A report in a Sunday newspaper last week said that up to six big garda stations around Dublin could be closed in a review. This could be good news but it probably won’t be.
Firstly, it should be said, stories like this could be kite-flying, just to see the reaction. Or speculation. Or even idle speculation.
But many of the older garda stations are probably nearing the end of their natural lives. Some of them are in prime property location worth tens of millions of euro. So it is probable that some of the stations are indeed facing closure.
Closing garda stations seems like a good idea. The spin is that it will put more gardai on the streets and release resources for more policing.
This is a nonsense. This is the accountant’s way to run policing. Garda stations, like post offices, banks, schools and churches form part of the backbone of communities. But their ability to do so is eroding with rationalisation.
This has very negative consequences for many communities where social ties have been weakened. But it is in many of the poorer areas where the impact is felt most.
Many of our working class estates where there is greater problems with anti-social behaviour, poor environment, drug abuse and so on, have no local civic infrastructure at all. Gardai or teachers don’t live in the area and many people have to travel outside their areas to access basic services.
Bertie Ahern probably had in mind newer middle-class communities when he talked about the loss of social capital and met the guru of social capital Robert Putnam.
Social capital refers to value of people being involved in their communities. This recognises that the local GAA or soccer club is more than just a sporting phenomenon. People meeting and talking on a local basis adds backbone and confidence in a community. It creates social networks that can operate against anti-social behaviour and towards community development.
But equally essential to this is to have key players in the community present – the teacher, the garda, the doctor, the priest, and so on.
The economic basis for rationalisation is to gather resources together. But social capital needs resources to be dispersed.
We need smaller, more local schools. We need to understand that humans need to feel in control, near to people who make decisions.
Another figure that Bertie could consider meeting is Robin Dunbar. He is the guy that came up with Dunbar’s number, which is 150. This number represents the number of meaningful human relationships that each person can manage. It has become an important indicator of how successful a social network can be.
And what it means is that social development must be on a human scale to be successful.
So close the big garda stations. But replace them with more smaller dispersed stations that can give confidence and social meaning to local communities. Tie them in with community centres, citizens advice, social welfare offices, schools and health centres.
We need to think deeply about this, much deeper than the bottom line can tell us. We need leadership on this, locally and nationally.