Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Struggle for Community Empowerment

Congratulations to all the activists in Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network (CEN) for surviving for ten years. CENs are about linking the voluntary and community organisations in a local authority area to have an organised voice on policy and strategy with their local authority and other public sector organisations. They were set up as part of the Labour Government’s Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy. They help ensure that groups link with each other, work together, share information and ideas and work to influence their local authority and other public sector agencies. They prevent groups slipping back into their silos of disengagement, and assist groups emerge from their silos. They are an important part of the glue that the community and voluntary sector and its mutual predecessors have always provided holding groups of place and interest together - without which society fragments into chaos.

Wandsworth 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.

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 Support
I 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 History
I 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.

The Evening Standard reportage on 22 November on St. Mary’s can be seen on:
There have been updates since including profiles of the mentors:

1 comment:

  1. Muslim Academies
    Academies bill will enable a radical overhaul of England's schools, giving every school the chance to convert to an academy and giving parents the right to create free schools outside the control of LAs.The new schools will drive up standards and the education would be in accordance with the needs and demands of the parents. It will help native Brits, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities to set up their own schools for the education of their children. It is nothing to do with integration or segregation. Segregation already exists in British schoolings, it is not going to widen. President Obama supports free schools in America because they have benefitted the least well off the most. Educating children is the priority.

    It is wrong to assert that a small unrepresentative group of Muslim activists tried to islamises a state primary school in Woking. The silent majority of Muslim parents would like to send their children to state funded Muslim schools. They are not extremists who want to change of ethos of those schools where Muslim children are in majority. It is the democratic right of every Muslim parent to see that their children receive balanced education, so that when their children grow up, they do not find themselves cut off from their cultural roots and linguistic skills. It is a question of common sense, humanity and reason that bilingual Muslim children must be educated in state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. The whole world believes that people who speak more than one language is a vital economic asset. Pupils who speak more than one language do not cause difficulties. It is the politicians and monolingual teachers who are the problems for bilingual pupils. Muslim school will help to cultivate the child into a healthy, fully flourishing individual with a passion for learning. There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be opted out as Muslim Academies.

    Muslim schools are not only faith schools; they are more or less bilingual schools. Bilingual Muslim children need to learn and be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. State schools with monolingual teachers do not teach Standard English to Migrant children. Bilingual Muslim children learn English in the playgrounds and in the streets. They speak street language with its own grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. The teachers let them speak the same accent in the classroom. They have no courage to stop them or correct them. This is one of the main reasons why one third of children have difficulties with reading when they leave primary schools. Majority of such children are Muslims. In other European countries and in the sub-continent argot and slang are not allowed into the classroom. In Britain primary school teachers do not feel that it’s their role to interfere with self-expression in any shape or form. They encourage children to read poems and stories written in ethnic dialects.

    Muslim faith schools are more or less bilingual schools. Priority will be given to the teaching of Standard English, Arabic, Urdu and other community languages. All Muslim children will learn and be well versed in Standard English and Quranic Arabic and at the same time they will learn and be well versed in one of the community language to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. Majority of children will learn Urdu language because it is a lingua franca of the migrants from the sub-continent. And majority of British Muslims are from Pakistan and their national language is Urdu.
    Iftikhar Ahmad