I came into community development by accident. I trained as a social worker- working with individuals and not communities. I studied economics, politics and sociology at Hull University. I had and have a faith that tells me it’s about more than me; rather is about ‘the kingdom of Heaven on earth’; working for that, now; not just pie in the sky when you die.
After a few years working as a Social worker in Hull, in 1988 I got a job working for the Church of England (CofE) as a ‘social responsibility officer’. This wasn’t about being a social worker with a different job title. It had to be about social issues. I got involved with individual organisations e.g. Hull Council for Voluntary Service (CVS); Hull Youth for Christ (HYFC); Hull Independent Housing Aid Centre (HIHAC) and started the Hull Hostel Forum. Through these organisation, both secular and ‘Christian’, many of which already existed and some of which I created with others over the years, you can have an effect with many more people than dealing with individual people, and you can highlight issues, policy, injustice…. rather than just individual failings. Hull had and has some deep-seated problems and it’s not just about individual behaviours.
In the early years of my job, I went to Washington DC to a Christian community called Sojourners (lead by Jim Wallace – called by the Guardian as a modern-day prophet). There I heard Walter Wink talking about Daniel and praying about why his captive people would not go free when the King of Persia had actually said that they were released. After 21 days, he got his answer. There are heavenly powers at war – there are other dimensions to human existence; there are other forces at work in people, communities and institutions than just the obvious ones. The Israelites didn’t see walking into the desert as a wonderful prospect; they were in slavery, but it had become reasonably comfortable slavery.
I then read Walter’s three books and it helped me think about how to make a difference to the problems of Hull; how to pray, or rather discern and intercede as Daniel did; and then how to act appropriately to create change.
I’m not sure how thought through my responses were but… early days I started convening a little (Christian? Not exclusively) community workers lunch. It appeared that there was no such thing at the time. .
And I met and invited Bill Bullin (working for the Evangelical Urban Training Project; now called Unlock); they developed from Paulo Freire’s principles a way of communicating Bible stories effectively. Basically people tell their stories first, before the professional God bothers wade in with their interpretations of the bible and its stories. Bill came to speak at Bilton Grange Community Centre. Must have been about 1992. Andy invited people who worked with people in communities. It morphed into and remains the ‘not only outer estates group’ meeting on Greatfield every couple of months. People (Christians largely) enjoying the joys and sorrows of ministry –basically ‘community work’ in some form or other - in Hull. All are trying to address problems and assets in communities.
At the same time, the Angel Group developed after the USA visit and a chat with the East Hull Clergy Chapter about what I’d learnt in the USA. That is still kind of going, on and off. It’s about trying to piece together an economic, political and socio-historical analysis, together with some might say ‘psycho-social history – other might say ‘spirit of place’ analysis - of Hull. Or you could say it’s about how power works, usually to oppress the people of this place. And then to think about how to address that.
Then all the money kicked in.
the ‘Single Regeneration Budget’ (SRB) was the result of Maggie Thatcher’s conflation of many urban regeneration pots into one fund. Loads of deprived places developed regeneration partnerships and engaged in an ugliness contest to get funds they all required.
As a result, under Hull’s SRB1 win, there were several millions available for six communities especially where housing regeneration work was being done, but there was no work on the social or economic underpinnings of how communities could develop/respond to this work. Even if physical improvements were put in, it became clear that it didn’t add up to much and it needed £s put into the social infrastructure of the area, especially if these housing areas were to function better in the future. The £1m investment went into community work and rather wait for the Council to do that, we turned from gamekeeper to poacher, worked with others e.g. from community workers lunch, outer estates group, and with Roslyn Abbott, Liz Shepherd and Dave Rogers formed (the entirely secular!?!) ‘Hull DOC’ (DOC standing for developing our communities). The City Council didn’t bother making a bid for the monies, so Hull DOC won the bid and set up with one community worker in each area and a Community Chest – small grants, very simple criteria, no constitution required etc; and also LARGs – ‘local area reference groups’ where workers were accountable to, to some extent at least, members of the local community. This ‘programme’ lasted for seven years. It was quite coup vis-à-vis the Council who were used to controlling things. It was a big thing – it caused a lot of resentment among Councillors who generally believed that they knew best and didn’t want some Community Worker going around encouraging the locals to make demands or frankly, do anything much for themselves. (It’s called dependency and it’s quite comfortable for the people in charge).
Developing Hull DOC principles on one page was very exciting. This was discussed with the staff and trustees. It was very important to me and I believe to many others over the years.
