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Carry on, crocodiles: healthy disagreement can help change broken systems

Maff: At the Association of Camerados we are thinking about the things that help people live a richer life, not necessarily things like a job or a home or a hostel. We believe it is friends and purpose that make a difference in this life. How do you create friends and purpose? Here is the newsflash: instead of asking people how you can help them, you ask them to help you. The technical term is ‘mutual aid’. To me it’s friends and purpose.

Charlie: I work across a number of organisations, initiatives, and government departments illustrating what can happen if you build solutions with people instead of for them. We say we involve service users in service design, but too often that means consulting them on what we have already decided to do. I want to build things with people. That is what I have tried to do at MAC-UK, Owls and in our testing of the Problem Solving Booths. And it is what I see, Maff, in your experiments with Public Living Rooms in Blackpool, Oxford, Sheffield, Camden, Brooklyn and so on.

My kind of innovation forces me, forces people, forces the system to work in a new way.

I suppose a difference between you and I is that I am working with ‘the system’. People come to work in public systems for the right reasons. People with mental health difficulties come to the NHS. It is a behemoth. You cannot ignore it, you cannot work outside of it. My kind of innovation forces me, forces people with mental health difficulties and forces the system to work in a new way. Failure for me is people saying ‘Charlie Howard did this’. I want them to say ‘the NHS did this’.

Maff: I admire that. It’s brave to try and change a system like the NHS. I have tried it too. If I look back I see 22 years of being mired in treacle working with people who are constrained into always finding a reason why something isn’t possible. Plus systems are always changing. So when you do manage to get something off the ground, when something looks like it will happen, it gets stymied. A new Minister or a new CEO comes in and reinstates the status quo. So there is a bit of me that wants to clean off the treacle, free up the arms and throw bombs. I now work outside of the system, doing things before saying to them ‘catch up or not, it’s up to you’.

I now work outside of the system, doing things before saying to them “catch up or not, it’s up to you.

So I don’t want to hurt systems. But I don’t like what systems do to innovation. Here in Camden we have just set up our fifth Public Living Room a space for people to live, a space that gives them half a chance to be a Camerado, a space to find friends and purpose. If it gets commissioned by a system it will become a Health and Well-Being Centre and instead of walking in off the street you will be referred via the Camden Gateway, which to many people is another name for a waiting room without an exit.

Charlie: I have had my frustrations as well. Of course I have. But it doesn’t sound altogether right to me what you’re saying about the system damaging a model. Recently I was working with a major health Trust here in London testing out our Problem Solving Booths. These booths are a couple of chairs with a cardboard label saying ‘Helper’ over one and another topped with the ‘Helped’ label. People sit in the chairs and talk about their problems. In many respects it’s another form of mutual aid like the Camerados Living Room. Except this one was run by the health trust. I found it gave the trust permission to do things quickly and overnight. One of their targets was ‘community engagement’ and I said ‘wouldn’t this help you meet that target?’. And off they went.

They adapted it. It was helping people in the community talk about their problems. But it was also helping the people in system recognise the stress they are under, and how this stress undermines their work. When I tried the model with the police recently I found it got them talking to young offenders in a different way, which got them to think about crime prevention in a different way. You never know which way this stuff is going to go.

You’re not allowed to disagree with people anymore. Yet disagreement seems to me to be at the heart of great innovation.

Maff: I like you saying ‘that doesn’t sound altogether right to me’. Why are we expected to agree with each other? We probably do agree on 90% of what needs to be done. But often when we meet we are like a couple of crocodiles snapping at each other. You’re not allowed to disagree with people anymore. Yet disagreement seems to me to be at the heart of great innovation.

Charlie: It is a paradox that modern systems foster huge amounts of competitiveness between NGOs, in other words another form of ‘crocodile’ behaviour, but in that context it tends to stifle ideas and innovation. It doesn’t create any real space for co-production for example. If I had a magic wand I would reward co-production every time, even when it didn’t lead to anything systems would recognise as concrete. The best thing we did at MAC-UK was to design a football team that never happened. The design process was as good a response to mental ill-health as the proposed innovation.

