In January I attended the Summer Workshop at Kotare School for Social Change and in one session Sue Bradford commented wryly, ‘In the current climate, when people talk about community development, community gardens crop up an awful lot.’

I was reminded of her comment when I went to a motivational talk by a man from Seattle, one of those speakers who travel the globe spreading the word. A nice bloke, full of energy and hope, skilled in delivery (a tad too loud perhaps?) and lots of nice images – many of them of community gardens. The audience wore beatific smiles. We didn’t quite get into happy clapping, but it wasn’t far away.

Of course, he had something sensible to say to agencies: instead of focusing on individual problems (crime, domestic violence, child abuse, teenage pregnancy etc.) focus on community assets and strengths (heritage, people, democracy, environment …). It sounded fair enough.

But there is a mystification involved. In the academic world it’s called neo-communitarianism. Neo-liberalism has stressed, fragmented and in some cases, broken communities – and this includes heritage, people, democracy and environment. This creates social issues which, when they reach a certain level, are embarrassing: child poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, begging and so on. You then call on ‘community’ to try and paper over the cracks or glue things together again.

Meanwhile, the state has devolved many of the tasks of service provision to community groups or the private sector because, firstly, the neo-liberal regime doesn’t believe in state provision and secondly, it’s cheaper – NGOs are often poor payers with conditions inferior to those in the state sector. The state can also control the sector through the funding mechanisms. Nevertheless, there can be a plus in the tailoring of services to specific social groupings.

But in this formula, you don’t mention the causes of the rupture that has occurred. If you do, you probably won’t access funding. In fact you probably won’t even be allowed charitable status because you’re ‘political’. Whereas, in the 1990s, the community sector was often highly critical. Now it is safer to focus on community gardens, with multicultural children holding up bunches of carrots.

Of course, the real issue for the community sector is funding. When money without too many conditions attached is available, good things happen. When the government had a fund for housing co-ops we could set up a housing co-op in the Aro Valley. When a sum of money tagged for a union health centre was available, we could help set up a community health service and social centre in a housing estate in the Hutt Valley. When the government gave the Grey District Council money for a community economic development officer, things happened. When PEP schemes existed and workers on the schemes were paid the minimum wage and equipment and coordinators were also provided, an enormous range of community work was accomplished: parks, playgrounds, numerous marae were renovated, public art and community art flourished and I am sure, the occasional community garden was created. Then they decided these weren’t proper jobs. It was better for people to form a harassed pool of cheap labour.

Of course, it’s not popular to point these things out, for behind the mystification lies the desire of the wealthy and the managerial class, for control, wealth and power.