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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 16th April 2010
A new report highlights our ‘civic-ness’, as David Winpenny discovers

At a time when the nation is considering its political future, the publication of a survey about how we view how we live together in both national and local communities, and how we are affected by what is happening around us, is timely.

‘Our Nation’s Civic Health’, published on 31 March by the Department of Communities and Local Government (affectionately known as ‘The Cloggies’, apparently), says it offers ‘a unique insight into the strength of modern democracy in England and connections people have to their communities.’ Its aim is to ‘help readers understand the complex factors that contribute to how people feel about and engage with their community . . . [and] to encourage public challenge around issues of concern.’

Setting aside the jargon (‘challenge around issues . . .’ ) this document is a laudable attempt to work out just how people feel about where they live. We may all know how we feel personally about the country, about the local authority area in which we live and about our town, city, village or neighbourhood. We may feel happy or disgruntled, annoyed with bureaucracy or happy with local services. We may feel we are in love and charity with our neighbours or that they pose a threat to our wellbeing.

But ‘Our Nation’s Civic Health’ is intended to provide some kind of national benchmark for our feelings – not quite to see how we measure up, but at least to see if our view of the world coincides with a national feeling. The authors of the report are not so naïve as to think that they can offer a uniform picture of civic health throughout England. They acknowledge in the introduction that ‘it is important to note that local situations are very different. Many measures of civic health vary considerably in different parts of the country.’ The percentage of older people in an area may affect how measures of social cohesion vary; so may the number of people who work in managerial positions, or who are below the average wage. And ethnic origin is, in some areas, important, too.

Given these caveats, the report is nonetheless useful in assessing just how ‘civic-minded’ the people of England are at the start of the 21st century’s second decade.

So, is there any community spirit in England? asks the ‘Our Nation’s Civic Health’. There is certainly some good news. More than three-quarters ‘have a strong sense of belonging to their immediate neighbourhood’. This may not come as a revelation, especially outside big cities. More than four-fifths ‘agree that people from different backgrounds get on with each other’. That is perhaps more surprising, if we are to believe some of the stories in the more lurid of our daily newspapers.

Both these figures have, apparently, increased since 2002, which must be good news. More worrying, perhaps, is that just half of English people say that they trust their neighbours. It is better news that that 67 per cent of people agree that the individuals in their neighbourhood pull together – but fewer than two-in-five people would be very comfortable asking their neighbours to help them in particular tasks, like picking up a prescription from the chemist’s.

The survey moves on to how much people give of their time and money to support others, improve their local communities and help causes in which they believe. Just over a quarter of people take part in what is called ‘formal volunteering’, which is defined as ‘giving help through groups, clubs or organisations at least once a month.’ Encouragingly, this figure has been pretty constant since 2001. Even better, the report’s map shows that the Harrogate Borough Council area is in the top quarter for formal volunteering, with more that 35 per cent of people doing so.

Finally, ‘Our Nation’s Civic Health’ looks at much we trust the institutions of state. Turnout in both local and national elections has been declining, so that suggests we trust them less – or that we think we cannot make a difference, perhaps. Only a third of people say they trust parliament. Almost two-thirds say they can trust their local council, and many of them say they have had dealings with their council, perhaps by signing a petition or contacting a local official. Much lower is the percentage who have completed a questionnaire (14 per cent) or attended a public meeting (6 per cent).

Where do all these statistics lead us, nationally and locally? The report says, ‘There appears to be some untapped demand for greater involvement – through volunteering and participating in local decision-making . . . some suggest they would be more likely to participate if they had more information or if opportunities were presented to them more easily.’ Perhaps we do need to make it easier for people to take part in things – to steer the grumbling and carping that too often characterise discussion not just about national but also about very local politics into more positive channels.

In Ripon, the new ‘I LOVE RIPON’ campaign, aimed at encouraging people to think positively about the city, has its first public outing this Saturday (17 April) with a stall in the Market Square. Going along to support it would be a good first step in getting positively engaged for the good of the city. And, if you are encouraged by that, the Civic Society is ready to welcome you, too, to help improve ‘Our Nation’s Civic Health’.

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