If I had a magic wand I would reward co-production every time, even when it didn’t lead to anything systems would recognise as concrete.

Maff: I have certainly learned a lot from you on co-production. I guess the thing that people tend to forget is the ‘co’ in co-production. It’s not a matter of leaving it to the users. If we left the living rooms to local users we might end up with something that looks like a conventional community centre. We are looking to inject a ‘wow’ factor. And we are trying to hold a line about how members of society support each other, that the best way we can help someone is to ask them to help us.

Charlie: Yes, I think that is the right way to think about co-production. We can think about ‘co’ in lots of ways. We have a duty to build ideas and solutions together, pooling our respective knowledge and expertise. I also think the ‘co’ goes beyond community. It has to do with services too. What are your thoughts Michael? Is there any sense to this?

Michael: I think the conversation captures a lot of the dilemmas we face in this work; harnessing the power of the system without being swallowed up by it; using the know how of people looking for help without being reduced to clichéd responses; being prepared to disagree strongly without that being taken personally.

You’re not intervening, you are changing a space so that people encounter each other in a different way, producing different results.

I also see in this conversation themes that are likely to dominate innovation in the next decade. Mutual aid you have mentioned, that is what you are both working on. But I also see innovation without intervention. Neither Owls nor the Association of Camerados is intervening with their respective innovations. Instead you are changing the context in which people live with each other. You have to let that sentence marinade a little to let its radical potential infuse. You’re not intervening, you are changing a space so that people encounter each other in a different way, producing different results.

I also see you opening up civil society. Neither of you think in terms of the ‘Third Sector’. You think much more broadly, bringing in family, friends, neighbours, and you think beyond that again to bring in strangers. Nearly everybody coming to a Problem Solving Booth or a Public Living Room starts off as a stranger to each other. To me this is another radical departure, a setting off point to completely change what we mean by public systems and the so-called Third Sector. So carry on, crocodiles.

This article was first published by NPC as part of their State of the Sector programme essay collection Flipping the narrative: Essays on transformation from the sector’s boldest voices.

19th October 2017

Bert Massie was a giant in our world

Bert Massie at the Civil Society Futures away day, Birmingham, 2017. Image, Civil Society Futures/Creative Commons.

So many people across the voluntary sector, government and wider public policy will have been saddened by the terrible news of the death of Sir Bert Massie. He was, as so many others will say, a giant in our world, a brilliant and effective campaigner, with a clear-eyed focus on what can be achieved when people get together. But less well known will be the fact that in the last few months of his life he joined the Panel steering Civil Society Futures, the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. He brought to the panel decades of wisdom and insight, and his stories of social change were central in helping us craft our approach. But he also bought a steely focus on the need to make a difference, powered by his passionate belief that not only was fundamental social change possible, it was essential. His humour, intellect and massive personal support will live on – and will ensure that the Inquiry never loses its determination to both hear those voices that are too frequently muffled, and drive lasting social change.

16th October 2017

Is it the beginning of the end for the charity sector?

For people of my generation, working for a charity was a noble and realistic goal. With employment in the voluntary sector rising by a third over the last decade (to nearly 3 per cent of all UK workers), charities have offered a variety of fulfilling – and sometimes well-paid – roles.

Yet, the 17th century notion of a charity with formal and special regulatory status looks increasingly outdated in a the face of new forms of citizen action and vulnerable to wider changes in the labour market. Indeed, the ‘sector’ as we know it – with its big brands and paid staff – is set to transform so much in the coming decades that I am not sure that I would recommend the youth of today follow my career path.

For a start, levels of trust in NGOs are falling, with UK figures worse than global averages. Many argue that the corporatisation of large NGOs has weakened their accountability to the constituencies in which they operate. Professionalized, brand-driven and beholden to government for their multi-million contracts and big business for their ‘partnerships’, charities are seen to have become part of the very system they were set up to challenge.

