Jim Boyle of the Grow Trust spoke at the UWS-Oxfam Policy Forum on 24 June 2015 on the theme of: “What do local communities know and understand that policymakers maybe don’t?”
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Helder Camara
Like Camara, working class communities are becoming awkward, they are beginning to ask why and are rejecting many of the answers they are receiving.
First, A quick reflection. Take a bit of time to think of a traumatic moment or a significant event which you experienced. How did it affect you, what did you feel and how long did it take you to get over it.
Now, put that reflection into the context of communities who were hit by mass closures and redundancies. Not one family left unaffected; not one part of the economy of those communities left intact.
It was a trauma for these communities and a trauma which neither support nor time was given to heal, to make sense of what happened. And, yet even as this trauma was unfolding there were voices in communities like Beith, Linwood and Clydebank for example who said there is a different way, it doesn’t need to be like this, there are possibilities.
Voices which fell on deaf ears, voices which on the whole were ignored.
In Beith as the last of the furniture manufacturing was closing in the early 80s there were voices which said we could do something here, there are possibilities. No! Said the policy makers and the strategists this sector was dead, we need to move on. IKEA in the late 80s opened its first shop in the UK.
In Linwood when the car plant closed in 1981, there were voices from community and trade union members who argued that there was an alternative. The plant could be reconfigured, there was the possibility of growing the industry. Nissan opened a new car plant in the late 80s in Sunderland.
Clydebank 1999, a vigil marking the closure of Kvaerner. The workers produced the best turbines in the world. Highly skilled workers shared their skills in other parts of the world. There were voices, even at the eleventh hour, promoting an alternative, the manufacturing of turbines could be sustained. The company closed and the market for onshore and off shore turbines rapidly grew.
Throughout the 90s and the 2000s Governments wanted to, as they saw it, kick start these communities, and encourage their participation in the new polices of development and regeneration. They were resisting any help, that governments and agencies were trying to give…they concluded.
The reality was, people understood the policies, and they just didn’t want them. The solution was to basically privatise community development and regeneration, put organisations into communities that will do things and get things moving. A bit conspiratorial you may think, but the evidence speaks for itself.
In September 2002 the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit published a report “Private Action, Public Benefit”.
This private action now takes the form of Community Interest Companies and Arm’s Length Organisations which epitomise the earlier approach.
As people in communities became more aware of what was being done, as more scandals began to emerge; the banking swindle, MPs’ expenses scandal, media deception, people began to think that maybe, just maybe, it was time for change both at a national and a local level.
The SNP Government was elected in 2007 followed by a majority SNP Government elected at the next election, something which couldn’t have been predicted in a PR system.
The referendum turnout by young people and in particular by working class people shocked many including those who had voted YES. Regardless of who voted for what, it was clear that something very dramatic was happening in our country and on the political front. The politics of working class areas was changing. Huge turnouts were recorded, people who had never voted went out and voted.
What began as a maybe for change turned into a conscious desire for change when working class areas went and voted Labour out at the Westminster election.
These results knocked on the head the commentary of capacity builders and the politicians that people didn’t know how to influence policy makers and bring about political change.
People voted in what they saw as an alternative and voted out what they viewed as the establishment.
This empowerment should have been celebrated, but in a number of quarters it wasn’t. What it proved was that people, working class communities, could indeed take the democratic power they had/have and removed what they saw was an obstacle, no one was safe.
What was clear, was that there is a disconnect between policy and practice, between the policy makers, influencers and communities
Communities know and understand that it is in the practice of change that change is achieved, it is in the practice of change we begin to understand and make sense of our situation, it is in the practice of change that we can begin to decide on the vision, policies and leadership we want. This is where there needs to be a focus.
I am suggesting from the experience of community organisations that there is a disconnect between what is needed by communities and what is being reported back to policy makers.
There is a sticky middle of organisations who filter out what is being said and what is wanted by communities and what is being reported back to policy makers. There is an interpretation being put on actions and discussions held at a community level which suit this sticky middle of organisations who purport to represent their views. These organisations need to take a look at themselves. Change or be changed.
What is conveyed by these filters, is that communities can’t handle the policy and they need capacity building.
The reality is that the policy is not necessarily the problem, the practice certainly is.
Now this is tricky for policy makers who rely on the “Filter Organisations” for information, updates and as a means of gauging what is happening. How would they know?
To assist, here is a pocket guide, 5 handy questions which policy makers should ask any organisation who say they speak for working class communities and for communities to ask any organisation who come to their areas. My thanks to Tony Benn for these questions:
- “What power have they got?
- Where did they get it from?
- In whose interests do they exercise it?
- To whom are they accountable?
- And how can communities get rid of them?”
The disconnections and contradictions are very clear to Linwood and Beith.
In Linwood when they were sitting down with Tesco and the Council about their town centre and the need for regeneration. Tesco representatives had their lawyers and planners round the table, as did the Council. The community had a tenacious group of women who had to become experts in planning law. They did and they got the regeneration Linwood was after.
Beith have had their challenges when it came to a community buy out. Inviting Council representatives to a meeting to discuss partnership and cooperation as encouraged by government and policy makers, they were confronted with a rather non cooperative response. In fact the Councils representative’s responses began to sound as if Beith was seeking permission on their plans. This was clarified by Beith. Beith are now in the final stages of their buy out.
What is becoming clearer is that a priority for capacity building is technical expertise, in order to match the technical expertise available to Councils and other bodies. It is about that expertise being made available to communities to ensure that the playing field is level.
At a very practical level if this is not put in place, the Government’s Community Empowerment agenda will fail before it starts. On the one hand Government is encouraging community asset ownership as a means to empowerment and regeneration at the same time the best assets are being removed and given to arm length companies. The contradiction and conflict in these policies are obvious.
The response? One response would be to mutualise the arm length companies bringing the assets into a new form of community ownership.
The policy response should be to fund experts to work with community organisations to challenge the status quo. Community organisations with the support of experts could challenge the decisions made by councils to transfer services, facilities and budgets to unaccountable organisations.
This is the response to the capacity question. Use what is used by public bodies requiring additional help, and bring in technical expertise or put another way do what public bodies do to fill the capacity gap. You don’t hear public bodies calling in the builders of capacity. Nope, they install the expertise they need.
So in conclusion here are six points in response to the question:
“What do local communities know and understand that policy folk maybe don’t?”
- Historical knowledge of communities.
- Disconnection between policy makers and communities.
- A cluttered sticky middle of filter organisations.
- Policies which focus on the solutions are needed.
- The need for collaboration and cooperation between communities and public/private organisations.
- The need for a Grow Trust approach.
What to do
- Open the dialogue directly with community organisations, fully funded and resourced, to focus on the main issues for future policy and practice.
- Arising from this discussions with policy makers agree policy and practice.
- Agree the support and assistance needed.
Finally, this language of change from national and local government is full of references to social justice, solidarity, subsidiarity, collaboration, cooperation and participation.
If Social Justice is the road we are on, there must be recognisable signs of redistribution of finance, power and authority; and these must be made tangible and transforming to communities.
Social justice is not about spreading things so thinly that every community gets a share. It is about consciously redistributing to those communities in need. Principles which can also be used at an individual level; the formula of “I get so you can get” must now be replaced by an option based on need.