“Community organising taught me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, when they’re given a chance and brought together.”
Barack Obama, 11th September 2008
In May 2016, I was honoured to be elected Mayor of Glastonbury by my peers, and – as both a Town Councillor and Community Organiser – I wanted to explore how to use my time as Mayor to integrate community organising methods into the role of the Mayoralty.
Central to the community organising approach is the fostering of strong participatory democracy through grass-roots ‘active listening’ combined with political engagement – “the organising that means the people must be heard.” It’s an approach that takes time and involves meeting people; it provides the opportunity for those most affected by a decision to have their say. It’s about working with the community to identify issues or concerns, and then organising together to create positive, community-led actions and solutions.
As councillors, we play a vital part in representing the interests of the communities we serve; improving the quality of life and the local environment. However, as the National Association of Local Councils highlights, it is the job of a council “to represent the whole electorate, and not just those who voted for you”… As councillors, we have a responsibility to be well-informed, especially about diverse local views. We cannot assume that we represent the interests of all our electors without consulting them. In this respect, community organising is an imperative!
– – –
As Mayor, I found many opportunities to put community organising into practice – from commencing the process of Glastonbury’s Neighbourhood Plan, to listening to people’s views on the development of St. Dunstan’s House (newly purchased by the Town Council), to working with the Nationwide Building Society to engage and consult with Glastonbury’s community about the potential of a new branch opening in the town.
As a tool for local councillors, community organising has great potential along side the ‘general power of competence’, which enables local councils “to do anything that an individual might do”; to respond more effectively to the communities’ needs – encouraging innovation and assisting in shared service delivery. This is something that I hope the following example will illustrate.
– – –
In October 2016, I met with Sue Mountstevens, the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), at Glastonbury Town Hall. The background to our meeting was a strong desire within our community to address the increasing anti-social behaviour that Glastonbury was suffering – intimidation, drunkenness, racial and verbal abuse, and open drug dealing. Many residents had raised the issue of anti-social behaviour with me over the Summer months; it was a situation that came to a head with the serious assault near St. John’s Church in September…
In preparation for the meeting, I had several conversations with the local Police Beat Team; and the Deputy Mayor and I met with local Sergeant Matt Slade and Inspector Mark Nicholson… I also talked with an Area Commander, and – from Constable to Commander – I received the same response to my questioning:
The force seriously lacks resource; six years of cuts to the Police budget mean a loss of apparently 600-700 officers to the Avon and Somerset Constabulary…
Listening to people – and using the local press and social media – I asked Glastonbury’s community for their thoughts on what should be raised with the PCC; their concerns; their issues; their ideas. I received lots of feedback, and I took a long list of the issues raised to the meeting.
In the week before I met with Sue Mountstevens, I also helped to arrange – and took part in – a ‘multi agency’ meeting about crime in the town, with representatives from the police, town and district council, a number of support services, the PACT team, and the Church. This was very productive, and also gave me further points to raise.
Sue Mountstevens came to the Town Hall with her Staff Officer, Detective Sergeant Ashley Jones, and met with me and the Deputy Town Clerk, Gerard Tucker.
Not surprisingly, the first issue we discussed was anti-social behaviour; the main concern for so many in the town. I asked the PCC why there was a lack of a visible police presence in Glastonbury; why there was not a beat officer patrolling, on foot, up and down the streets in the centre of our town? Many people had fed-back that they felt the lack of police presence contributed to the rise of anti-social behaviour over the Summer.
We discussed the ‘multi-agency’ approach; particularly the work of the ‘One Team’ in dealing with troubled families and individuals. The PCC was pleased to hear about the meeting of the multi-agency group in Glastonbury the week before. One of the points raised at the Glastonbury multi-agency meeting was the proven effectiveness of ‘Street Pastors’ in dealing with street drinkers, addicts, and anti-social behaviour in Bristol. Sue Mountstevens told us about possible funding available to support Street Pastors team in our town.
Another issue that many people were concerned about was the increase in drug dealing in the town – particularly of the most harmful and addictive Class A drugs, like heroin and cocaine. This was something that the Police were fully aware of, however, as the PCC reiterated, without residents reporting incidents, there is a disconnect between police intelligence and local knowledge.
We discussed the fact that many people who had got in touch with me about witnessing crimes – such a drug dealing – were scared to report these incidents to the Police for fear of reprisal. Sue Mountstevens understood people’s reticence, and reminded me about Crimestoppers – the national confidential reporting charity (independent to the police) to which the public can make truly anonymous reports about any criminal activity of any kind. This seemed like a very useful option, and one that I promoted widely after the meeting.
We discussed issues around health and wellbeing, and the impact on policing from cuts in the support services for people with mental ill health, for the homeless, for vulnerable people, for addicts.