There are certainly benefits of registered charity status but many question whether they are proportionate to the extra regulatory burdens. Not surprisingly, new forms of citizen action that neither need, nor seek, such status in order to fulfil their aims are flourishing. Social enterprises are starting up at three times the rate of traditional charities, beginning – along with other new formations – to crowd in upon the space once occupied by charities alone.

Another challenge facing charities is that so much of the growth of the sector in the UK has been driven by increases in government funding. Yet, as pressure on the public purse has intensified, so too has the competition from private sector contractors competing to provide the same services as charities with fewer resources. Not surprisingly, government funding to charities in England and Wales has shifted from being mostly grants to overwhelmingly being more restrictive contracts over the last 15 years (see https://data.ncvo.org.uk/). Taken together, this has meant that the quantity and quality of funding to charities are problematic.

The suggestion that charities in the UK may begin to dwindle, or even to die out, will be anathema to many. For hundreds of years, we have conferred a special status upon these entities as being engaged in the selfless, collective pursuit of social good, celebrating their position, role and identity in our society.

Yet, the quid pro quo has been that we have placed little expectation on corporate entities to pursue socially responsible behaviour. By marking out and protecting the role of charities, we have set corporations free to pursue private good almost at all costs. It is perhaps a division of responsibilities that has contributed in no small part to today’s societal ills.

Seen in this way, would the end of the charity sector in its current form be such a bad thing, if what we’re really contemplating is not an abandonment of charitable ideals, but a broadening of the responsibility to pursue them?

Imagine a world in which entities that seek profit alone are socially, morally – perhaps even legally – unacceptable; a world in which all organisations are held accountable for their public, environmental and social impacts. Such hybridisation of charitable and private sectors has of course already begun. Formations such as B corps and Community Interest Companies bridge traditional functional divides, pointing us towards a development future that has less to do with charity and more to do with shared responsibility.

Charities in the UK have a remarkable record in activism and social change; of this we should remain rightly proud. But if we are to continue this work, keeping pace with changing needs, new technologies and a shifting global landscape, their organisational models will need to undergo radical transformation and many more, new actors will need to buy into the pursuit of social good.

4th October 2017

Both May and Bazalgette are wrong: Their idea of creativity won’t solve Britain’s social and economic problems

Creativity has been in the news quite a bit over the last week. There’s been Theresa May calling for a more ‘creative’ approach to the Brexit disaster. There’s also been a major policy report on the Creative Industries. The latter has been part of the government’s industrial strategy, one of nine industrial activities targeted for specific ‘sector deals’. The others include quantum technology, clean energy, and robotics.

The rhetorical prominence of creativity in May’s speech, delivered on the same day as this set of policy recommendations, might seem to be great news for those working in creative jobs. On closer inspection both the rhetoric and the policy reality raise major questions about the role of creative industries in Britain today. Most seriously, both rhetoric and policy are based on fundamental misunderstandings of what the creative industries are and how they operate.

The Independent Review of the Creative Industries was written by Sir Peter Bazalgette, former chair of Arts Council England. It identifies the creative industries as a potentially booming part of the economy, contributing employment and economic growth, as well as having high levels of productivity. It also sets out several challenges, including access to finance for creative businesses; creative clusters; international competition; skills shortages and the ‘talent pipeline’; along with innovation and intellectual property. These are crucial issues. These headlines from the report, about the strong growth and international reputation of British creative business, conceal a set of proposals that will do little to address the inequalities at the heart of creative industries in the UK.

The report lumps together several different occupations under the heading of creative industries, which is a longstanding issue for policy in this area. This means that high performing areas, such as database design by IT consultants, are treated as the same sector as creative and performing arts. As extensive research shows, these are very different types of activity with very different workforces and very different levels of economic performance. The report seeks to have its cake, of economic good news from technical IT activities, and eat it too, by suggesting this applies to attractive cultural occupations such as acting, art, or performance.

These latter occupations are well known for the unequal and unfair characteristics of their workforce. The report pays lip service to these issues of inequality in the creative workforce. It identifies barriers to entry associated with class, gender and race. At the same time, it is open about its position that ‘employers alone will not solve this problem’. Its recommendations suggest there is an undersupply of skills for the creative industries; that young people need more role models; and they need to be made more aware of the diversity of jobs available in the creative economy.

