Critically examine the role of Community Development

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The idea of community is found everywhere in contempory social and public policy. We hear of care in the community, community development, the gay community, community of faiths, community mental health and community policing. In its traditional sense the idea of a community was referring to the sense of belonging or identification in a place or neighbourhood. Certainly during the First and Second World War the community in its traditional sense was a big thing in that everyone worked and strived for the same thing and helped each other out both physically and emotionally. This sense of identification over the years has however somewhat become weaker.

The understanding of Community Work can be related very much to political values. The idea of community first began to feature strongly in the social and public policy in the late 1960’s. The Labour Government of that time was faced with a number of problems, some of which was due to the growth of the welfare state. Massive programmes of publi8c housing, transport and urban renewal disrupted many existing communities. A consensus began to develop that there was a need for public participation. By the late 1960’s, there was an awareness of persistence of social inequality despite the growing welfare state.

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“Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important is that unlike all other terms of social organisation (state, nation or society for example,) it never seems to be used unfavourably, and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term.” WILLIAMS, R. (1976). In contrast the word ‘Community’ has come under scrutiny and criticism, particularly in the late 1970’s. In all of the early initiatives the idea of the community was linked to the assumptions concerning ‘system dysfunction.’ The problem of community was either seen in terms of the dysfunctional outcome of social and economic progress or in terms of dysfunctional families and social networks. While the idea that community was something the poor and underprivileged needed has remained a resilient, assumption within British public and social policy has brought new concepts.

In Britain during the 1970’s, the Community Development Projects set up by the Home Office to tackle forms of deprivation began to question the earlier dysfunctional models of community by tracing the links between social inequality and social exclusion. In making the link between community and social class the Community Development projects gave support to growing grassroots forms of community action which gave priority to strategies of conflict rather than participation. The Community Development Foundation (CDF) was established in 1968. This was a non-profitable organisation, working with communities, disseminating findings and examples of best practice, and providing advice on new policy proposals.

The CDF described community development as ‘a structured intervention that gives communities greater control over the conditions that affect their lives. This did not solve all of the problems faced by a local community, but did build up confidence to tackle such problems as effectively as any local action can. ‘Community development has to look both ways: not only at how the community is working at the grass roots, but also at how responsive key institutions are to the needs of local communities.’ Source: Community Development Foundation Website: The 1970’s also saw struggles in issues such as identities of gender, race, later on of sexuality and disability. In Britain, however, the dominant struggle in the 1970’s remained the language of the class system.

As the community began to resist and struggle over the 1970’s period with issues such as the class system, the state began to develop strategies of incorporation. This was through the Community Development Projects to ensure the communities involvement and interaction, by giving the citizens shared aims and objectives within the projects. Stewart and Taylor (1995), noted that participation became an important strategy for continuous administrative stability and controlling potentially troublesome elements. “The costs of the growing dependency by community organisations on such programmes, in many areas became apparent in the late 1980’s as community groups found themselves increasingly involved in a competitive struggle for scarce government resources, a struggle which exacerbated existing lines of tension between communities of difference.” (Cain and Yuval- Davis, 1990).

Community work is the process of assisting people to improve their own communities by undertaking collective action. The provision of this action usually requires paid workers in a number of different titles. These could be recognised as liaison officers or development workers for example. They may undertake a variety and broad range of functions. The quality of the community work is to first ensure that the people of the community get a better deal. There is an emphasis on working with the community, particularly with self organised groups, mutual support groups, play schemes, neighbourhood watch schemes for example.

Often locals groups arise in the context of particular problems becoming apparent. Community can be taken in many different forms. Geographically, for example, the residents of a run down estate can help make their estate amenable, with more facilities which enable the residents to live more comfortably. It can also mean making life easier for groups such as individuals with learning difficulties or mental health problems. The music industry has also created its own small communities with the different styles of music that has and is being created. Experiences in life have also created communities within the drug culture and gay communities.

