Tackling irresponsible ownership

I have been frustrated for many years by the impacts of irresponsible private ownership in the two places I’ve known best (Deptford and Hastings) and the many communities I have been privileged to work with all over the country. There are all kinds of examples, from rogue HMO landlords to dodgy scrapyards in residential areas. But the thing that makes my blood boil is when beautiful historic buildings of huge community interest are left to rot, abandoned by delinquent owners, or passed from one to the next, each making their packet out of speculative planning permissions and none taking the slightest care for the place or its people.

I have been raising the issue with ministers for a couple of years now, originally with Greg Clark and lately with Don Foster. How can we support local government and local communities to solve the really challenging buildings in their area? It was when I saw Caterham High Street with the Rose & Young site left to rot for 25 years in the middle of a Tory high street in the SE of England that I realised it wasn’t just poor coastal towns and the north where this kind of behaviour was allowed to continue, but everywhere.

The reason it’s allowed to continue is twofold – on the one hand we have an obsession with private property rights. As a society we don’t let people drive dangerous cars without insurance and responsible drivers don’t feel bad about being made to do an MOT. It keeps everyone safe, it’s a responsible behaviour. And yet with buildings we hardly have anything to protect places and communities. Section 51, building control, even the heritage listing framework, none of it is fit for purpose when you get these extreme cases. Fit for purpose would be something that sought a realistic solution rather than just identifying the problem, emboldened local authorities and communities rather than terrified them and, most important of all, worked fast when the case was clear. I think this would be a community Compulsory Transfer Order (CTO) which would require a) proof of abandonment and/or irresponsible ownership leading to risks for the building and the local community and b) a bona fide recipient to transfer it to.

The Government has introduced important legislation to allow local communities to take on responsibility for things they care about. Yet even this purposeful approach is in danger of failing to allow communities to deal with the buildings that matter most to them.

The mystery of the recent past

The Community Right to Bid in the Localism Act 2011 introduces the idea of Assets of Community Value. This is where:

1.     Its actual or current use (or there is a time in the recent past when its use) furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community, and

2.    It is realistic to think that there can continue to be (or it is realistic to think that there is a time in the next 5 years when) non-ancillary use of the building or land that would further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community.

Right now I am focusing on two buildings of enormous community value – the Observer in Hastings and Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester. Both have been hugely important to local people and neighbourhoods, delivering services that furthered social wellbeing and community interest over many decades (six for the Observer and eleven for the Dispensary). They are urgently in need of designation as ACV with the protection it provides against more irresponsible private ownership and with the doors it opens to grant aid for communities to bring these assets into viable, sustainable community and commercial use, with the profits from those ventures re-invested in local regeneration. If ever there was a time that this was necessary it is now and for these buildings.

Ancoats and Observer

The issue is the use of the phrase ‘the recent past’ in point 1. As a local historian the recent past means something different from what it means to the Norfolk farmer and landowner quoted in Hansard below. He is trying to protect his fields. I am trying to rekindle the pride in down-beaten communities who feel that nothing they do or say has any impact on the powers that be.

Can a building that has served the community interest for decades but then has become vacant, left to rot by irresponsible owners, kept in a way that has disallowed community use or indeed any use at all, still count as an ACV? Does it make a difference if during those years of neglect, local people have campaigned again and again to try to save and bring these buildings into community ownership and community use? If not, what exactly is the point of asking communities to step up and take responsibility? I am astounded that this question was not raised during the development of the Localism Bill – I feel some personal responsibility but for some reason I assumed somebody else (the heritage sector?) would have been paying attention.

But it is certainly not too late. My practical suggestion – promoted to both central and local government – is that, when considering nominations for ACV, assessors be allowed to discount periods of vacancy from the calculation of ‘the recent past’. At the moment they don’t feel they can. They need a clear reminder from DCLG of Baroness Hanham’s words: “It is the local authority’s job to put these regulations into effect and to be the guiding light” and that for buildings with long histories of serving the community interest the interpretation of the recent past is up to them.

For support on using the Community Rights go to http://www.mycommunityrights.org.uk

If you know a building that local people care about but is stuck in irresponsible ownership please let me know about it: jess@jerichoroad.co.uk. 