All of these suggestions move the responsibility for the institutionalised sexism and racism across the creative sector from employers and organisations to the individual. If we ask why the low level of women in senior roles in IT; why the constant controversies about representations of BAME communities in film, TV and on stage; or about the ‘class ceiling’ for actors, then the report’s answer is clear: women, ethnic minorities, and the working class (all of which are intersecting and overlapping constituencies) just need to try harder, be more aspirational, and work on their skills for businesses. In effect, a crucial intervention into government industrial strategy is asking those communities excluded that they must just strive harder.

It is well known that the creative industries, as currently organized, are a closed shop, open to very few that are not privileged. The irony here is that they are also a sector, as a wealth of academic research shows, that believes in meritocracy, and is left wing, and supportive of diversity. The sector is also unlikely to have voted leave and it is supportive of many social issues, such as freedom of movement or immigration, which leave voters reject. Indeed, Bazalgette’s report makes it clear that visas and immigration are a crucial element to the economic success of creative industries.

This point returns to the rhetoric of May’s speech. By calling for ‘creative’ solutions to the problem of Brexit, May is addressing a sector of British society least ideologically interested in supporting her agenda. She is also, in her pursuit of a ‘creative’ relationship with the EU that foregrounds immigration control, likely to further alienate creative workers and damage creative businesses. Taken alongside the focus on talent pipelines and skills development in Bazalgette’s report, industrial strategy may produce a creative sector that does little to encourage those from outside privileged starting points, whilst being even less likely to show support for the goals put forward by May and the Brexiteers.

28th September 2017

Civil society and the Brexit opportunity

The ancients defined ‘politics’ as the art of living in cities. How could large numbers of people, not related to each other, co-exist peacefully? The answer was to develop institutions, resembling the families or kinship groups of the countryside, combining economic with social functions: churches and guilds, businesses and trades unions, charities and community groups. Out of the competition and collaboration of these institutions a civil order arose, and drove the prosperity of the West.

Cities are once again where it’s at: half the population of the world lives in them, and the global economy is increasingly a marketplace of great ‘metro regions’ dealing with each other without reference to national borders or governments. For the people living in these cities, however, what matters isn’t just the efficiency of trade, but the quality of settlement. City dwellers are, in David Goodhart’s scheme, Somewheres as well as Anywheres. And civil society is, today as in ancient times, the way to make cities work.

Everywhere formal politics is polarising; a shallower, shoutier discourse is taking hold. This is matched by the decline in formal engagement with the institutions of society: membership of churches, trade unions and political parties are at their lowest on record, and falling. But beneath these headlines, another set of trends is flowing the other way. Party membership may be falling, but political activism is on the rise; and while people may not belong to traditional religions or trades unions, they are building alternative – and rather similar – communities of their own.

Beneath the shouting, a radical consensus is forming. It is founded on the fact that for most people, belonging trumps freedom and people are prepared to sacrifice liberty in exchange for order. The problem is the sort of order they choose. When offered protectionism or free trade, state control or private enterprise, more and more people choose the former options.

Could it be because this is the only choice on offer – the only proclaimed alternative to a world where people feel increasingly rootless, disconnected and alone? What if there were a different offer, another way of giving people a sense of order, of something to belong to – a politics which doesn’t erect walls at borders or force society into the straight-jacket of state control?

This is the radical consensus: ‘consensus’ because people from across the political spectrum are signing up to it, and ‘radical’ because it threatens a lot of assumptions behind the status quo. It consists of some sensible-sounding principles: invest in prevention not just cure; devolve decision-making as close to the affected population as possible; mix funding to spread costs and spur innovation; give people agency and responsibility by empowering them to manage their own services, whether as individuals or communities.

So far, so Liberal Democrat. But the Lib Dems will never do it and – on current form – neither will the other parties. Because the real implication of these principles is to bust open the monopoly of Whitehall and create a rich distributed economy of independent associations and businesses responsible for social welfare.

