Thursday, 6 June 2013

Towards an incarnate Council? Reflections on 'Communities Managing Change'

The fabulous Chamberlain Forum launched 'Communities Managing Change' this afternoon. It's an excellent report and well-worth reading and translating into action and change. You can find it at

I was asked to respond briefly. It went something like this...

I want to say a big Yes... But it's a 'Yes, and...' It's a big Yes to 'connected places'... but also to bodies, and stories...

So, a story:

About a year ago, I got wind, via a phone call, that a team from Birmingham's Social Inclusion inquiry were visiting the Firs and Bromford, my neighbourhood, in the very near future. Hardly anyone knew about us, and it was to happen in a Council venue that was not even on the estate.

With a phone call or two, we managed to get it moved, to our shop front on the estate, a very 'hubby' place (in the words of the report) - so much so, we call it The Hub! We also managed to get more local people and practitioners there.

On the day, the team arrived late, they had less than 45 mins with us, and they mostly asked us what was wrong with our estate.

A number of us were, to put it mildly, rather cross! Another phone call or two, and the next day I had a call on my mobile from a senior Council officer. He wanted to offer an apology, changes would be made to ongoing visits elsewhere, and he offered to come out and see us again.

He did. For 3 hours. A group of us chatted together, ate together, and we then went for a long walkabout round the area. We talked about the demise of the local 'walk in' Neighbourhood Office, whose doors are now closed to the public, and where you have to phone a call centre to arrange an appointment for a week, or 6 weeks, time. As we walked, our visitor spotted Fort Dunlop, just across the M6. "That's where the phone calls to the call centre go," he said.

We talked about The Hub - run as a partnership between ourselves and Worth Unlimited, a space for youth work, which now also hosts children & families provision, community lunches, meetings of local Practitioners Network, and more. At The Hub, we'd recently started 'Open Door ': run by gifted volunteers, the idea began as a possible 'job club', but turned into a place of welcome and hospitality, a place where people might come with 'needs', but who are invited to rediscover what's in their heart (passions), head (knowledge), and hands (skills) that they might be able to share. This small beginning is just starting to develop into the idea of Time Banking, a way of enabling those gifts to be shared with those who want and need them, of unlocking those gifts to make new neighbourly relationships and build community. And now, Open Door's beginnings of Time Banking have been taken right to the heart of the area's 'Big Local' neighbourhood plan - it's not the £1 million financial investment, but the simple idea of Time Banking, that will be at the 'organising core' of the regeneration work we're beginning on Firs & Bromford. None of it was rocket science for us, but the reaction of that senior Council officer was interesting - his eyes were suddenly wide with newly-discovered possibility!

So that was the story. Now just a few brief reflections.

Co-production between neighbourhoods and Council has barely begun, but the sky's the limit - from environment & green spaces to health & wellbeing, from youth work to adult social care, you name it, and more.

In nature, the most resilient systems have what are called 'tight feedback loops' - they're responsive quickly and flexibly to the smallest, but often significant, changes at the most local level.

The key technical word from my own faith tradition is 'incarnate'. It means discovering a power that's not invested in top-down hierarchy but is connected, fleshy, earthed. It's about where you spend your time, who you come face to face with, who you listen to and where you put your feet.

A Co-operative Council would be good. But I want an 'incarnate' Council... I want a Council Officer in every neighbourhood, literally a body with their feet on the ground, their eyes open and their ears receptive to the stories of their neighbours, and asking 3 key questions, in the right order:
1) what can this neighbourhood do for itself?
2) what can it do, with the right help from the Council?
3) what can only the Council do for this neighbourhood?
[the questions come from my friend Cormac Russell; anything 'lost in translation' in the paraphrase I take full responsibility for!]

And finally two of my favourite quotes:
1. "Inside every Council officer is a citizen waiting to get out" (Cormac Russell again)
2. (originally attributes to Australian Aboriginal feminist activists in the 1970s, but perhaps could be said at this point in time to BCC from those of us in Birmingham's local neighbourhoods) "if you have come to help us, you are wasting our time - but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together"