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Policy, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | 2 Comments

No resting place but a challenge constantly renewed

“The Great Society is not a resting place… a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us towards a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvellous products of our labor.” – Lindon Johnson

Not a ‘finished work’ – no, certainly it isn’t. I have been telling the story of the Battle for Hastings Pier for many years. Since November 2012 when the Heritage Lottery Fund said YES! I have been telling it as a fairy-tale come true, a success against the odds.

Two things occur to me now:

1.    It’s not over. Not even to the extent that we can leave it in the extremely capable hands of our chief executive and his newly-recruited team. Because ‘these things are sent to try us’:

a) Funder processes are *not* designed for the benefit of the project (which after all is the point of them) but for their own purposes – risk management, standardisation, funder PR, ‘your problem not ours’ rules that say even if no-one else is willing to quote you still have to get three quotes, delay, delay, delay. And – not Hasting Pier specific – but my experience everywhere: making sure it’s our August ruined by application deadlines not theirs by assessment deadlines; ‘application forms’ in pdf that have to be printed out and completed by hand; no-one that can provide funds in less than 6-8 weeks (note that the Meanwhile Project used to make a decision in one day if urgent, a week if less so!).

b) Tenders never seem to come in as the QS said they would. That’s completely unfair! I bet 90% of them do, but the few that don’t can be very troublesome indeed. So it looks like we won’t be able to start by demolishing the fire-twisted debris that scars the pier but instead the people of Hastings will have to wait until the restoration works reach that far. No matter – we’re adaptable and we’ll put up with a lot as long as something starts soon.

c) Who knew?! To finalise the Compulsory Purchase Order the council’s lawyer has to have evidence that notices have been served on every single delinquent interest that crawls out of the woodwork. Now there’s apparently a Panamanian bank that holds some kind of mortgage interest on our pier. And the Royal Mail is having some difficulty knocking on their door! It will all get resolved in the end, no doubt. But why should communities suffer these indignities because the law forces us all to bow and scrape before the property rights of the dodgiest of landowners and their financial conduits? We need a Compulsory Transfer Order to sit alongside Compulsory Purchase (which was designed to protect Mr Smith’s house from the motorway extension) and be used in situations where landowners are demonstrably irresponsible with important assets.

2.    There’s always another challenge. Funnily enough (and whatever I’ve told you over the last 7 years), the Great Society is not achieved only by the rescue of Hastings Pier… so while I travel the country supporting local residents to sort stuff out where they live, back home we’ve moved straight onto the next local challenge! The Observer Building and its immediate neighbourhood. One of the six really challenging assets in Hastings (Pier, Observer, White Rock Baths, St Mary in the Castle, House of Hastings, Palace Court). Local people will rightly say there are more, but these are the ones in my cross-hairs.

a) The amazing thing about the Observer is where and how it sits in the town. Dug deep into the White Rock cliffside, it is four storeys high where it presents a carved façade onto Cambridge Road, three fading to two as it looks out onto hilly Prospect Place, and a glorious seven where it opens up at the base of the Brassey Steps into an alleyway that could be part of Melbourne’s funky laneways but right now is dominated by pigeons (vermin).

b) This dense, mixed neighbourhood with its failed commercial heart is endlessly fascinating. Every time you turn round there’s another exemplar of something weird, wonderful or just plain wrong. Why is someone charging £1000 a year for people to carry their bins over ‘his’ land down the back of an unadopted alley? Why has multi-national, multi-billion pound corporation Diageo had a 15-year lease on a significant building under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budget yet played so little role in getting anything worthwhile to happen there? How can a family who have transformed the old Printworks into the trendiest place in town get so little support and encouragement from the powers-that-be?

c) What I find really interesting is to test out the Community Rights here. I have a feeling it could actually work! We want to save a very special building – we have nominated it as an Asset of Community Value. We want to self-define the vision for this little neighbourhood, so long ignored, so utterly top-downed that it occupies less than a quarter of the lowest level of ‘Local Plan’ consideration (Area 8), so full of regenerative potential, so determined to make change but not to be gentrified, to keep the uplift local. Can we make a Neighbourhood Plan?

I want to be fair to our council – under ridiculous pressure, spliced up, gutted, struggling, facing the consequences of some of the worst welfare decisions ever made – they do care and they are open to ideas. I always said the problem that we would experience with local government cuts was the abolition of the gate-keepers without the taking down of the gates. This was entertainingly illustrated when a colleague and I got stuck in the council offices yesterday because there was literally no-one to let us out!

When we realise that the Great Society – in LBJ’s words – is not a finished work and does not belong to ‘them’, we can really get going…! I’m looking forward to it.

Posted in Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Seaside, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | Leave a comment

Stories as Community Action

Pier Campaign – story version

Last week a couple of trustees of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust were filmed for a BBC piece to be shown in the autumn which may turn into a longer documentary. It felt like we were auditioning to see if the story, and our telling of it, was up to scratch. There’s no doubt it’s a great story but is it a fable, a thriller or a soap opera? If you live inside it then it feels more like a soap – an endless series of multi-perspective tales. When you’re presenting to the world it has to be told quick. And that’s when the lessons get reduced and concentrated, so you have to make sure the right message takes hold.

I was struck by how much the presenters wanted to simplify our story to pre- and post-Fire. That’s tempting because the Fire in October 2010 was clearly a major threshold point (and highly photogenic). But a) it’s not true, and b) it’s not helpful. The story as I tell it from the perspective of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust goes like this:

The pier is owned by Ravenclaw – the villain of the piece – a delinquent owner registered in Panama to avoid English law. They took a £1.8m mortgage from an Irish bank, made a load of cash on the top and failed to put it back in underneath. In 2006 the Council’s engineer was doing his regular inspection and a great big piece of metal came off in his hands! He ran back to the town hall crying “we must close the pier!”. And so it began.

A range of court cases got underway – most of which I managed to ignore – but they had far less long-term effect than a public meeting held in November where 200 people crammed in, with more waiting outside, and it was clear that there was the community will to save the pier. It was already clear that the local authority was not about to solve the problem and we rapidly realised that there was also no chance of a private sector solution. The only option was entrepreneurial community ownership. Sadly it took several years for the council to catch up – they were waiting for a fairy godmother; they’d give anything for a sugar daddy with wads of cash and preferably a knighthood.

So from that first public meeting in 2006 until deep into 2009 we were patronised and politely ignored. It is not enough to be right. That summer we decided to ‘up the ante’. It was time to focus on what we needed – a compulsory purchase – and get political in order to win. The Battle for Hastings Pier began when 2,000 people marched from the pier to the town hall to present a massive, gift-wrapped copy of the Manual for Compulsory Purchase. A crucial by-election saw us lead a ‘Vote Pier’ campaign, including systematic listening to local people about their concerns and a carefully stage-managed question time event by the end of which all three candidates leaped up to sign the Pier Pledge. As the votes came in, this safe Tory seat suddenly wasn’t safe anymore, and with the election of May 2010 on the horizon, Hastings Pier had at last become an issue that politicians could not ignore. Within days we were meeting with councillors in the town hall and, after a little face-saving, the council became an ‘active partner’ in January 2010. Since then every single pier vote in the council chamber has been unanimously agreed across all parties. The Tory MP and the Labour council leader will both claim equal credit!

On the evening of 4th October 2010 I was driving down the seafront, admiring the pier as the sun set beautifully behind it, on my way to a meeting at which we agreed to go out to EU-wide tender for our architects. Our lottery bid – to restore the structure closest to the land and use the buildings there to make money that would slowly restore the rest – was well underway and things were looking good.

By 2am I was back, watching with horror as a small fire at the pier head spread inexorably towards the land, with the Fire Service impotently spraying from the sidelines because of the dangerous condition of the pier after the years of neglect. We watched all night as our plans turned to smoke. With 90% of the buildings gone there was no chance of ‘progressive commercialisation’. But, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, the “YOU CAN SAVE ME” banner survived and by the dawn of that tearful, grey, burnt-asbestos morning we had decided on a new strategy. Seven weeks later we submitted our completely revised HLF bid. It’s been a long slog since, but we now have a total of £14 million lined up and the ownership is about to transfer from Ravenclaw, via the Council, to the Hastings Pier Charity. HPWRT has played its midwife role – sorted the politics, sorted the money, sorted the ownership – and is about to start on a new project – the second most challenging building in town!