In each area of domestic political priorities, civil society has a big part of the answer. The obesity epidemic and the mental health crisis both cry out for effective healthy activities, supported by the statutory system but provided locally through independent agencies – as we are beginning, slowly, to see with the social prescribing movement. As Rohan Silva argues, affordable housing could be provided through Community Land Trusts. Refugees are best settled via community sponsorship. Looked After Children, ex-offenders, addicts and the homeless all need the sort of support which society, not the state, is best at. As we saw after the Grenfell Tower fire, the local social sector, not the council, is the real infrastructure of a community.

I said ‘everywhere’ formal politics is polarising – but not quite everywhere. This weekend Angela Merkel is expected to cruise to a fourth election victory, showing that in Germany, at least, the centre is holding. Among the many reasons for this, detailed by Matthew Elliot and Claudia Chwalisz in their paper for the Legatum Institute, is that the post-war German political tradition has a high degree of resistance to populism. Part of this is due to the role of civil society in managing local civic life; as Lord Glasman (a Labour cheerleader for the radical consensus) has argued, the German model gives people at all levels of society a sense of agency and common cause.

Liberty is in fact the friend of order; freedom and belonging are necessary, if often awkward, bedfellows. Socialism and nationalism flourish when neither free markets nor civil society are properly understood and promoted; when people lack a sense of home, they respond to appeals for a fortress.

The Government’s vision for Britain should rightly be an open, global, trading nation; but also a place where people want to live, raise their families and know their neighbours. Getting this balance right requires national leadership and vision, but it also requires a thousand local accommodations, mediated through social institutions.

In this regard at least, Brexit can make us more German. As the Charities Finance Group has shown, recovering control over VAT means charities will be able to claim back hundreds of millions of pounds a year; ending the EU State Aid rules means non-profits and charities can be preferred in commissioning. These two things alone herald a renaissance in the British social sector and a vast new market for social enterprise. If the Government would press on with localism and transfer more assets and services to community groups, we could yet see the Big Society (called something else, no doubt) become real.

This article was first published at Reaction

27th September 2017

It’s secular ceremonies that pressurise me the most

Religion is quite a new idea. Prior to the eighteenth century, few people would have thought to label part of life as “religious”, separate from everything else. Of course, there were times when they attended places of worship, and aspects of life in which religious leaders were more involved than others. But what we now call religion reached into all areas of life, from education and healthcare to government and personal relationships.

This is not simply because more people were “religious”. It was about the way that society was structured and understood. While today religion is seen as being primarily a private activity, for many people at certain points of history it has been entirely public. When the Victorian Prime Minister William Melbourne heard an evangelical sermon urging listeners to apply Christian principles to their daily lives, he responded by expressing his horror that “religion is allowed to invade private life”.

This legacy goes some way to explaining why it can be so hard to determine what is and isn’t a “religious” event today. The percentage of weddings and funerals that are “secular” is rising and this trend is likely to continue. But it would be a mistake to suggest simply that we used to choose religious ceremonies and are now choosing secular ones. In western Europe, the involvement of religious institutions in marriage has varied and changed in many directions over the last millennium. Only in the mid-eighteenth century was “common-law” marriage abolished in England, requiring almost any couple wanting a legally recognised marriage to go through a ceremony run by a church (the exemptions for Jews and Quakers are, bizarrely, still on the statute book). Over a century later, civil marriage was introduced, prompting protests from clergy worried about their loss of power.

The connections between “religious” and “civil” ceremonies flow in both directions. The Sunday after the Manchester bombing, I sat in a Presbyterian church in Belfast at which the preacher read out Tony Walsh’s poem This is the Place, made famous when Walsh had read it at the moving memorial ceremony in Manchester a few days earlier. So not a secular ceremony echoing a religious one but a religious event taking inspiration from secular art.

In 2011, before same-sex marriage was legalised in England, two male Christian friends of mine married each other in a non-legally recognised ceremony. It was a Christian ceremony, which they put together with the help of friends and family. There were Bible readings, a blessing and a sermon. An informal “civil” group had organised a ceremony without reference to religious authority. But the content, and the motivation, was clearly religious.