So therefore, community is seen in a broad context which can take on many different forms and requires several angles in the work undertaken. The work undertaken can be seen in three particular models. The three main types of community work are known as Community Development, Social planning and Community Action. The Community Development approach can be seen in assisting existing groups or helping people form new groups. The Social Planning approaches are initiatives set up and funded by the Government initially. The Community Action approach is a reaction to the more paternalistic forms of community work. It is a response by relatively powerless groups to increase their effectiveness. It needs to be recognised that aspects of these models are not entirely discreet, and there is a degree of overlap between them. The models are however, an important method of categorising central approaches to community work.

The main strategy of the Social Planning model is the analysis of social conditions within the community of a local area. Local authorities set the goals and priorities, implement and evaluate services and the programmes they have initiated. Social planning starts with the government funding a project to rebuild a community. While the project is under government initiative, the project also has to participate in the government’s targets aims and objectives. Once the project has become well established, the funding will decrease or stop leaving the project having to fund themselves. The social planning role in community work applies most directly when the work undertaken by the worker has no direct or immediate link with a community group. Other social planning approaches are, primarily, service strategies where a worker an organisation, an agency or any other of these types of services, seek to obtain resources to develop a new initiative.

The Active Community Unit contributes to the delivery of the Home Office aims and objectives. This is seen as the social planning model as it is primarily under a government initiative and funded by the government, although it does tie in with the community development model as well. This has a vision of a society where the voluntary and community sector exhibit a community to play a full part in society. They are aiming to see that the support, assistance and means exist to enable that vision to become a reality. Their aim is to promote the development of the voluntary sector and encourage people to become actively involved in their communities, especially in the deprived areas.

Their objectives are to ‘build capacity in local communities and promote effective community development and to promote and facilitate positive community involvement and citizenship.’ Also to ‘develop productive partnerships between Government and the voluntary and community sector at local, regional and national levels and to develop a modern legal framework for the voluntary and community sector and to encourage good practice.’ Government support for community groups and community capacity building implement small grants and develop a programme to support asset based community development.

Marris, (1987), argues that if community work is to become effective, then it needs to find common ground with the government. He suggests that social planning in one strategy can be used to help protect the working class communities from the uncertainty and lack of control they suffer when re-development takes place in their locality. It is then in Marris’ view that community workers have more to gain by developing a partnership with the state.

There are however concerns lately that the amount of Government involvement is undermining the work they do for the community. The magic of Sure Start is local community participation and the problem with central government is they think local means local government. It does not, it means at street level’. This was stated by Naomi Eisenstadt at a conference on modernising health vivsiting. The conference was organised by the Harrogate Center for Excellence in Health and Social Care.

On the 19th September 2002, a Cornish paper, “The West Briton”, printed out an article about a local village being redeveloped. The idea was that up to 50 new homes could be built on a local estate known as the “ghetto”. “A mixture of housing would be proposed but he insisted that some low cost homes would be crucial. A Parish and District Councillor stated that he was very aware of the difficulty people were facing to get on the housing ladder and it was a difficulty as there were so many coming forward for housing who would be evicted from the ‘ghetto’. This article shows the uncertainty that the lower class have when re – development takes place in their locality.

The Community Development model is considered to be similar to the social planning model and has been described as ‘the analysis of social conditions, social policies and agency services; the setting of goals and priorities, the design of service programmes and the mobilisation of appropriate resources; and the implementation and evaluation of services and programmes. (Thomas, 1983). ‘Social work and social care are going through a change of transition as a result of social change and the governments modernisation of public services.’ The Youth Offending Teams were created to reduce crime and meet national objectives, performance measures and protocols of good practice. The new initiatives represent a serious commitment by the government to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantagememt. The paradox is that they are settling into specific niches that were once asssociated with social work. Lack of attention to that vision over recent decaeds has produced the circumstances that have, in turn, forced social work into a more reactive mode.’ (Community Care 3-9 october 2002). The article was explaining how social work has become narrower and is being replaced by community groupwork as a result of the governments new initiatives in community care.