So, yes the Fire was a turning point ,and yes it changed what we will do. The outpouring of emotion – both sadness and anger, the sense that a daughter of the town had not just died but been raped and left in a ditch – certainly raised the profile and fed our ‘Everyone loves the Pier’ campaign. So when HLF trustees came on an assessment visit, the town was plastered with ‘Just Say Yes’ posters. A pier is a barometer of the health of a seaside town – a dead pier is the equivalent of rotting fish in the chimney – it cannot be allowed. Fires also inevitably feed Phoenix pep talk, and optimism is oxygen for community action.

The ‘clearing of the decks’ that the Fire enabled made our long-held aspiration for a 21st century pleasure pier less complex. But it was not the Fire that made the rescue possible. If it had been that would be a depressing lesson for other challenges and other communities. Instead it was the dogged persistence of local people who refused to give up but were always willing to adapt.

“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance; yonder palace was raised by single stones, yet you see its height and spaciousness.” Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)

The narrative matters, both in the heat of battle and in the retelling. Right now in Rio, people are changing the narrative. “Demonstrations in Brazil are usually left to small groups belonging to beleaguered ‘social movements’ and therefore easily ignored… By focusing discussion on problems of transport and infrastructure, protesters are forcing politicians to face difficult questions about how they manage the city” (Damian Platt, Guardian 22/6/13). They can no longer simply blame the poor or ‘global financial crisis’ but must deal with their own role in the problem. That sharp focus is at the heart of community organising. The ‘ordinary people’ who led the recent successful campaign to save the bus service from Sheffield to Rotherham, would not take ‘austerity’ for an answer. With the support of two community organisers, they channelled the resource that all communities have – people and stories – to force a rethink by those with the power to make decisions. Power is very resilient and resistant to change – sometimes they will use tear gas and water cannons. More often in this country it’s bureaucracy and the simple tactic of ‘waiting it out’. When the narrative is right and we are capable of waiting them out (dogged persistence), change comes. Then the stories don’t just describe community action, sometimes they are community action.

I’ve just come back from Derry-Londonderry (LegenDerry as they’re calling it now), where they know full well that stories can be lethal or healing. And I’m about to set off for the annual CO Action Camp (a gathering of Community Organisers, their hosts & employers, and the local leaders they are working with). I’m story-harvesting…

Posted in Community Organisers, Hastings Pier, Thinking | 1 Comment

A month on the Jericho Road

So it’s been a month since launching Jericho Road Solutions and I’m in reflective mood. I chose to leave a good job at Locality and start out on my own because I want to be directly involved in local transformations as well as working at national level to shape policies, organisations and programmes that make local transformation easier.

As with any new business there’s been a lot of practical stuff to sort out – bank, phones, accountant, insurance, filing, website, etc. Had a couple of launch parties in London and Manchester, with fliers, badges, bunting. And I’ve spent some time walking the dog, helping my mother move house, taking out a retaining wall, doing sudoku and reading Caitlin Moran. What else?

My transition from programme management to legacy development within the Community Organisers programme is underway. I’ve been organising a Funders & Allies Forum event to be held at this year’s mega-exciting CO Action Camp. I’ve also helped out with recruitment, briefed the progression supporters, facilitated the first visioning event for CoCo the legacy body, brought together the COs across Greater Manchester in partnership with Powered by People UK, led a workshop in Blackpool with social housing tenants and workers, categorised 360 CO stories by theme, and participated in the regular programme team reflection.

At neighbourhood level I’ve begun supporting three projects:

Charterhouse Coventry – a 14th century Grade I listed monastery surrounded by a wealth of heritage assets in a 70-acre park next to the city centre, that no-one knows about! Significant potential to transform the reputation and economy of Coventry – by bringing silence. There’s a strong trust in place that has been granted the buildings and is negotiating with the local authority for a series of balancing assets to cross-subsidise. They’ve produced excellent material on the vision for the heritage park but need enterprise development support for this hyper-ambitious scheme.