This sort of confusion between the religious and the civil is one reason why I am cautious about simply predicting – and welcoming – a general increase in secular organisations running ceremonies.

My second reason for being cautious comes down to values and beliefs. This is not because I object to civil ceremonies – far from it. Rather it is an objection to the sort of ceremony that everyone is pressurised to join and no-one is expected to object to. In a multifaith society, it is thankfully becoming more acceptable not to join in religious events in which you do not believe. This is not tolerated, however, when it comes to “secular” national events such as royal weddings or Remembrance Sunday. I have always found that objecting to the monarchy or the armed forces triggers both bewilderment and a particularly deep sort of anger on the part of those who deem such institutions to be “non-political” (one of the greatest privileges that can be accorded to an organisation is for it to defined as “non-political”, a euphemism for “beyond criticism”).

When I feel pressurised to join in a ceremony that goes against my values, it is nearly always a “secular” event. Refusing to wear a red poppy or to refer to the Windsor family by anachronistic titles are seen as beyond the pale by those who insist we must all take part in the “secular” rituals of monarchy and militarism. I was sent some of the most abusive messages I’ve ever received on the day of the royal jubilee in 2012, when I said on Radio 4 that I would not be celebrating and referred to Elizabeth Windsor by her name.

Remembering all victims of war by wearing a white poppy, or celebrating the value of all people’s lives on the day of a royal wedding, are choices that are mocked and attacked by supporters of the establishment in the same way that their ancestors derided religious events that were outside the Church of England.

Whether a ceremony is labelled as religious or civil matters far less to me than the values it upholds. We need to broaden the choices available – and to be free to choose.

26th September 2017

Nowhere to call home: England’s ‘hidden homeless’

Work as a legal aid housing lawyer throws up all kinds of scenarios.

Many of our clients have already been evicted and are homeless. The image of homelessness that most commonly springs to mind is rough sleeping, but we spend much time advising and representing the ‘hidden homeless’: meaning those not visible sleeping on the street, but who also have nowhere to call home. They are hidden behind closed doors sleeping on friends’ sofas, crowded into one room of a hostel, they occupy garden sheds, garages and family houses – with one family in each bedroom. They are squeezed into council temporary accommodation units and left in limbo, with no guarantee of when they will be able to move into a permanent home of their own.

In July 2017, councils across England were providing temporary housing for around 120,540 children with their families, and this number is rising. Homelessness is triggered by many things. The loss of an assured shorthold tenancy is the number one cause, when private landlords give notice that they want their property back and are not required to give a particular reason. Relationship breakdown, sudden loss of a job, domestic violence, illness, financial difficulties and innumerable unexpected life events all contribute to people losing their home.

“They are hidden behind closed doors sleeping on friends’ sofas, crowded into one room of a hostel, they occupy garden sheds, garages and family houses – with one family in each bedroom”

It is not a simple matter to find a new home after a becoming homeless. Finding affordable private rented housing is becoming harder all the time as rents rise but housing benefit levels remain frozen. The waiting lists for council and social housing are enormous. Private landlords are increasingly unwilling to let their properties to those on low incomes or benefits, some specifically stating that they will not even consider tenants who will need to apply for housing benefit to help them pay their rent. Welfare reform has also contributed to the dysfunctional housing system – the new scheme of Universal Credit has dealt a devastating blow to renters, as new claims often take 8 weeks or more to process. So tenants are unable to pay their rent for at least 2-3 months, and what landlord will tolerate that?

People who have searched in vain to rehouse themselves are often left with no alternative but to turn to their council offices to request urgent help. However, they are not always treated lawfully – or with respect. It is true that local authorities are under immense pressure with tightened budgets and reduced housing stock available to them. A recent BBC2 documentary ‘No Place to Call Home’ showed one housing officer in Barking & Dagenham describing their department as ‘a housing options service without any options,’ as the demand for their services severely outweighed the supply.