The Local Authorities have been developing new organisational models to reach the targets the Government has set for the services to provide. Many new agencies have been created such as Sure Start. This was a new government inititive with a multi-agency focus in which their aim is to link education and social care, offer family support and referral links into other agencies. The new agencies have been given a focus and set of objectives to meet and the services have been redisigned in order to meet those targets. It has however made it more difficult for smaller agencies to achieve intergrated service delivery and develop a common culture as they may find it harder drawing on the resources the larger agencies have access to.

The community development models emphasis is on participation, initiative and self help. Since the early 1990’s there has been an emphasis on ‘capacity building’. This is to say that the emphasis is to try and empower people’s capacity in their values and priorities and to act on them. Many inexperienced residents have been required to assist in the design of regeneration strategies, sometimes costing millions of pounds.

Skinner (1997) defines community capacity building primarily as; ‘development work that strengthens the ability of community organisations. To build their structures, systems, people and skills so that they are better able to define and achieve their objectives and engage in consultation and planning, manage community projects, and take part in partnerships and community enterprise. It includes aspects of training, organisational and personal development and resource building organised in a self-conscious manner reflecting the principles of empowerment and equality’. Skinner had also emphasised on the importance of organisational development aspects of capacity building, which in his view many community workers did not adequately participate in. He argued that the focus should be on creating or strengthening the community infrastructure, which community organisations needed.

Barr (1991) reviews and analyses Strathclyde regional Councils programme of community development which is considered to be the most substantial of its kind in British local government. Discussions of his two field studies lead Barr to consider the role and practice of community development as a major policy initiative. Barr argued that community development has a legitimate role to play in providing opportunities for radical alliances of professional, political and community interests to promote redistributive community development workers based inn local authority social services departments are in a position to contribute to the establishment and practice of imaginative community care proposals.’ Barr believes that the skills and knowledge can provide opportunities for people to achieve the power and control over their own lives. So therefore, although in Barr’s view the opportunities are there for the community to have the power to control their own lives, it is in Skinners view that this is not entirely possible without the opportunities of community workers adequately participating in order to make it work.

Those in community crime prevention, argue that you can not do effective community development work in excluded communities that suffer from high crime rates and vandalism without tackling crime as a first priority. Sue King Director, Safer Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales stated; ‘The term ‘crime prevention’ is often narrowly interpreted and this reinforces the view that it is solely the responsibility of the police. On the other hand, the term ‘community safety’ is open to wider interpretation and could encourage greater participation from all sections of the community in the fight against crime.’ Community safety has therefore become an issue for all of the communities rather than the agencies within the criminal justice system to focus on. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998, required police and local authorities to create local ‘community safety’ partnerships. These partnerships were to include professional, voluntary, private and community bodies to empower residents to contribute to their own safety. A social exclusion report on deprived neighbourhoods published in September 1998 has set out a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. The strategy has four key outcomes. They are set out as; better education, better health, lower unemployment and less crime.

The Governments aims in this model are to ensure there is more community involvement and the demand for this has become more apparent and charismatic. There is a high level of community involvement being attached to a lot of regeneration schemes and a growing expectation that residents and service users have more involvement within future developments. The methods and values of community work can be applied to many different sectors of public policy and welfare.

It is perceived as emphasising more on the process of dedicating community involvement and increasing the local people’s confidence to help them achieve their goals rather than the experts delivering the services the community requires or giving out solutions. So therefore, it has been difficult to demonstrate the effectiveness of community work or to specify what skills or resources are needed in order to do this kind of work successfully. It is a necessary and aspiring model to be considered as it appears the poorest neighbourhoods gain from the community self help groups and other stimulating projects. However, they are the most difficult groups to engage in community activities.

An article on young offenders with mental health problems highlighted a dissapointing level of communication between the health services and the youth justice services. ‘Future Imperfect?’ by the Revolving Doors agency, revealed that eighty-one per cent of respondants believeed a social worker would not have resolved their problems, although more than half said that they would have liked someone to tals to about their problems. ‘Social workers do not appear to rate highly in their estimation and befrienders are much more likely to be requested than a social worker or mental health proffessional.’ This article argues that Care in the Community does not seem to be working despite new approaches and schemes being set up within the services, there are still failures and matters that need addressing.