London Road Fire Station, Manchester – beautiful Edwardian civic building (fire/police/coroners) occupying a whole block in spitting distance of Piccadilly station but empty for 27 years and in a ‘difficult ownership situation’. The friends group is at an early stage but already very enterprising. I’m keen to unlock some development funding for them.

Ancoats Dispensary, Manchester – where the current campaign to save the building brings back memories of the occupation of the building back in 1987-89 to protest the closure of its casualty department. Linking them up with igloo Regeneration has improved the prospects not only of winning the campaign but taking ownership of the building – a notion that would not have occurred to their 1980s predecessors but is highly likely in this new community rights’ world.

In terms of my own local (Hastings) activities – the wheels of Heritage Lottery Fund bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow, but we are expecting the formal transfer of ownership for Hastings Pier late July and work will start immediately to demolish the remaining fire-twisted debris and begin the restoration. It has been wonderful to know that the ‘midwifery’ of the project by the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust will have delivered community ownership, £14 million and a dedicated charity to take the project forward. Now the White Rock Trust will drop the HP and focus on another important and neglected asset – the 7-storey Observer Building and its immediate surrounds.

At national level, Jericho Road is working with Locality, igloo Regeneration and the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to develop the Demeter Service – a dating, mating, translating and relating service between communities and private developers, particularly important as the new HLF Heritage Enterprise Scheme requires such partnerships. Developers and community groups don’t tend to go to the same parties and there’s a lot of mutual distrust. Yet they have a great deal to offer each other.

I’ve written to Don Foster, Minister for Communities, about the problem of irresponsible ownership and how we need to link up local support for groups struggling to rescue precious assets from delinquent owners with a national campaign, and policy development to tackle the problem.

My role as a non-exec director of Meanwhile Space CIC continues to inspire me, especially as we evolve a new business strand involving freehold acquisitions to create ‘permanent meanwhile’ spaces that will include live-work. The Meanwhile Foundation has now achieved charitable status and will become a useful ‘plug-in tool’ to help make meanwhile projects happen everywhere.

With many others, I participated in Big Lottery Fund’s development work around a new programme, currently known as ‘Enriching Places, Enterprising Communities’ but which I hope will end up as Enterprising Projects in Communities, or EPIC! I hope this could be a chance to begin to develop the self-renovating neighbourhoods concept I wrote about last year.

I haven’t yet got back in the saddle for the Seaside Towns Economic Partnership but practical solidarity between seaside towns to build their economic and political power is a brilliant idea that hasn’t gone away. I did manage to win a peer-to-peer learning competition on the back of a bad pun, so watch out for the People’s Piers UK.

I have a code in my timesheet for ‘learning’ (unfunded unfortunately!) and this month it has included attending the first meeting of the Strategic Advisory Group for the AHRC Connected Communities research programme and starting work with two Manchester-based academics on a research project to showcase ‘Model 5′ community governance (ie where communities are fully engaged in co-production). Under the same code I spent a day with a visiting Kiwi community entrepreneur, and an evening with a Social Innovation Strategist from the Australian government (which included hearing a lecture by Francis Maude on ‘Ministers and Mandarins’). I had another coaching session with the wonderful Pam Lidford and I allowed Professor Jenny Pearce of Bradford University to ‘systematise my learning’.

It’s been a brilliant month, I’ve set another load of plates spinning, just need to make sure I can stay underneath them all…!

Posted in Community Organisers, Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Meanwhile, Seaside, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | 1 Comment

The Spaces Between – Boundary Spanning 20 years ago

My biography always begins “Jess Steele bridges policy and practice to develop new intellectual territory, ventures and programmes…”

Collaborating Across Sectors

I have always been interested in boundary-spanning – cross-sectoral, cross-community, inter-generational work; match-making between public, private and third sectors; travelling and translating between official and informal worlds.

The danger of spinning plates for a living is that you move too fast to embed what went before. Sometimes I’ve spent an evening designing a database or drafting a report only to find a previous version when I go to save. As part of setting up Jericho Road Solutions I promised myself I would try to consolidate some of what I already knew.