However, this lack of resources is often translated into scare tactics to deter people requesting housing help from their council. I have seen a range of different responses from authorities across the country. Applicants are often handed a long list of documents and informed that before any help will be provided, they must produce all the documents on the list. One homeless client I advised who was (very obviously) 9 months pregnant was initially not permitted to make an urgent homeless application, as the documents she had produced did not include a doctor’s note to confirm she was pregnant.  Another pregnant, 18 year old client was inexplicably informed that her application for urgent housing could not be processed because her father’s name was not on her birth certificate.

Young people are frequently passed between housing and social services departments, or between different authorities when neither wants to take responsibility for giving assistance. One 16 year old client approached his council for help after he was forced to leave home. He spent 9 months sleeping rough in a tent whilst social services and housing argued about who should help him.

A single mother came to me with two young children, bleary-eyed and covered in insect bites, having spent a few weeks living in a garden shed. The council had evicted them after my client had to spend some unexpected time out of the country to care for her sick mother. They had returned to the council to ask for assistance, but none was forthcoming and so the shed was their only option. When legally challenged, the council relented and reluctantly provided the family with accommodation that was far too small (no room for enough beds) and was 2 hours away from the client’s place of work and her children’s school. When the council was challenged again, the response was irritable – what on earth was the problem now?  We weren’t asking for the moon, just a decent home within a reasonable travelling distance from school and work.

“Young people are frequently passed between housing and social services departments, or between different authorities when neither wants to take responsibility for giving assistance”

Some homeless families are threatened with separation from their children, when they cannot get assistance from the local housing authority and are compelled to turn to social services. Families who present as homeless are frequently told that they cannot be housed together, but instead their children will be taken into care. It’s an effective way of scaring families away from the council offices. This often happens when families are not owed duties by the housing department (for example they may be deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless’ due to rent arrears and eviction). Social services have duties to assist children in need – which can include helping to house a homeless family together, perhaps by way of helping with a rent deposit.  There are often no child protection issues save for their homelessness, which can and should be resolved without the far more expensive and inappropriate threat of foster care.

One client found herself homeless when she built up rent arrears in the midst of trying to resolve some difficult personal circumstances.  With a low wage cleaning job and a 9 year old autistic son to care for, social services were her safety net, as her homeless application failed and she could not find a landlord who would accept housing benefit. To heap further distress on the already humiliating experience of having to ask for help in the first place, she was told forcefully at her first interview that she could not be assisted, but her son would be taken into care. Her son was present and became understandably terrified.  Her fear of losing him resulted in them both sleeping in her car for several nights before she obtained legal advice.

I have known ’hidden homeless’ clients, including lone teenagers and families with children, ask for help with housing, but end up resorting to sleeping on night buses, in hospital A & E waiting rooms, in fast food restaurants, train stations and in cars.  They stay on friends’ sofas and move on when they outstay their welcome. Their lives are in a constant state of flux, living out of boxes and paying extortionate fees to storage companies. The children cannot sleep properly, they have nowhere to bring their friends to play, they have no space to do their homework and their school work suffers. Their experiences will impact them forever.

Different organisations, community groups and individuals often help where they can. This help varies from homeless cold weather shelters to the offer of a spare bed for a few nights. It sometimes takes the form of a hot meal at a community centre, a foodbank voucher or an advocate to attend the council offices and provide support with navigating ‘the system.’  Housing lawyers will of course continue to step in and provide legal advice on a case by case basis to help resolve homelessness, but this must be accompanied by policy change on a wider scale, if the numbers of hidden homeless are to decrease and their experiences of statutory services improve. Legal aid law firms and charities like Shelter cannot and should not be relied on to keep picking up the pieces one by one when people fall through the gaps.

“Different organisations, community groups and individuals often help where they can. This help varies from homeless cold weather shelters to the offer of a spare bed for a few nights.”

Housing benefit rates must increase in line with the level of rents and the government and housing sector must work to increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing.  The introduction of new legislation such as the imminent Homelessness Reduction Act is a welcome sea change in the direction of early intervention to ensure homelessness is prevented or relieved, but for the Act to have teeth and for prevention to truly take place, there must also be affordable homes for people to move into.

