Communities and Housing//
Building the good society from the bottom up
As colourfully painted barges chug past the new Olympic Media Centre and day trippers wave from the boats, I find myself standing with a youngish woman in a slightly ramshackle – but nonetheless luscious – communal garden on the banks of the canal.
And things are getting radical.
I’m visiting Lea Bank Square Community Garden, on the edge of the Olympic Park, and a plan is being discussed to form a new Civic Parish for the neighbourhood that would bring democracy closer to home.
Originally a forlorn strip of derelict land along the Great Hertford Canal, the community garden we’re standing in began twelve years ago, when a fed-up rates-payer cut the locks on the gate and squatted it for the residents. As an act of public repossession, this sums up the ethos of active citizenship that feels so tangible amongst the inhabitants of the square.
Perhaps at the time they wouldn’t have imagined their pet project would turn into such a popular, local institution. But with its ‘do it anyway’ attitude and ‘dig for the neighbourhood’ ethos, it has become totemic of the emerging pop-up politics that’s gripped London ever since the financial crash, and regularly draws in visitors from the surrounding estates.
‘This is a community space that people created themselves,’ Keira James Shackleton, 30, tells me. ‘It’s a place to relax, somewhere where we can support the local wildlife. I know its a cliché, but isn’t this just a perfect example of the Big Society?’
As a result of the hard-nosed intervention of their Community Association, they’ve now also got a grant from the Olympic Delivery Authority to re-develop the plot and to upgrade the hitherto neglected communal gardens at the entrance to the estate.
There’s also a suggestion to draft in London Citizens for advice on community organising, and vague talk of forming a Tenant Management Organisation is floating around on the breeze.
‘Full self-management would make a big difference to everybody here,’ says a young, single mother I spoke to, as she kept an eye on her daughter playing on the communal green.
‘If everything was done in-house by the residents, that would give everyone the chance to have a fair say,’ she emphasises.
This desire for more autonomy seems clearly borne out of the sense that, as tenants, the residents have little say in how their affairs are managed.
‘Across the canal used to be the playing fields for the local children,’ says Keira, who works as an artist nearby.
‘It used to be just open green space. It was lovely. We’ve lost all that now. We’ve just got the ugly media centre instead.’ she says, referring to the Olympic development opposite.
Likewise, Dawn, 27, who lives in a ground-floor flat backing onto the canal, isn’t pleased about the cameras that have recently been installed across the water from her.
‘The CCTV over there? I’m not really too happy with it to be honest,’ she says, referring to the Olympic ring of steel, smiling but looking slightly annoyed.
‘You know – it’s quite intrusive. It’s right outside my bedroom window. I don’t remember anyone consulting with us about where they were putting the cameras. You know – they just went ahead and did it.’
As I talk to people I begin to understand where they’re coming from. It’s clear that the feeling of disenfranchisement that abounds around the square comes from a dislike of being micro-managed from above.
In contrast, just up the road from Lea Bank Square is the Nye Bevan and Clapton Park Estate – a totally self-managed community since 2003, adorned with homely looking signs, which proudly announce, ‘run by residents for residents’.
It is a beacon of hope in an otherwise atomised part of the capital. The striking landscaping that has helped re-define the estate, not to mention the drop in crime rates there, all started from modest beginnings. I start to consider how in a way this echoes the experiments taking place at Lea Bank Square too.
The Tenant Board in Clapton can also be proud of the fact that they are among the most effective institutions in Britain. Even when compared to three quarters of local authorities, they’re statistically better at delivering services.
‘We used to be terrified here. It was all guns and drug-dealing,’ says Margaret, a retired carer and local resident.
‘The Council couldn’t have cared less really. But under tenant control, things have really improved.’
This is a sentiment echoed by John Little, one of the estate gardeners.
‘This is probably the most democratic estate in the Borough,’ he tells me proudly, as we chat in the sweet shop on the shopping arcade.
‘The tenants just stopped Hackney Housing from making this a gated development,’ he proclaims jubilantly, but he also feels the Labour Borough Council isn’t as supportive of local democracy as it could be.
‘The Council doesn’t like Tenant Managed Organisations (TMOs). They’re always trying to get rid of them. It’s because they take power away from the centre. That’s a shame really, because ultimately we should all be pulling in the same direction.’
Many of the residents I spoke to here also support the creation of a new neighbourhood council for their area, with tax-raising powers.
On reflection, there seems to be broad agreement on both estates I visited on the need to relocate decision-making to more immediate units. But it’s important to stress that the problems still blighting some of London’s neighbourhoods are more serious than just poverty of representation alone.
Neighbourhood councils need to have muscle and method in order to be proper assets to communities, especially those with high rates of poverty and overcrowding.
In the more expensive parts of town, the damaging effects of gentrification and ghettoisation are verging on the chronic. Community hubs are being lost at an alarming rate too: fourteen pubs are closing a day, post offices are disappearing rapidly and youth clubs and other vital community services are all under duress.
Having any real impact on the social fabric may seem out of the remit of a parish council. But by becoming institutionalised proponents of community organising schemes, the new parishes could define a more radical role for themselves without overstepping their statutory powers.
Listening more closely to local concerns is clearly one advantage to having a neighbourhood council, but as the first tier of local government they could also play an influential role in spreading schemes like the London Living Wage and agitating for radical change.
If neighbourhood councils also made it part of their constitution to promote Community Land Trusts, they could do something positive to prevent families being uprooted from the areas they’ve lived in for generations, so that a rich mix of people from different backgrounds are able to live together.
In theory there would also be nothing to stop grass-roots councils from campaigning for the formation of local trade associations, something artists in Hackney Wick, who are campaigning for the creation of a modern artists’ guild, would definitely support.
Back at Lea Bank Square, we start to chat about the proposal for grass-roots democracy in the area. Not surprisingly, Hazel, 34, endorses the plan.
‘It’s definitely a great idea,’ she enthuses, animatedly.
‘Sometimes it seems when you’re a small community, that no-one’s ever going to listen to you. To be honest, it would be good for us to just be heard.’
And that’s the most important part. People are desperate for their voices to be heard, and they feel that the existing structures just don’t work for them any more.
Testimonials like Hazel’s really bring it home. As Alinsky says, ‘Participation is the heartbeat of the democratic way of life.’ Radical parishes really could herald the start of a common good politics in Britain, a democratic politics that’s established from the grass-roots up.
That’s why when it come to the government’s Localism Bill, Labour should steal a march on the Coalition.
The transfer of power back to the community should become a key part of how the Labour party articulates its intention to deliver fairness in tough times.
In order to achieve this goal, Labour needs to recognise that, as partners, modern civic institutions like TMOs, community organising groups and the modern guilds are as valuable to the present day Labour movement as the unions were one hundred years ago.
Leaving the square, I take a last look back at the flurry of activity on the bank side.
As the community reasserts itself amongst the vegetation, the good society seems to be literally sprouting out of the ground.
And with all the discussion I’ve heard of reinventing democracy here, and longing for civic reformation, I’m convinced it’s time Blue Labour hit the streets and seeded itself inside the parish.
As the gardeners of Lea Bank and Clapton Park have demonstrated, it’s time to get back to basics and let the radical tradition take root.
Bryn Phillips is a community organiser in London and a supporter of Blue Labour. For the original article see: http://shiftinggrounds.org/2012/04/building-the-good-society-from-the-bottom-up/