Over the past five years, I’ve been involved in a curious experiment in radicalisation as one of the 500 people who – between 2011 and 2015 – took part in the national CO Programme: to “train a new generation of Community Organisers.”
Curious? Yes. Because, somehow, the drive for organising, which evolved out of the Coalition’s desire for a Big Society – I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it – saw a Conservative Prime Minister championing the ideas and doctrine of that dangerous, subversive, ‘Marxist change agent’, Saul Alinsky…
Prior to my involvement with the CO Programme, I’d spent nearly 15 years working in communities in the South West, bringing people together to explore grass-roots activism, local regeneration, co-production, and sustainable development; to establish local alternative currencies, skills sharing projects, and community time banks; to challenge power and advocate for ‘strong participatory democracy’ and genuine local representation; to investigate resilience, relocalisation, ‘Transition’, and to promote low impact, off-grid living.
Inspired by Gerrard Winstanley, John Lilburne, and Ned Ludd – being obviously born in the wrong century – if anyone had asked me back then, how I’d describe what I did (and they didn’t), I have no idea what I would have said; though Luddite comes to mind.
In 2012, thanks to David Cameron …ahem, I found out that what I’d been doing all that time actually had a name: Community Organising!
After years at Southpaw Grammar – learning about ‘community’ on the experiential front-line – I’d never heard of this term. Was I sceptical? Absolutely. Yet, becoming involved in the CO Programme at the end of 2012, I found a like-minded group of dedicated activists who were passionate about radical change and shifting power!
Taking part in the programme taught me how to name the things that I had been doing intuitively and instinctively for years. As a result, a Freirean liberation awoke within me, and a whole, new syntax for collective community power and representation opened up before me.
The naïve activist in me discovered that organising had a rich history of empowerment; of influencing key decision-makers on issues that impact on our every-day lives; of encouraging new local leaders, facilitating coalitions, and assisting in the development of campaigns.
I discovered that organised Labour, worker’s rights, the civil rights movement, anti-war campaigns, feminism, gay rights, and environmental activism all influenced and were influenced by ideas of community organising. And, I also discovered the amazing radical thinkers and activists who pioneered organising in the 20th century.
Over the past five years, I have watched the ‘new generation’ of Community Organisers in the UK grow into a movement which, rather than embracing the Big Society, has been supporting our communities’ response to the ‘age of austerity’ – to the spending cuts, increasing child poverty, pensioner poverty, the ‘benefits freeze’, tax increases, and the shortage of truly affordable housing…
…And, it’s a movement that continues to grow, as organisers come together to implement an ambitious ‘expansion’ campaign to increase the number of community organisers across the country, with the express aim to enable people to take greater control of their lives, to activate neighbourhoods and create social and political change through collective action – building strong and resilient communities that work for everyone.
Now is surely the time – not to agonise – but to organise!
If you are a community activist, campaigner, volunteer, organiser – or would like to get more active in your community – why not join the National ‘Company of Community Organisers‘, and become part of the CO Expansion campaign? Membership is free – to find out more, please click HERE.
Featured Image: Women’s March on London by Jwslubbock (CC BY-SA 4.0).
“To represent your community, you need to understand not just its history but where it is today. Jon understands Glastonbury and that helped him achieve some surprising things. Your community has the answers, you just need to listen.” Duncan Bhaskaran Brown
Chair of the National Network for Civic Leaders
This video was originally published as part of the Unchained Civic Conference 2017 – the only virtual conference for civic leaders.
The conference took place between Monday 16th and Wednesday 18th October, screening interviews with civic leaders, outside experts, and council officers.
For more information, click HERE
Do we want to create a new type of community-owned, mutual bank in the South West? This was the question posed at a meeting held on 12th October in Glastonbury Town Hall – organised by the Last Bank Standing team with the ‘Royal Society of Arts’ and the ‘Community Savings Bank Association’…
Do you want to own a Community Bank?
Imagine if there was a bank dedicated to the South West that put the welfare of its local communities before profits. A bank that helped local economies to grow by supporting all residents to upskill, regardless of their financial means. A bank that empowered people to grow their ideas into thriving local businesses. A bank that people trusted. What might the South West look like in twenty or thirty years time?
During the evening, the RSA’s Director of Economics, Tony Greenham, discussed the economic and social case for regional banks, and explored the opportunities and challenges of creating a truly co-operative bank dedicated to the South West.
The need for regional banking was highlighted in the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, which highlighted that the lack of access to appropriate banking and financial tools can have a serious impact on people on low incomes or with a poor financial history, as well as on SMEs and micro businesses.
Incredibly, there are over 1.7 million adults in the UK that don’t have a bank account, while at the same time the pace of branch closures has accelerated rapidly, leaving 1,500 communities without a bank – as we are well aware here in Glastonbury!
