After the disturbances in some of our major cities during the summer, we were both concerned that Medway (comprising five separate towns: Gillingham, Rainham, Chatham, Rochester and Strood) should directly address some of the factors which were perceived to have led to the riots.
The Leader of Medway Council, Rodney Chambers, and Rehman Chishti MP sent out invitations to a wide range of community organisations, churches and faith communities, universities, colleges and schools, the police and social service delivery agencies to a community gathering in January. The community seminar was led by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester.
This was very well supported by different sections of the community, and a number of objectives were identified for the prevention of social erosion and the strengthening of society. Many of those attending agreed that too much emphasis on autonomy had led to individualism, selfishness and greed. It was pointed out that we become who we are through our relationships, and the importance of interdependence and partnerships was seen as crucial for community building and, indeed, self-understanding.
In this connection, the importance of the family was noted. It is here that people find their identity, both genetic and social. It takes a long time for a human to grow up, and nurture is at the heart of family. Admiration was expressed for the hard work of single parents, but it was claimed that they would be the first to agree that it ideally takes two to raise a child. Research shows that children relate to each parent in distinctive ways and the importance, especially of fathers, in the bringing up of boys was recognised. Every kind of help should be provided for families to stay together. It is vital that parenting, conflict resolution and debt advice agencies should be better resourced, as these are obvious pressure points for families. Churches and faith communities have an important role in marriage preparation and in parenting courses. It was asked what preparation there is for those who choose a civil wedding and what more can be done to support every couple as they embark on their lives together.
The family is the primary place for moral education, but schools also have an important role in the moral nurture of the young. Some participants urged those responsible for RE to concentrate on this area. It was pointed out that while people without a faith can equally be morally very aware, the great moral codes, such as the Ten Commandments, have usually developed within traditions of faith. Pupils should also be shown how to relate what they learn in science with questions about purpose, meaning and direction in their lives, as well as about a responsible use of personal freedom. This is vital if science is not to be misused for moral nihilism.
A number of contributors spoke of a vast array of opportunities that were now available for the young in higher education, and through apprenticeships of various kinds. At the same time, questions of justice were raised about access to such opportunities by young people coming from different backgrounds. People were passionate that Government policy regarding funding, for instance, should not restrict opportunity, particularly for those from poorer sections of the community.
Those working with young people through churches and other organisations said that the majority were active and involved in the community and that there were bodies, like the Medway Youth Trust, which work to prevent a minority from slipping into delinquency. Their reports were much appreciated, and it was felt that further resources should be directed at this work.
A number of agencies raised the issue of volunteering. It was acknowledged that church and other faith groups provide a significant number of these, but many more were needed if the 'big society' really was to emerge and to work. There is a lack of proportion in voluntary activities in the different wards which needs to be addressed in a focussed way, along with addressing social and economic deprivation and housing issues in some of the most disadvantaged wards.
Those attending saw cohesion as based on the stability of the family and the importance of moral and citizenship education in schools, as well as on a flourishing civil society, itself rooted in the voluntary principle. Society also needs moral resources to challenge injustice and exclusion. Churches and faith communities, as well as campaigning and advocacy agencies, are well placed to provide leadership in this area, without seeming always to be 'lecturing at' people.
Again and again, the participants pointed out that it was not enough for opportunities to exist but that those who are on the margins and disadvantaged should know about them. The work of the Police in keeping Medway secure was much appreciated but Neighbourhood Watch and other citizens' initiatives, such as Police and Communities Together, Schools and Communities Together and other community safety initiatives were also valuable and should be encouraged. The availability of places to meet and for recreational activity was mentioned by one of the colleges and there was a need for this to be widened out so that young people can gather in a safe environment.
Where young people are concerned, it is of the greatest importance that they should see integrity in older generation. If they find only self-serving attitudes, they may well become disillusioned and alienated. They should also find a society where initiative is recognised and rewarded and where interdependence is valued as a source of strength rather than being seen as weakness.
We much enjoyed our time together and we have forwarded a summary of the seminar to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Leader of Medway Council agreed to take away the points that were raised and to put into practice some of the ideas that came from the seminar where appropriate. We are hoping that we can meet with one of the Ministers, in a year's time, to review progress. We do commend to others this way of gathering a 'community of communities' to identify, discuss and evaluate priorities for living together. In doing this, we have caught a glimpse of how 'the big society' can work and, we believe, others could do so as well. The Medway Towns, are a real example where the community has integrated and prospered, and provides a great place to live and work, but it was exceptionally worthwhile to see what more we can do to together to make our towns a better place to live and work.