Don’t Agonise – Organise!

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…

“Father of community organizing” and/or ‘Marxist change agent’: Saul Alinsky by Brett Tatman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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 also found out, much to my surprise, that some of the people I most admired were – indeed – community organisers: Mahātmā Ghandi, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Stephen Biko, even Barack Obama!  …and that was just the tip of the iceberg…

Community Organiser Barack Obama in 1992, as director of Project Vote; which achieved its goal of registering 150,000 African American voters.

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.

People like Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire, Ella Baker, César Chávez, Heather Booth, Lois Gibb, and – perhaps the origin of them all – the amazing “Mother” Jones.

The original Community Organiser? Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (from the U.S. Library of Congress – Public Domain).

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).

You may get there by candle-light!

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

A Community Savings Bank for Glastonbury?

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 Green Mayor of Glastonbury, Cllr Emma George, with the organisers of the South West Community Bank event
At the South West Community Bank event, L-R: Paul Manning (Glastonbury Chamber of Commerce), Tony Greenham (RSA Director of Economics), Cllr Emma George (Mayor of Glastonbury), Mark Hall (RSA Deputy Head of Engagement), and Kevin Redpath (Last Bank Standing). [photo by Jon Cousins]

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

Jon and Dave discuss Community Organising and Local Councils

An essential component of local democracy is building strong connections between citizens and the institutions that represent them.  By including residents in the conversations that affect their lives, local government builds trust and mutual respect.  This has never been more important.  At a time when trust in public institutions is at a low ebb, councils have a vital role to play in restating and rebuilding the social contract between citizens and their governments.  They can only do this by engaging openly with residents and responding to their concerns.”
[‘Community Collaboration – a councillor’s guide’ by Local Trust and The Local Government information Unit © LGiU, July 2017]

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 & Local Councils Part One

Community Organising & Local Councils Part Two


Organising in a Local Council (Part Two)

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…

Give us back our town front page CSG 22nd September 2016
Give us back our town – front page, Central Somerset Gazette, 22nd September 2016.

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.

Mayor calls for more visible police presence CSG 22nd September 2016
Mayor calls for more visible police presence, Central Somerset Gazette, 22nd September 2016.


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.

‘Disaster’ worries as drugs service moves out of town, Central Somerset Gazette, 6th October 2016.

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).
– – –

Search for solutions to problems that have been a blight on town, Central Somerset Gazette, 10th November 2016.

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.

£1 per month to keep town safe – front page, Central Somerset Gazette, 10th November 2016.

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…

Would you welcome new branch?

On 21st September, I had a very unusual experience – I received a telephone call from a building society!  …Perhaps that doesn’t sound too unusual, after all, many of us have received marketing cold-calls from one financial institution or another, asking if we’d like to change account; take out a loan.  However, this call was completely different…

Hello Mr Cousins, do you think Glastonbury’s community would welcome the opening of a new Nationwide Building Society branch in the town?

The caller was Alan Oliver – Head of External Affairs at Nationwide.  He told me that the Nationwide had been really impressed by the Last Bank Standing campaign (our community’s response to all the banks closing in town).

Unlike other banks,” he contined, “we are investing £500million into opening new branches – and we’d like to consult over the next month to see if there is an appetite in the town. What do you think?…

Well, I thought: Yes!

And that is exactly what the Nationwide are going to do.

‘We’ll open in town if you’ll use us’ from the Central Somerset Gazette, 29th September 2016
‘We’ll open in town if you’ll use us’ from the Central Somerset Gazette, 29th September 2016

So – the question is would you welcome the opening of a new Nationwide Building Society branch in Glastonbury?  They are holding an on-line poll HERE.  Why not let them know?


Here’s what Move Your Money UK has to say:
Nationwide is the largest building society in the world, and commands an impressive branch network that rivals even the Big 5 banks. It has an excellent track record in contributing to the real economy and in ethical lending, partly thanks to its strict code of human rights standards on its supply chain.

What’s more, Nationwide shows that better banking can also provide great returns, with its impressive FlexDirect current account offering 5% AER on balances up to £2,500 for the first year – far higher than even most savings accounts. You can also share £200 when you recommend a friend who uses the switch service to move to Nationwide. [correct as of 01/09/15].

Nationwide also takes a responsible approach to lending, with mortgage arrears rates less than two fifths of the industry average by March 2013. With basic bank accounts open to people on a low income, and savings accounts available from only £1 investment, moving your money to Nationwide is a great way of gaining a first-rate service whilst also supporting the society that we all share.

Move Your Money UK – a national campaign for a banking system that helps to build and support a just and sustainable society.

‘Nationwide building society could open branch in Glastonbury after Lloyds, Barclays, and HSBC shut’ from Somerset Live, 28th September 2016.
‘Nationwide building society could open branch in Glastonbury after Lloyds, Barclays, and HSBC shut’ from Somerset Live, 28th September 2016.