In early 1994 after a long wrangle with my employer about it being a bad investment… they changed my Terms &Conditions and I bought our own house (rather than living in a church house) and we moved with a four and a two year only to an ex-Council house on North Bransholme. It had a very, very bad reputation and it deserved it according to Tony Blair’s bloody league tables when he started publishing them from 1997. Anyway, we loved it and it’s been great for us, but it did teach me or a thing or several about how places function, or don’t, and how to work with people.
Rev’d Stephen Willey and Andy talking in car – We felt, well there’s CVS and DOC but nothing specifically to encourage churches to think about or help in doing community work. SEARCH – social and economic action resources for church in Hull (that was Dave Rogers idea!) – was formed with Dave and a different Methodist because Stephen left Hull and a Catholic woman, Susan Frost who was working at Hull CVS. Part time monies were obtained for research on what resources churches had and what needs they were already meeting, and on their motivations for doing so. That enabled further funding and SEARCH has been working ever since. (Very happily it employed the massively experienced Roslyn Abbottfor the last four years of her paid-working life).
There were a number of things necessary if Hull’s issues were going to be addressed. These are all pretty crass sounding generalisations, but ones I’d stand behind: Hull was very cowed, with unenergized people accepting of their situations and not really expecting much to change, and certainly not believing that they could change much. Economically, politically, socially, it was on its knees. I didn’t have a theory of community development, I hadn’t read about asset based stuff. I helped create some things and supervised staff at DOC and at SEARCH and kept various groups going.
Occasionally my employer, Church people and others asked why Andy made such a huge investment on what made Hull tick, not only with a Christian view and why I spent 80% of his time on community development-type activity. (Hull DOC took the most of his time). Andy believes that if people don’t conceive of the possibility of life being better and/or different, then God is dead. Getting people together, telling their stories, getting the juices flowing, getting the idea that we do have assets – abilities, ideas, hopes that could be real – especially if we can work together to make a difference. If they don’t get that, then they don’t get change.
Hull DOC went from 0-60 staff and now has a leftover building and a caretaker. HIHAC shut. The Hostel Forum has no workers. Our really community based credit union that lent to really poor people got shut down. CVS is a shadow of its former self and other things have come and gone including Christian things.
Since Gordon turned off the taps in 2006 and austerity has been the order of the day since, very significant numbers of organisations have shrunk or disappeared.
In spite of the last ten years, materially people are better off than 30 years ago. But it’s pretty clear that extreme poverty is back for some. Burglary, anti-social behaviour used to beset communities in Thatcher’s time. Housing is better. In some respects, we are better off. There is still a gaping hole in social connectedness - loneliness, isolation is around and always was. In large areas of Hull, issues of ‘social cohesion’ aren’t on the agenda. But there was a tragic breakdown of communities in the 50s/60s/70s. And in terms of self-supporting, local-people-asset/ability harnessing, internal-finance-recycling… basically healthy communities - we are not much further forward. We failed.
Were we crap at community development? Or were we just working in too small a social/political environment – Hull isn’t in charge, let’s face it? Or was there not enough money to do it? But whatever, there is little community development being done now. Community doesn’t work for the people because it doesn’t exist. Maybe individualism, materialistic consumerism, really has won. Community development may be a misnomer; can you actually develop community?
At the end of my first long conversation with Roslyn about all this… I remembered about being a ‘community activist’. Roslyn says I’m more one of these than a community development worker myself.
I worked very directly with a small number of people in community groups over time in three different estates with residents resisting regeneration and trying to suggest something better on/for Gipsyville in the late 90’s for another SRB scheme; in the NASA area (old Hessle Road) around ‘Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder’ expenditure, in the 2000s on North Bransholme where we are still living. All of them were about large scale demolition and the destruction of remaining to the recreation of vestiges of ‘community’ with the decanting of population elsewhere. Regeneration – bollocks!
Roslyn brought me into Gipsyville as an activist to meet residents she knew. They weren’t going to let stuff happen without a fight in Gipsyville. That work was successful to a limited extent: some peoples’ houses weren’t demolished because of the activism. Some CPOs were not made. It was the first really organised resistance to any estate regen scheme in Hull I think. I really loved working with those people. I was just facilitating a bit, giving a bit of polish to some arguments, suggesting certain strategies, approaches. Doing a bit of leg work that they couldn’t. This was extremely unpopular with the Council.
Around the NASA proposals, there were some good ideas, and some of the resident generated stuff did seem like it might make a bit of difference; but much of the scheme went pear shaped because the money went west, or rather south.
