a job in the anonymity of the card catalog of the municipality. At the social service they learned again and again  to draw their resumes. Or they did mandatory volunteering.

“I would not call  that personal development,” says Moed. “Without a diploma, you are a magnet for trouble.”

‘Coaching’ Moed and her colleague Linda Nauta call it, no aid. “We do not solve problems for people.” Fatima (32) completed her education as home care assistant. Without support she would never have managed this, she says. Monique (42) interns at a small health care organization and has registered for further education.

Participants are expected to do something in return  to the community. Sabah  from Morocco helps the kids, Marian (58) gives sewing classes to women from the neighborhood. Others assist with homeworkclasses, organize a book club or run a small neighborhood store. Three men have taken over the green maintenance of the municipality.

“This goes beyond a neighborhood bingo or a sewing party,” says Kramer. “People who only went to primary school now get a diploma. It makes them proud, they come back among the people again and it enables them to be an example for their children. We are only at the start, but we can finally break the vicious circle of poverty. ”

Moed cherishes the achievements. About forty people on benefits participate now somehow. Fifteen people follow an education path, four are not on benefits anymore. Twenty parents attended a course on ‘positive parenting’. “No luxury,” the alderman says about this. He is also positive: “The experiment gives a boost to both districts. They achieve results in groups that we did not reach. ”

No lack of good intentions from both sides. Yet there is a point of issue: what the neighborhood really do itself and what dares the municipality to let go?

The Big Society program ended in Britain in a big deception. The government kept the money in its pockets and was unable to relinquish control, an evaluation of last year shows. Neighborhoods are weakened and vulnerable groups are still on the sidelines. “Budget cuts have torpedoed the Big Society, Phillip Blond says from London. “The inequality problem has only grown.”

Kramer and Moed also experienced in Leeuwarden permanent suspicion of officials and social workers. The unconventional neighborhood approach permanently collides with the official bureaucracy. By example Christian from Burundi,  who runs the community center Skiphus in the Schepenbuurt. He gets an education social work, but according to the municipality he was “too close to the labor market.” He had to stop his volunteer work, otherwise his benefits would be stopped, social services threatened. Moed had to ask again for an exception. Or by example the football cage in the Wielenpôlle. A road worker from the neighborhood was almost finished when Kramer got a phonecall of an angry civil servant. “Did we have a look at the drawing.” Leaving the district to neighbors appears to be easier said than done.

But without municipality it will not work. The “recovery model” which will enable the districts to become independant, for example, with its own brewery, is still in its infancy. So they are dependent on subsidies.

And who gets subsidie must justify itself. Previously “measurable improvement” was demanded. But in the Wielenpôlle the number of people on benefits increased from 48 to 82. In the survey Kinderen in Tel, the district  went from the 28th to the 5th place. ‘Downturn in neighborhoods despite Big Society’, the Leeuwarder Courant headed. The alderman nuances that image. The data may not be current and therefore not synchronic with the experiment.

Yet there are more worrying data. The recently published safety index of the municipality shows that Wielenpôlle, after the city centre is the most unsafe district of Leeuwarden. Nuisance of neighbors, threats and vandalism have increased since 2014. A ‘clan’ would be in control of the neighborhood. “Fear reigns in the Wielenpôlle,” the Leeuwarder Courant says. The police installed a security camera last week.


It makes Moed despondent. Yes, there is crime and that needs to be tackled hard. But tribalism? “I’m afraid it is less romantic.” The problem is that is hard to remain aloof in such a close-knit neighborhood and so quarrels get quickly out of hand. People do not report in the Wielenpôlle. “Now people say that neighborhood initiatives do not work. But these are the fruits of the past. The district has been a drain. ”

Regularly ex-prisoners, addicts and dealers land in the cheap social housing. It leads to a disturbed social balance. Kramer: Our district is no longer ours. ” Neighbors have proposed the housing association a system under the cover: or  you  will solve this, or we will do it our way.

And that is not the intention of social do-it-yourself. The alderman, diplomatically: “Public policy remains a matter for the council.” With green maintenance hardly anything can go wrong. But with care, which the Wielenpolle would prefer to organize itself, this is different. “If it goes wrong, you can hurt people,” says Van der Molen.

He doesn’t call it, but his remark goes back to 2013. Then in the Wielenpôlle an infant of 8 months died. His 25-year-old mother, who had problems with drink and drugs, was sentenced to three years in prison and TBS. Never again, they think the town hall.

Despite the struggles the City Council recently gave green light to a two-year extension. “But the old system remains intact,” sighs Kramer. Moed: “We work in the margins.”

The alderman does not believe in hard contrasts between the ‘old system’ and the Big Society approach. “We also look at what people can do themselves.” He wants to give the Big Society approach a place in welfare policy.

In the Wielenpôlle they are just extremely hesitant about this. The cooperation with the social district teams is going difficult, says Kramer. Social workers were helping a family with the financial administration. “Two months later youth care came: do these things go together well, that dog with small children? Here this is seen as a betrayal. ” If we can not solve things, says Kramer, then we will alert.”But we can do a lot yourself.”

Moeds greatest fear is that the neighborhoods initiatives will slip away. By example the successful multicultural cooking party in Schepenbuurt. “Now suddenly a welfare institution knocks at the door: we have a project just like that, let’s do it together next year? I say this is the beginning of the end. “


Artikel Volkskrant 23-04-2016

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