The Community Action Model of community work has traditionally been class based and uses conflict and direct action, usually at a local level, in order to negotiate with people with positions of power over what is often a single issue. The role of the community worker within this model highlights the tension between the worker and the state. Thomas (1983) argues that the role of the community worker to that of the community activist cannot be combined. He sees the community workers role in the social action model more of an activist who is in the same group as community workers with different beliefs and approaches to the practice of their work. ‘Community work interventions require a certain degree of experience and training. They offer specific skills and knowledge to a community or agency which are different from (though not inherently better than and often over lapping with) those offered by local residents who take on active roles within community groups.’

Thomas glosses over the social action model which highlights his view that community work is a profession and not a political activity. Rothman (1976) also identifies the social action model as one group who pressurises another group to make a change or policy. He does argue however that as the main source of funding in Britain for community strategies comes from the government it can also make this kind of contest work quite difficult. Community workers dependant on state funding need to think very carefully about taking this kind of activist approach. Community workers who use this approach see themselves as advocates for the community who are helping people individually and collectively to challenge the disadvantaged and demand better or fairer treatment. This form of action can become difficult to assert for many workers as they could find themselves compromising situations where they are being restricted by expectations of employers or external funders.

During the months of December 1997 through to February 1998 a local drop in centre in Cornwall which provided a service for the mentally ill was threatened with closure. The funding was being withdrawn from the Healthcare Trust which was leaving those in a vulnerable position without any care in the community. This caused a great concern within the local community and the drop in centre. The co-ordinator of the centre was unable to take direct action herself as it compromised her employment. It was however decided that the only form of action to prevent the client group being left in a more vulnerable position was for the client service users to take direct action through the media and local councillors in order to provide a community care service.

Community work and the community action which it supports are both complex and sometimes contradictory. For example, On the 19th September 2002, a Cornish paper, “The West Briton”, printed out an article about a local village being redeveloped. The idea was that up to 50 new homes could be built on a local estate known as the “ghetto”. “A mixture of housing would be proposed but he insisted that some low cost homes would be crucial. A Parish and District Councillor stated that he was very aware of the difficulty people were facing to get on the housing ladder and it was a difficulty as there were so many coming forward for housing who would be evicted from the ‘ghetto’. There was opposition by the residents of the ‘ghetto’, however the other residents of Porthtowan had approved the redevelopment.

Community planning perhaps presents the oppurtunity to establish models of community intergration. With the government led inititives the community have to accept the conditions and targets that have been set for them. While this is helpful to a new inititive or group financially it is unhelpful to establish the sometimes unrealistic targets, aims and objectives that have been set. However, it is also unhelpful when there is no financial securrity. All models have their own advantages and disadvantages.


  1. Hogget. P. (1997) Contested Communities – Experiences, Struggles, Policies: The Policy Press, London
  2. Popple. K. (1995) Analysing Community Work – It’s Theory and Practice: Open University Press, Great Britain
  3. Twelvetrees. A. (2002) Community work: Palgrave, Hampshire
  4. Cain. H and Yuval – Davies. N. (1990) The Equal Opportunities Community and The Anti-Racist Struggle, Critical Social Policy,
  5. Marris, P, (1987) Meaning and Action: Planning and Conceptions of Change. London, Routledge
  6. Community Development Foundation Website: http://
  7. Williams. R. (1976) Keywords: London: Fontana/Croom Helm.
  8. Barr. A (1991) Practising Community Development: Experience in Strathclyde: London. Community Development Foundation
  9. Skinner. S. (1997) Building Community Strengths: A Resource Book on Capacity Building: London, Community Development Foundation
  10. Thomas, D.N. (1983) The Making of Community Work: London. George Allen and Unwin
  11. Unknown Author (2002) Plan Could Men End of Porthtowan ‘Ghetto’: The West Briton, Truro
  13. Clare Jerrom,Community Care Magazine Article
  14. Rothman (1976) Community Work: Palgrave Hampshire.

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