This essay from September 1993 was an early exploration of these spaces in between and the creative approaches that can span them. It was written for my MSc in Social Anthropology at the exact time I was writing Turning the Tide: the history of everyday Deptford (published Nov 1993). This was the academic work with an undercurrent of passion, while TTT was the popular offering which snuck theory in between the stories.

The essay reappeared recently in my mum’s preparations for moving house. I have scanned the whole essay – partly so we can delight in the dot matrix printing – and typed below just the section on ‘community history as the mediator between anthropology and history’. I like this section – it throws me back those two decades to a big desk in an 1810 cottage on the A2 where the computer (an Amstrad 9512 – no web, no email, no mobile, no social media, but a damn good contacts database) was just one of the tools of my work – along with hundreds of books, the old GPO-style phone, glorious amounts of stationery, a fluffy black kitten, a rusty old Datsun, and the meagre but essential funds supplied by six burglaries which, irregularly but frequently, swapped my stuff for insurance cash. Ah, nostalgia for New Cross!!!

* * * * *

A Historian among the Anthropologists: Excavating the Field

Section 5. The place of community history as median of history and anthropology.

Where does local history fit into the anthropology-history continuum? Its subject is the small-scale community and its practitioners must face, even if they cannot answer, the nebulous and elusive character of ‘community’ with its minimum of 94 distinct definitions! They must read the social science literature which proclaims the death of community but unless they can continue to believe in the notion (even if only to the extent that it means something important in the minds of their ‘informants’ ) they will give up the project.

Community studies, historical or otherwise, must also recognise the boundary problems Leach identified in Political Systems of Highland Burma. However, as long as we have no delusions of containment or uniformity we need not be disabled by them. Local history has to take account of mobility, migration and fluid populations, all of whom have a right to be considered as part of the contemporary community, all of whom have a history which belongs to the locality though it originates far away and may end elsewhere. In a modern inner city context there will be questions about housing policies which brought people to the area or decanted them away.

Community history takes not one aspect or sub-theme of historical process but many, in an effort to understand how they have related to each other to produce the present form of the locality. Local history emphasises diachrony, focusing on both change and continuity over time. At appropriate moments of its story, it provides vignettes of specific institutions, events and characters.

The ultimate goal of community or local history depends on whether it is popular or academic. In general popular local history tends to be more impressionistic, to tell more stories and includes more incidental detail. Less explicitly theoretical, it will employ a different kind of language and make no presumption of a common body of specialist knowledge. Its aims will probably include the development of community pride and a historical understanding which can help people to participate in the changes occurring around them in the present. Academic studies of the history of local areas are more often a way to provide a microscopic example or refutation of a broader hypothesis within national or international historical debates. They tend to cover shorter time-spans in more detail and they show their interest in the area with more subtlety.

The overall method of study will be broadly similar to that outlined above for both anthropology and history. With the help of a chronology (which must often be constructed from scratch) and a map, one looks first for the ‘obvious’ features. What are the main topographic features? How have these been utilised? What kinds of people have lived in this area at different times? Why have they come? Why have they left? What has been the relationship with other areas? Intertwined with the growing knowledge this research brings is the emergence of an appropriately localised ‘historical imagination’ with its own consistency in making connections between various aspects of the locality’s past. Comparisons with other places are often crucial to academic local history and also play a role in the popular version. People are very mobile, they have plenty of information about other places and they need to know why their own area is important. The community historian also makes inferences from known facts about national or regional histories in the light of known aspects of the local.

Technically the method of the local historian lies mid-way between that of the field-worker and that of the historian. I would argue that community history can only be properly written after (and possibly during) intensive participant observation. Even if the period under study does not extend into the time of living memory, local history has to include some ‘history on the ground’. Topographical features provide a background continuity on which historical development is overlain.

The technique involves a mixture of direct and indirect experience of the subject, of interviews and archival research. Although there may be only a limited range of documentary source materials, Macfarlane has shown the enormous amount of information such sources (parish registers, wills and deeds, diaries, council minutes) can provide with intensive research. This is a great advantage but, even after 20 years of innovation and improvement in computer technology, Macfarlane’s assertion of the impossibility of fully utilising these sources still holds true. Their biases remain as much of a problem as their enormous potential. It is necessary then to be very selective and critical of documentary sources. Historians are used to this.

