Community problems call for community solutions
To transform somewhere like Oldham, treat local citizens as equal partners
This article was produced in association with Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Born here, raised here, and having remained here, it is easier for me than it would be for an “outsider” to spot the hope and community spirit which are still abundant in Oldham. By tapping into that spirit together, we are beginning to turn things around. But you can’t harness hope if you simply fail to detect it is there.
The grim way in which some read our town is not surprising. We are at the wrong end of most of the national economic statistics, and we have certainly faced more than our share of austerity. There is no getting away from the fact that the consequences can be brutal. Confronted with real hardship and deprivation, it can be tempting to presume that local spirits must have been crushed. But if you’ve lived, worked and been to school in a community, you know its people better: their mutual regard for one another, and all the dreams that refuse to die.
Grasp that, and you begin to flip the conversation. You start to consider all those resources that you’ve still got, instead of only those things that have been taken away by forces beyond your control. And with imagination, all those resources—buildings, places and above all people—can make an enormous difference. You’ve got to manage them properly, focussing on the most pressing local needs. But who is best placed to gauge that? Well, the local community itself of course.
In her essay, Jennifer Williams describes how—through the Ghazali Trust—we have come together and acquired a closed down leisure centre (Clemency House); she also explains how residents have worked with local police officers to make the streets safer. This is only the start. Some of the 200 volunteers involved with the transformation of Clemency House are now going out beyond Oldham, and doing things for people elsewhere, for example helping communities affected by floods as far afield as Hebdon Bridge. With the history of the 2001 disturbances, we sometimes get written off as a hopelessly segregated town. The truth couldn’t be further away from that. Today we have Muslim community groups providing foodbanks in a church, mosques working with charities feeding the homeless, churches providing advice, shelter and foodbanks for asylum seekers, and the list goes on.
The state of the streets affects the mood of every one of us, and so we in the community are sorting it out. Through Clean Glodwick the physical appearance of the place has been transformed. A volunteer on each street is enlisted, and they clean their own house—front and back—and do what they can to encourage their neighbours to do the same. Help is recruited for neighbours too elderly or disabled to get stuck in directly. The initiative has inspired other neighbourhoods to follow: we have now seen My Coldhurst, and something similar in Hollinwood. And from Clean Glodwick, we’re moving to Green Glodwick, again improving the look of the place by getting the community planting.
“We get written off as segregated, but there are Muslim groups providing foodbanks in a church”
All the initiatives—the ideas—come from the bottom up. The role of the community network is to make sure talents are fully deployed. If the brainwave of a local youngster needs a grant, which relies on forms being filled in, then we have local professionals—lawyers and dentists—to help. There’s also Action Together which helps strengthen community and voluntary groups by providing support to run their team, finding resources and encouraging everyone to work together to do more.
What, though, do we still need if we’re to step up the scale and pace? Public investment could obviously help, and sometimes a very modest outlay can make a vast difference. Take the £500 “Fast Grants” which can enable citizens to unlock community ideas. For the borough, this is a rounding error on a spreadsheet. But if used—to give a real example—to buy a load of yoga mats, and publicise a yoga class, then it can get local kids off the street, doing something healthy a couple of nights a week. Likewise a small grant
to get the word out about a new walking club could get citizens moving and strengthen community ties. There is a return for everyone there, including the local health service.
But it isn’t just about money, it is also about mutual regard and respect, listening to citizens as equal partners. Councils need to keep their minds open to the possibility that the solutions for communities in hard times will often lie within those communities themselves. When we went to see officials about the idea of buying the leisure centre earmarked for closure for the community, the first hurdle was having the idea taken seriously. They didn’t nod it through without going through the proper process, considering rival bids. But—crucially—Oldham did listen, and did factor in the broader social, as well as the narrow financial, value. We needed the council to take us seriously, and were fortunate that they were wise enough to do so.
If Whitehall and local authorities elsewhere want innovation, town halls everywhere need to learn that fundamental lesson about open ears and minds.
Community groups need an open door too, the ability to get in and see senior people and get a hearing. Openness to doing things a bit differently is essential. In cleaning up our communities for example, a bit of material help is important—providing spades, for example—but we also need a willingness to shift the service a bit, for example collecting rubbish on a Sunday instead of mid-week, because that is when the community is able to do its bit.
David Cameron talked about the Big Society, but here in Oldham we’re actually doing it. What England’s seemingly-struggling towns need as much as anything is to be trusted to come up with their own solutions, and then backed to improve their own luck. It can only be done, though, if you can first of all spot the hope and the generosity that still pulses through a community such as Oldham.
This article features in “All about towns,” Prospect’s new report in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
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