I mentioned the recent closure of Turning Point’s centre at the Old Library; the County Council’s cutbacks to the drug and alcohol service – this was an area that Sue Mountstevens was obviously passionate about, and she was not impressed by Somerset County Council’s performance. She said that as a result of the increased impact of mental ill health on the police service, she had placed professional mental health workers into the police call centres.
Responding to the issues and concerns raised, Sue Mountstevens was very candid about the impact of the austerity funding cuts imposed by central government on the Police service as a whole, and that Avon and Somerset had been intentionally ‘dampened’ – provided with less resources than other constabularies, resulting in £14 million ‘missing’ from the budget; which means 350 fewer officers, PCSOs and staff than the average! Apparently, the PCC doesn’t have the power to set the amount of funding, and couldn’t explain why Avon and Somerset has seen a disproportionately low amount of funding!
In concluding our meeting, we discussed a number of options which might help the situation in Glastonbury.
1) the deployment of officers for a ‘permanent’ day-time police presence in the High Street;
2) developing a Street Pastor team, to work as part of a multi-agency approach to addressing the anti-social behaviour;
3) encouraging people who are concerned about reporting crimes and incidents, for fear of reprisal, to use Crimestoppers;
4) Special Constables – residents who have had enough, and would like to make a difference, could apply to join the Special Constabulary… At that time, there were vacancies for over 300 Specials in Avon and Somerset! I asked the PCC to contact the Special Constabulary Coordinator in respect to recruiting for Special Officers in the Glastonbury area, and as a result, a closer collaboration with the Town Council and Special Constabulary was established;
5) Finally, there was the potential for Glastonbury Town Council to fund an additional Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) for the town through the Parish Precept (the amount of the Council Tax that goes to Town and Parish Councils).
– – –
Following the meeting, with the ‘general power of competence’ in mind, I took back the idea of a ‘Precept’ funded Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) to the town; encouraging residents to comment on the idea – through the local press and via social media. Feedback as largely positive, but with the specific condition that a PCSO paid for by Glastonbury would be on duty only in Glastonbury; providing a visible presence in the town – not constantly being called away to other areas.
To clarify this point, I met with Chief Inspector Mark Edgington and Inspector Mark Nicholson. Who said that, in exceptional circumstances – “if there was a danger to life and limb and no other officer was available” – they would need to call away a PCSO to another area, the Chief Inspector guaranteed that: “If a new PCSO is being paid for by Glastonbury, they will be working in Glastonbury for their tour of duty; not servicing other towns.”
At the Town Council’s Finance & General Purposes Committee meeting on 29th November 2016, it was confirmed that a Glastonbury funded Police Community Support Officer would add £11 to the Council Tax per band ‘D’ dwelling in Glastonbury – less than £1 per month.
After much debate, it was proposed that the Town Council would fund a PCSO dedicated to Glastonbury for a trial period of one year. A Task and Finish Group was established to discuss terms of reference with the Constabulary meeting several times between January and April 2017.
I am delighted to say that – after a long period of negotiations – the process of recruitment began in August 2017.
– – –
Back in October, I explained to the Police and Crime Commissioner that I was very disappointed to hear, from every level of the force – from Constable to Commander to Commissioner – about lack of resources. I asked: “If you are not responsible for funding the Police, who is?” “Brandon Lewis”, she replied, “the Policing and Fire Minister…”
At that time I was struck by how decisions made at Ministerial level – miles away from Glastonbury; abstract, formulaic, bureaucratic – had impacted so profoundly on our community. The correlation between an ideological, ‘political’ drive for “efficiencies”; to “radically reform the way the Police deliver services to the public”; to “reduce costs and duplication”, and the rise in anti-social behaviour in our town – with its miserable effect on people’s lives; causing alarm, fear, distress, and insecurity – was plain.
It was also plain that neither Brandon Lewis nor Sue Mountstevens would, or could, resolve the situation. This was something we, as a community, would have to address… and non-participation was not an option!
Without meeting with people; listening to their concerns and getting those concerns on ‘the agenda’ with the PCC – it is hard to see how Glastonbury Council’s response to the anti-social behaviour would have moved beyond tokenism and ‘othering’; grandstanding Councillors demanding: “What are the Police going to do about this?”
In this scenario, using the Mayoralty combined with community organising methods, I was able to facilitate some degree of community (citizen) influence on the process – though, without my fellow Councillors being trained in community organising techniques, the net result is placatory rather than true participation, i.e. the Town Council still made the final decision.
However, the community’s concerns were listened to; the five solutions from the meeting with the PCC were based on these concerns. The community’s views on a Glastonbury funded PCSO were taken into account; forming the basis of the Town Council’s Task and Finish Group negations with the Constabulary.
The process took over a year, from August 2016 to August 2017; the output being an innovative solution, taking full advantage of the general power of competence.
…Imagine how much more could have been achieved if my 15 fellow Town Councillors had all been trained as Community Organisers…