Whilst already severe, these challenges are likely to become even more acute in the context of Brexit and upcoming reforms to local government financing. There has never been a more urgent need to rebalance the UK economy.
The RSA are supporting the Community Savings Bank Association to create a UK-wide network of customer-owned, regional banks to serve the everyday financial needs of ordinary people, local community groups, and small and medium sized companies.
The Glastonbury event explored the motivations and barriers in Glastonbury – and other local areas – to establishing this kind of bank, and the role that different stakeholders could play in catalysing the establishment of a South West bank.
To find out more, please visit the CSBA website ‘HERE’
Developing the theme of ‘Organising in a Local Council’, these two videos document my conversation with a fellow Senior Community Organiser – and a Portland Town Councillor – Dave Symes, as we reflect on the potential for local councils to use community organising to help engage their communities.
Dave and I discuss how organising methods (such as active listening, community networking, and citizen participation in agenda-setting) have been combined with the ‘General Power of Competence’ and the power to ‘Precept’, to help foster strong participatory democracy in Glastonbury.
“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!
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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…
I have been working with communities for the past 18 years. Over that time I’ve often pondered the latent potential of Town and Parish Councils…
It seems to me that through the evolution of moot, leet, vestry, and – finally – parish, our forebears conceived an ideal solution for the support and mutual co-organisation of our communities. Yet, their ideal seems to have been – in the main – mislaid somewhere along the line.
“The Parish Council as an ideal solution?” I hear you cry! “Surely, he’s lost it completely this time!”
And to some extent, I’d agree. Except… well… before I expand on why local Councils are the ideal solution, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the many hundreds of local people I’ve met over the years. Local residents who’ve got organised; who’ve come together to do something; co-operating to address a local issue, need, or concern.
I’ve been amazed and inspired by the multitude of ideas, plans, aspirations, and dreams that individuals, groups, communities have come up with. Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of ideas; but, as the saying goes, “ideas are cheap”, and – invariably – the biggest obstacle for any community group, local project or campaign is money…
Town and Parish Councils, on the other hand, possess the ideal solution to overcome the obstacle of funding. Our forebears, in their wisdom, gave them ‘special powers’, such as the power to tax local residents and raise funds; the power to use those funds to provide local facilities and services to address a local issue, need, or concern – or contribute towards their provision by others… Indeed, under the General Power of Competence, they have the power to do “anything that individuals generally may do.”
So why aren’t all Town and Parish Councils a hot-bed of community-led activity? As a community organiser, listening to people, it is clear that many residents perceive a divide between themselves and their Town or Parish Councillors – many people feel they don’t have a say; that Councils don’t inform or consult, and even if they did, it would be tokenism: “They’ve already made up their mind before they consult us.”
Reflecting on the situation, I wonder if the key to unlocking the latent potential in both Councils and the communities they represent is Community Organising itself? If so, it would seem imperative:
for those residents who are already active in their communities – the true community leaders – to meet with Councillors and learn about the powers and duties of their local Council; and perhaps even consider standing for election;
for existing Town and Parish Councillors to be trained in community organising techniques – to learn how to become active listeners, to engage their communities, develop networks, and encourage strong participatory democracy.
As a Town Councillor myself, I try to fully integrate community organising into my role; attempting to realise our forebears’ ideal solution for the support and mutual co-organisation of Glastonbury’s community. My next blog will explore some of the outcomes of this approach.
When all the High Street Banks deserted Glastonbury, our amazing community got organised and campaigned against the closures; calling for one branch to remain – a ‘Last Bank Standing’.
That call, and all the hard work that went into the flash mobs, petitions, publicity, and protests has been answered.
As Mayor of Glastonbury, I am absolutely delighted to join Deputy Mayor Emma George in opening the founding current accounts with Nationwide’s new Glastonbury branch.
The Nationwide recently posted: “When the people of Glastonbury asked for a bank, it was a building society that answered and we’re looking forward to opening our new branch in the summer.”
“Our new Glastonbury Nationwide will be located at 3 High Street, and work has now begun on designing your branch, which is expected to open by this summer.”
Leading the new Grade II listed Glastonbury branch is Phil Goodridge-Reynolds, branch manager and his newly recruited Customer Representatives; Rachael Butt, Adam Leitch and Sonia Love, who are now ready to accept new customers.
If you’d like to open a current account, you can do so online HERE
You can also book an appointment in Glastonbury Town Hall.
Just call 0800 554 1590 (Monday – Friday 9.30 am – 5 pm, or Saturday 9 am – 3 pm).
Nationwide are also offering Glastonbury residents the chance to share £200 when they recommend one of Nationwide’s current accounts to a friend! For more information click HERE