North Bransholme turned into nearly years’ work in averting full demolition of houses; Hull’s newest and generally best built Council houses. I could go on for pages about this and the ‘URBaN Villages Plan’ for the complete regeneration – including the social integration of the place, which was still only 25 years old at that point - of the whole estate that we, local residents, came up with. And we nearly got somewhere in the guise of a ‘Community Lead Stock Transfer’ and Tony Blair would have had them. The Council, once again, was extremely unhappy (and I was no fan on stock transfer but needs must….) and so Riverside HA were brought in. But so was ‘austerity’ and the recession and they weren’t able to realise very much, frankly, of what we discussed with them. But they have invested in the estate, 140 semi-derelict (from neglect) houses were saved, every un-insulated home included those that had been bought were externally clad as required… and there has been a bit of new build. There is no village structure, no social regen-investment, but there are new fences. Hey-ho.
And the above bit reminds me now, I should say a work about the Cllr time (during which I maintained all the other activity such as it was becoming). I was a Hull City Councillor (Labour) for Avenue Ward from 2011 until I stepped down in 2018. I had not too high, but some hope of taking ‘indoors’ the community development experience I had and applying it. I can point to nearly no achievements and I left in near complete frustration. I can’t even believe I had any meaningful lasting influence behind the scenes. There is perhaps one thing, Hull Money (google it please), that I can take a bit of credit (that’s nearly a pun) for. But that’s it. The other few things that I had a hand in are now being dismantled and re-worked which isn’t a deliberate trashing of the ideas that they were carrying, but the result will be that others will wind up re-inventing wheels.
One of the problems with community development work we realised some time ago is that it has usually been problem orientated. Asset based stuff has a different approach. Before that came on the scene, as a result of Liz’s (wife) practice in North Bransholme in schools etc, it made me realise that arts celebrations could unlock peoples’ abilities and shared joy at a simple level. This is creating a new self-understanding – and sometimes a new understanding of ‘this place’ and ‘your place’ in it - by making something. It’s getting people out of what they do and showing the importance of celebration and enjoying it too. DOC was problem orientated. It could have been more enjoyment orientated. One reason City of Culture is important is because it is lifting horizons, peoples’ own creativeness and school kids are physically involved in arts in school.
If there was a DOC again I’d want to develop more arts activity e.g. the Community celebration it did in Princes Quay right at the very beginning; and Mary Clear’s angels ascending and descending the tower blocks on Orchard Park on several Christmas/Easter’s; or the poetry covering the toilet walls of our shity old HQ at Homethorpe shops. It would also help people to act together and communicate together. There is an inner creativity in everyone. Something to be discovered in everyone, no matter how limited they may believe themselves, their abilities or their experience to be.
Remembering the processes rather than just thinking about outcomes… there was a lot of fun and lots of people were involved and the communities did stuff. DOC AGMs were a riot. DOC gave out 100s of Community Chest monies. Misspent or what? 60plus people were employed and gave some people a good working experience whilst it lasted. Not unworthwhile.
Nowadays there are lots of stories coming out of SEARCH e.g. community growing areas, slow cooker classes with people really changing their buying and eating habits. It’s small stuff in communities, maybe not classic community development, but there is a lot going on and coming out of SEARCH.
The story doesn’t end. The letters running through a stick of rock get thicker in parts and then sometimes for a bit nearly disappear. There needs to be a resurgence of wiser, more modest, more arising-from-local-asset-bases… again. We need some research – not more JRF and the poverty mongers research that tells us what we know and is consistently ignored by the powers that area… but research in change that makes a difference to quality of life locally that arises and is sustained locally. Can a few of us together who were around, make a difference now… with another generation or two? Maybe. We do need to learn lessons from the past. And an ability to learn from our mistakes. And to have a national/global perspective which doesn’t disempower us but helps us to act appropriately – or at least with appropriate expectations – at a local level.
I’m now near the end of his paid working life. (Indeed, I’ve had a serious heart attack, from which I’ve seriously recovered… during the writing up of this). I’ve been talking to Roslyn about this and impending retirement and thinking about all this quite a bit… weighing it all up- the bitter/sweet stuff. I do wish we’d made more of a difference and maintained something a bit more solid, but SEARCH and HYFC – for example - are still wonderful things. HullCoin was fantastic and nearly achieved escape velocity – in spite of the spite of many local power holders – killed off by the Lottery’s appalling lethargy and self-serving ‘we can take our time while those we should fund starve’. Plus, the HIHAC building – in use by Ground is doing community development with people finding an arts-safe-creative-home there to do things. It would be nice to have an organisation to support community development type stuff. There is still lots of good stuff happening, but still a gap. I did have a go at a DOC revival a few years ago; but there might be another way of doing that over the horizon.