PowerlessnessWandsworth saw what happens when chaos is unleashed – the trashing of Clapham Junction in the August riots. The more I discuss the riots with others the clearer it becomes that leaving aside the stupidity, the destruction, the criminality, the riots provided an opportunity to the powerless to exercise power and to create fear among the more privileged. The social divisions that have been accentuated by Wandsworth Tory polices since 1978 were sharply seen when the next day the cleaning army poured out of the better off areas.
The sense of powerlessness, and the anger than goes with it, is going to be intensified as the deep cuts and the New ‘grind the’ Poor Law required by the ConDem Government betrays more people in the ‘socially deprived’ areas, and creates more such areas. The Big Society initiative is a fig-leaf talking much of the right language but meaningless in terms of the alleged handing back of power back to local communities. The ConDem planning proposals will allow developers to ride rough shod over the wishes of local people. Its reduction in the number of MPs, and the resultant creation of cross local authority constituencies, will make it more and more difficult for local MPs to champion the causes of the people in the large number of neighbourhoods as they try to keep up-to-date with the policies of 2 or even 3 local authorities. Its draconian cuts are damaging hundreds of community and voluntary groups at local level and those operating regionally and nationally. Yet the demand for their support and services is growing because of the economic crisis created by the bankers and the Government’s New Poor Law. Groups are in danger of cocooning themselves in their silos because they do not have the time and people/financial resources to engage in the important task of networking and developing partnerships, with each other and with the struggling public services.
Labour’s Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy
Networking and partnership were seen to be very important in the Labour Government’s Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy. It required the newly formed Local Strategic Partnership co-ordinating bodies for public services to have as members Community Empowerment Networks. These were the vehicles created to enable the community and voluntary groups to link together and have an equal voice around the Partnership table.The theory was fine, and in my capacity as Policy Development Officer at the British Association of Settlements & Social Action Centres, I spent a lot of time advocating that members engage in the Networks and LSPs, and with representatives of other community development organisations helped the Local Government Association to develop guidance for local authorities on effective engagement of the community and voluntary sectors. The Government recognised that it had to fund the Networks directly if they were not to be controlled by the local authorities.
The implementation proved much more difficult, but CENs were established in all those local authority areas which were given neighbourhood renewal status. I advised bassac members on practical aspects of engagement, and after I became redundant was contracted by bassac to support the development of the Pentagon Partnership of the 5 Tyne & Wear CENS to engage with the local economic development partnership created by the now former North East Regional Development Agency.Helping WCEN to Start
Despite not being in the highest priority of ‘social deprivation’ Tory Wandsworth had been declared a Neighbourhood Renewal Area so that the Government could not be accused of only designating Labour authorities. The formation of the CEN stalled and the Government Office for London insisted that it engage someone to help kick-start it. I was contracted to do that and set up a small office, helped the Board to become a working unit, set up preliminary systems, supported the CEN representatives at the LSP table, set up information sharing mechanisms, organised events and the recruitment of the first full-time lead worker. Crucially I negotiated the safeguarding of unspent money to add to the next year’s financial budget so that the CEN had a large sum of money. The Board agreed not to build up a large staff because the funding would drop back down substantially the following year. Instead it adopted a strategy of funding groups to do pieces of work such as community and user consultations and to begin to support the development of neighbourhood networks.Independence
Wandsworth CEN was different from the others. The Borough had no Council of Voluntary Action to be the host organisation. So the CEN became a registered company. Along with the will not to be driven out of existence by an unfriendly Council, especially after the Labour Government betrayed CENs by ending direct funding and giving it to local authorities. Within a year many CENs around the country had disappeared, some allegedly because they were ‘not fit for purpose’ judgements made by local authorities which continually show they are ‘not fit for purpose’. Many Councils of Voluntary Action colluded with the slaughter as they had seen the CENs as rivals to building their fiefdoms.So it was really nice to have been invited to attend the AGM and 10th Anniversary of Wandsworth CEN on 22 November. It has survived by developing partnerships with other public sector agencies like the Health Service which has seen its value. The attendance was way above my expectations showing its success in engaging a diverse range of local organisations. After the formal AGM a short DVD about its work was shown. Lord Maurice Glasman reflected on the value of networking and reciprocity within the community and voluntary sector and with the public sector agencies.
St. Mary’s Primary Reading SupportI had the opportunity to make some comments in the discussion. I held up the front page of that day’s Evening Standard boasting about the £100,000 donation from the Ukrainian billionaire Kostyantin Zhevago to St Mary’s School in Battersea for reading assistance, a gesture of support for the newspaper’s reading campaign. I indicated that this was an absolute disgrace and a reminder of the ‘social deprivation/betrayal’ of some neighbourhoods in the Borough. I explained my role in the CEN and the importance of the budget decision, and referred to the funding betrayal by Labour. I suggested that the community and voluntary sector had been practicing the Big Society for centuries, and had been not the Third but the First Sector because of the failures of the State and private enterprise to meet needs.
The Importance of Knowing The HistoryI did not have time to develop the importance of understanding and preserving knowledge of the history of the Wandsworth community and voluntary sector other than to mention that the former Council of Social Service had been shut down by the Tory Council in 1968-71 and that the Wandsworth Association of Community & Voluntary Organisations was also undermined in the 1990s. Malik Gul, the current Director of WCEN, picked up the historical theme in his closing remarks and there is scope for developing work on preserving archives and telling the stories.
An important part of that history includes the ideas around neighbourhood and service delivery that led in 1973/4 to Wandsworth Housing Aid Society and Wandsworth Poverty Action Group presenting ideas to the Council for cross-department neighbourhood decentralisation. These were rejected by an otherwise progressive Labour Council as ‘too revolutionary’, but at least helped ensure that there was engagement of residents associations on Housing Action Area Steering Groups, and the creation of Department local area offices bringing access to services closer to more people. Following the decentralisation experiment in Walsall, Wandsworth Labour picked up the ideas in the 1980s, but it could not get elected again to majority control of the Council.
So congratulations to all the activists in WCEN for surviving for ten years.Its Annual report 2011 with its 10 year review can be seen on www.wcen.info.
Note:The Evening Standard reportage on 22 November on St. Mary’s can be seen on:
www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/get-london-reading/article-24012735-billionaire-backs-our-battle-to-save-school.doThere have been updates since including profiles of the mentors: