Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Some reflections on community action, Councils and history

We are all players in making history. Some of us bring a historical perspective to trying to understand our experiences.

·        History is about the economic, political and social processes,
·        Community action is an important part of those processes.
·        Ignorance of the local past can lead to making repeated mistakes.

Why community action takes place

  • ·        To campaign against developments proposed by the local authority, other public bodies, private businesses, developers and property owners.
  • ·        To campaign for the provision of new services, to protect existing services and to gain improved service delivery.
  • ·        To provide services and activities to meet the needs of particular groups who are not adequately provided for by others.
  • ·        To collectively work together for a common non-profit purpose.

Community and Organisation

The concept of ‘community’ is fraught with problems of definitions.

Organisationally community action  takes many forms, including local community and voluntary groups, branches of national organisations, and single issue campaigns.

It has a long, long history, including trade unions, co-operatives, building, friendly, insurance and loan societies, as discussed in my review of Lambeth mutual and social action.   

Why did some forms of community action come into being?

Some examples from Lambeth:
  • ·        Coin St organisations  to fight development proposals and then to development land donated for £1 by GLC
  • ·        Friends of the Parks and Open Spaces: to defend and improve these facilities
  • ·        Kennington Association: to fight roadway proposals
  • ·        Friends of Durning Library: to oppose closure
  • ·        West Norwood Fest – to help revive the high street economy

What do community activists want their local Council to do?

  • ·       To provide efficient and responsive services.
  • ·        To reject planning applications they do not like and which do not meet local needs or erode the quality of the local environment.
  • ·        Retain valued local services (private or public) and preserve elements of the built environment.
  • ·        To listen to what local people say, to work with them, and not ignore them and impose their top down solutions.

Councils as mediators

Councils however have to mediate between conflicting interests. For example in relation to planning:

  • ·        they can only reject applications on planning grounds.
  • ·        their powers have been weakened. e.g. the Conservatives rule that offices can be converted to residential without the need for planning permission
  • ·        they face big risks if a planning refusal is rejected at appeal
  • ·        they are loathe to loss the money developers have to pay for infrastructure

Disempowered Councillors

It is not easy being a Councillor; bad enough if you are in the party that is meant to be in control; even more difficult if you are in Opposition. The Executive Leader and Cabinet system does not help because it freezes out most Councillors from actual decision making, and marginalises those who have concerns about the policies being approved by the leadership.

Since 2010 local Councils have had a high percentage of their Government funding withdrawn so they can do less and less.

Questions that need asking about any Council include:

  • ·        How has it coped with opportunities and constraints?
  • ·        Has it run efficient services?
  • ·        Has it ensured that its policies and procedures have minimised the difficulties of accessing the use of its services?
  • ·        How has it sought to moderate the worst possible effects of  reductions in budgets?
  • ·        How effectively has it planned the continual changes in the nature of the local economy, the high turnover of population, the changes in Government policies, and the demands of local people and their organisations?
  • ·        Is it fit for purpose?

The answers to these questions will depend on the experience each individual or family, groups of residents, community and voluntary groups have had in their dealings with the Council. 

Positive and negative aspects of community action interaction with Councils

In terms of community action the relationship with Councils has included:
  • ·        co-operation in taking part in consultations and seeking to positively influence Council policy and procedures.
  • ·        funding of groups by Councils and via Councils from funds under the various urban and regeneration programmes over the years, such as Urban Aid, Inner City Challenge, and Single Regeneration Budget.
  • ·        opposition through petitions, demonstrations, campaigns and direct action.
  • ·        distrust on both sides around issues of Councillors as democratically elected representatives versus community activists who are self-appointed or spokespersons  for small groups, the apparent arrogance and hostility of some Councillors, the inability of Councillors and officers to understand why so many groups exist.
  • unnrtainty as to how to respond when controlling Councillors are themselves at logger-heads e.g. over  rate-capping and the poll-tax.

  • ·        fragility of community and voluntary groups in terms of member involvement, governance, funding.
  • ·        Disagreements between different community groups.

The uniqueness of each local authority

Each local authority area has its own set of dynamics as to how it responds to the challenges and opportunities. Lambeth, for example, is unique. Despite all its problems, the riots, its bad national image and its past conflicts with Government, it has been Labour for most of the period since 1971, and the Conservative Party rarely a significant force. Go over the border to Wandsworth where a different approach by Labour between 1971-78  avoided the conflicts in Lambeth but the Conservatives have been in control since 1978, continually reshaping the Borough so that its demographic profile has fundamentally changed and developers have been allowed what seems to be a free hand to redevelopment the riverside area, helping to drive up housing costs and driving lower income households out of the Borough. Croydon has seen control switch from Labour to Tory and back to Labour this century, growing inequality, a collapse of the local economy, and with private developers ruling the roost in the Town Centre.

The role of historians

It is important to stress that local historians of the modern period should analyse the economic and political processes that have been underway. Community and voluntary organisations and one-off campaigns should ensure they preserve their archives and deposit them. If they do not we lose important material needed to understand how Boroughs like Croydon, Lambeth and Wandsworth have evolved.

Note. This is an edited  and update of some of my talk ‘Reflections on community action in Lambeth’ at Lambeth Archives Day in September 2012.

Related discussion of these issues by me includes:

·        Community & Voluntary Organisations and Local Democracy (December 2012)

·        Building a stronger community in Croydon (December 2012)

·        Croydon and The Role of Community and Voluntary Sector Organisations (December 2012)

·        In defence of the busy body - a reply (July 2013)

·        How can we build a stronger community in Croydon? (July 2014)

·        Croydon’s residents’ associations: power to the people, or routinely ignored? (November 2014)

·        What are the challenges facing Croydon’s communities?  (August 2015)

·        Whose voice will be heard at the Develop Croydon forum?

·        Corporate state consensus in Croydon (March 2016)

·        Will Labour listen in planning on Croydon’s planning  (June 2017)

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