It is impossible to interview a ‘representative’ section of any urban community and the results of those interviews which are undertaken must be treated with the same vigour demanded by written sources. Community history has to find the stories which were never written. It seeks out everyday life in the nostalgic and methodologically troublesome memories of the elderly’ the frustration or self-congratulation of the activist; the bureaucratic exculpation of generations of power-holders; the first impressions of newly-arrived refugees; the racist scape-goating of the dispossessed, and a hundred other special perspectives which make up the patterns of community life. Anthropologists are used to this.

Local historians are usually involved in the creation of data. They record interviews, take photographs, draft maps, tabulate census figures. Their work often has an impact on the contemporary development of their subject in a way quite common for anthropologists but very rare with national history. Borofsky describes how he worked with a group of Pukapukan teachers to produce an English-Pukapukan dictionary. During the process, and he describes similar pones for previous anthropologists on Pukapuka, traditions were both invented and revived. Preservation is also a transformation.

In some ways community historians are not like historians or anthropologists. Community historians, especially in the inner city context, are also community workers and not only through popularising history. We find ourselves involved in campaigning to save buildings or modify development plans, fundraising for museums or to produce newspapers or exhibitions which record the present as it slides into the past, running projects with children which emphasise local pride and give them a stake in neighbourhood resources. Collingwood’s view that progress depends on historical thought becomes very clear to the local historian. We cannot help but feel concerned that those who are planning our community’s future have no understanding of its past or about-to-be-bulldozed present.

I will be accused of over-involvement and romanticism. So be it. My towers are made of concrete not ivory and that makes a difference. Living on a four-lane highway which is also the Roman road from Dover to London, one can mimic the ethnographer’s smugness and say one knows the world outside in a ‘concrete’ fashion. After years of historical research there is no desire to ignore the processes by which that world was formed. When the field is also home and the sounds of police sirens permeate the write-up, the distancing tactic is avoided and the dichotomy of Self and Other is resolved.

The full essay is here: A Historian Among the Anthropologists

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Just Me, Thinking | Leave a comment

Pier-to-Pier peer learning

I think we just won a competition on the basis of a good pun. But my co-conspirators say it’s because what we’re doing is really important and worthwhile and brilliant. Could be both?!

I’ve always been a believer in peer learning and that’s been reinforced by my pier experience. Inspiration is oxygen. Short-cuts, tips and warnings can make all the difference. The trust and mutual respect between equals (wherever they are on the journey) is crucial. And most important of all is the sense of solidarity in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust has built up significant experience around how local people can come together to save a pier, in the most challenging of circumstances. Having been consistently involved from the start in 2006, I am often asked to share that experience and the lessons we learned from it with other communities trying to save their piers (as well as other assets in difficult ownership). We have already done some of this with Bognor Regis Pier Trust and South Parade Trust (Portsmouth). In both cases the groups had the chance to ask all the questions that were holding them back from making progress. “Now we know what we’re doing and we’re re-energised. We’re on a road where we can see the path. Hastings took 6 years – we hope to be able to do it faster and perhaps with less heart-ache, by learning from them directly”.

Over the past several years we have also gone on our own Seaside Tours, meeting with community groups and local authorities in relation to piers and other seaside assets in Southend, Southwold, Great Yarmouth, Cromer, Scarborough, Blackpool, St Anne’s, Stockport, Weston-Super-Mare. This led to an extensive knowledge base and understanding of the variety of opportunities and pitfalls for the rescue and redevelopment of these precious assets.

Now we hope to formalise the process by establishing the People’s Piers as a UK-wide sharing network between communities seeking to take ownership/management of their piers. The People’s Piers (PP) will be a simple membership network with a member-only webspace including:

  • Updates, presentations and stories from member groups
  • Listing of all 55 surviving piers in the UK and their current ownership and condition (along with warning fables about the 8 lost piers)
  • Forum for discussion, questions and sharing experience
  • Specialist contact listing, with descriptions of work undertaken and ratings provided by PP members who have used them
  • Space for professionals to showcase their work
  • Knowledge bank – copies of HLF and other funding bids, engineering surveys, consultancy briefs, etc

We will also have a small fund to support exchange visits between pier groups, leading to short reports published on the website

The People’s Piers UK is being established and managed with support from Jericho Road Solutions.

