Generally I love an underdog. Schooled in Deptford with Millwall’s slogan “no one likes us we don’t care”, I live in Hastings where official research shows that once you get here you love it but those who don’t visit think it’s a dump, and my favourite town of all is Blackpool (nuff said).
But I have a very special soft spot for Yorkshire. The first time I saw York its combination of grey stone and sunshine won me over and I lived there for three happy years. I returned to the region a decade later to live in Kirkbymoorside, unassuming gateway to the North York Moors, where the townsfolk were offered the Memorial Hall in 1919 and said ‘yes, but only if you give us the rights to the market’ – a sustainable asset transfer if ever there was one. Scarborough is the enterprising seaside queen of hearts. Leeds has never, for me, been the ‘dirty old town’ my late boss Jon Ladd mocked it as. Bradford is home to my uncle William, my partner in innovation Hugh Rolo, and the best of all meanwhile projects that turned a massive, abandoned hole in the ground into an urban garden. Walk out of Sheffield railway station to see one of Europe’s premier water features. Barnsley is where my best mate came from and made us all laugh with its Tuscan ambitions. Doncaster has five development trusts, Hull has one of the biggest and most ambitious. Calderdale has an iconic asset transfer in Hebden Bridge, and I’ve just heard that Huddersfield has a Bacon and an overwhelming number of museums of miscellany… The place is littered with things I care about. So it was lovely to spend three days there this week and I want to pay homage.
I went first to Halifax where Barbara Harbinson, CEO of Halifax Opportunities Trust, Locality board member and chair of the Community Organisers programme board, had convened a meeting of councillors, officers and voluntary sector from Calderdale and beyond. Although the room felt daunting and the filming even more so, it was a format that worked. I presented the outline of the Community Organisers programme, then joined Cllr Janet Battye, leader of Calderdale Council, on the stage for a discussion. It felt to me like the ‘audience’ was completely engaged, asking questions, making helpful suggestions, thinking about how it could work in their neighbourhoods. It was good to talk afterwards with Shaid Mahmood whose boss Tom Riordan, CEO of Leeds and a great ally of the development trust movement, is taking direct control of all local work. Shaid could see how grassroots organising could be transformative, especially in those places that are most challenging for traditional regeneration approaches.
It was very moving to see Hugh and Katie that evening, perhaps the last time I will stay in that beautiful, comfortable family house, now sold for somewhere smaller but where Katie’s wheelchair will still make it through the doorways. Their hospitality set me up for what I imagined was going to be a hard time – appearing at the Involve (Yorkshire & Humber voluntary sector forum) conference. The ‘purist’ community development world has decided it likes to take a pop at Locality’s lead for the Community Organiser programme. I’m not exactly #Murdoch but accessible hate-figures are few and far between and some parts of the sector are never happier than when hitting out at ‘traitors’ in their ranks. The conference organisers had sent out an inflammatory email to lure people there and I came expecting pitchforks. Of course, what I found was the usual Yorkshire folk – almost every one of them sensible, imaginative, humorous and friendly. Again, they asked questions, expressed concerns, made suggestions and generally restored my faith.
But if there is one person in the whole of Yorkshire that sums it up for me, it’s the diminutive but awe-inspiring Nic Greenan. She has taken an abandoned building on an 18,000 household estate in Seacroft and turned it into a digital lounge. If there was ever an example of the power of computers it is in that room where not a single one of them was actually turned on! We were catching up with how Nic had used a small Meanwhile Project grant to transform the place when a small girl knocked on the door in tears. Between her sobs it emerged that some boys had shot her with a BB gun, glancing her eye, not doing any major damage but very scary even for a tough little girl. Nic gave her a cuddle (almost certainly not allowed), set her up on one of the computers and called her mum who turned up in minutes, asked who had done it and said “ok, let’s go and see his mum”. Off they went and the moment of everyday drama was over. We went back to working out exactly how many thousand pounds a combination of thrift and community support had saved for the project.
I stayed over with Pete McGurn, CEO of Goodwin Development Trust, and Merran McRae, Director for Adults & Communities at Kirklees. More superb hospitality, far too much wine…
First thing in the morning, a catch-up with Leeds Community Organising who are working with many partners in the city to develop a collaborative approach to hosting Community Organisers. Then the highlight of my trip, the first network meeting for Locality’s Yorkshire & Humber members, hosted by Headingley Development Trust and admirably led by our Yorkshire-based staff Paul Bridges, Sophie Michelena and Neil Berry who now has a national role as our Head of Enterprise. Both DTA and bassac had strong networks in Yorkshire – the pride of the movement and pioneers of peer support. In the afternoon I gave the same old presentation about the Community Organisers programme. I had been pleased before but this time the response was pitch-perfect – full-on challenge, the sharpest questions, the best ideas for sustainability, and all done with a strong sense of solidarity, an open-to-anything attitude, and the make-it-work energy that characterises Locality members everywhere.
I got home very late that night (#toofar) and had to go up to #thatlondon next day. Now I’m back with the seagulls I remember why I love this place too. But thank you, Yorkshire, for making a hard 3 days into an inspiration.