The competition we entered was managed by Locality in partnership with IVAR and Third Sector Magazine as part of their research for Big Lottery Fund into Peer Learning. They asked about challenges:

The main challenge is having enough time to be able to provide the support. Plus a lack of even small resources to fund the costs of travel and accommodation for exchange visits. There is a sense that we shouldn’t just “give it all away” but should make a proper peer-to-peer (pier-to-pier) space in which we can provide mutual support and strengthening. It is particularly difficult to know what the legal and moral ‘rules’ should be around handing over work done commercially for one group that may be useful for another. That’s why we want to ensure that the expert professionals are fully engaged with the People’s Piers and willing to share existing materials.

… and about key lessons

Taking on a pier, especially one in need of renovation (which they all are!) and in difficult ownership (which many of them are), is a major challenge. There are lots of groups who want to do something about their local pier but don’t know where to start. Those that start anyway have a long route to travel and are helped enormously by being able to share the lessons from the pioneering experience at Hastings. Beyond that general exchange of experience are a series of more specific questions which they need to explore, how to deal with irresponsible ownership; how to campaign to get the local authority to take action towards compulsory purchase; how to get costings for the necessary repairs; how to prepare a business plan for a major leisure attraction.

In 2011 I gave a talk about our Hastings experience in Tottenham (the day the riots started!) and later this month I’m going to a heritage conference in Derry/Londonderry to talk about it – just shows that pier learning is transferable to many other situations that communities find themselves in, that what matters is the sharing, the example of making the impossible possible, and then making it happen through dogged persistence however the odds are stacked.

Posted in Hastings Pier, Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Seaside | Leave a comment

Manchester Greater

I just had the second launch of Jericho Road Solutions – this time in Manchester. Another basement of another pub, this time very informal and no high-heeled speeches on wobbly tables. But with great people – community organisers from cohort 1 graduates to cohort 6 trainees, local activists from London Road Fire Station and Save Ancoats Dispensary, and the fabulous Tony Wright who doesn’t know it yet but is going to be a Guest at one of the first Social Salons!

Of all the cities in England, Manchester is the place that seems to me to have enormous potential – people really love it, they are proud and energetic and full of ideas, and the place is bursting with buildings needing care and attention and new uses. But that huge resource is currently locked down, feeling that the council doesn’t have to listen to them so it won’t and that anything they offer will be taken as a criticism. It doesn’t have to be like that, and having elected members willing to stand up for the city’s hidden resources would be a fantastic asset – I’m hoping to have lunch with one tomorrow.

I am very serious about wanting to help, not only to rescue some important buildings that local communities care about but also to change the dominant narrative about the ways local authorities are seen by, and the ways they behave towards, groups of local people who want to do things differently. There is no doubt that councils need people with them, for them, behind them, in the massive changes they face. The old paternalism is unaffordable; the worst case is that you could get left with a massive sense of entitlement in the voting population and absolutely nothing to offer it. The best case is if people recognise that the state’s weakness is their opportunity at last to say “we can do it; you can help”.

We had a fascinating and rewarding session today with community organisers from all over Greater Manchester – a collaboration between CoCo (the legacy body for the Community Organisers programme) and Church Action on Poverty (who have recently established the Powered by People UK network). They all shared what they are hearing on the streets – in the city centre, Ardwick, Gorton, Hulme, Moss Side, Levenshulme, Tameside, Rochdale, Stockport, Salford. They shared approaches to help local people tackle massive issues, and they decided to get together every 6-8 weeks to support each other. I was just delighted to be able to offer the Biscuit Fund – they organise it all, CAP provide the meeting space, we pay for the food. This feels like a metaphor for my regen approach – trust people; invest in relationships; reward the three great grassroots virtues of thrift, impatience and sociability; and never, ever, ever think that you know best…

Posted in Community Organisers, Jericho Road Solutions, Self-renovating neighbourhoods | Leave a comment