In the aftermath of the terrible Grenfell fire, it is also starkly obvious that change is not just needed in policy and on paper, but in the way we manage our social housing system and treat social tenants and those in need of settled housing.  The sub text permeating through the authorities’ attitudes described in the cases outlined above is that those who need to ask for help with housing have no right to be heard, but should be grateful for what they are given – even if what they are eventually given is a substandard hostel in an unfamiliar area, miles away from jobs and support networks.

Following the publication of the Grenfell fire Inquiry terms of reference, the Prime Minister promised that separate consideration would be given as to how best to address the broader issues of social housing raised by the fire – notably, the fact that tenants’ concerns were ignored or left unaddressed for so long and the lack of trust between tenants and the council, along with their Tenant Management Organisation. This is symptomatic of the treatment which is experienced in different ways across the country both by others living in social housing and by those approaching their local council offices for urgent housing help.

We cannot allow the commitment to address these broader issues of social housing to be kicked into the long grass, or for the debate to only tinker around the edges. Now is the time to have a meaningful debate about what social housing means, including how those who need to request housing help from their council are treated. Amongst the myriad of housing issues that need to be addressed, action must be taken to ensure that hidden homelessness becomes a thing of the past.

20th September 2017

Using virtual reality to build solidarity across difference: the case of the Munduruku

The only issue was that the tears made my glasses steam up. But otherwise, Munduruku: The Fight to Defend the Heart of the Amazon is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The multisensory virtual reality installation from Greenpeace, AlchemyVR and The Feelies takes you into the Amazon, where you are invited on a tour of the Sawré Muybu village by Cacique Juarez Sáw Munduruku, chief of the Munduruku Sawré Muybu territory.

In order to make the experience realistic, Greenpeace worked with multisensory production company The Feelies, whose team includes  classically trained perfumer Nadjib Achaibou. They took Achaibou, along with multisensory director Grace Boyle, to this threatened area of the Amazon, to work out how to remake all of the scents of the rainforest, which are wafted beneath your nose as the tour progresses. They recorded the vibrations of the rainforest, which composer Antoine Bertin used to produce a symphony of infrasonic waves, resonating through your body. Heat lamps ensure you feel the sweat of the tropical sun. At one point, a cup of coffee is thrust into your hands, as you sit round a stove.

And that’s before we consider the immersion into a virtual reality headset and headphones, and the extraordinary experience of having a three dimensional world conjured up around you, in every direction. Greenpeace worked with VR director James Manisty from BAFTA-winning AlchemyVR and Director of Photography James Aldred, whose CV includes BBC series Planet Earth, Africa and Human Planet, to record Sawré Muybu in stereoscopic, 360 degree video.  The experience is so realistic that it’s normal, according to the sensory technician who helps people through the experience, for viewers to put out their hand to shake those of people they meet, or to stroke a dog that walks past. As I was winched high up into a tree, I clutched my seat for safety, and felt the motion in my stomach.

But of course, the point of the experience isn’t just the art. The Munduruku people are under threat: while the Brazilian government falls apart, their forests are being chopped and their river is at risk of being dammed.

As producer and Greenpeace staffer Pete Speller says:

“The Tapajós river is the last major tributary of the Amazon that is still free of dams but the Brazilian government are looking to build a complex of hydroelectric dams along the length of the Tapajós which will surround the Munduruku territory of Sawré Muybu.”

The project was originally devised as a way to build support for the protection of indigenous land rights in the Amazon among the country’s urban population, and challenge perceptions of indigenous communities. Greenpeace believes that protecting indigenous rights is the best way to protect the forest. Yet, as Speller says:

“Attitudes towards Indigenous People in Brazil are complex and polarising; they are often seen as holding back the economic prosperity of Brazil. The project was designed as part of Greenpeace Brazil’s ongoing work to challenge this perception amongst urban Brazilian populations to build understanding and solidarity.”

To challenge this narrative, you can’t take thousands of people into the rainforest. But, by pushing at the boundaries of virtual reality, you can transport them there in all but body.

The question of how to build solidarity across difference has long been a difficult one for civil society groups whose concerns stretch beyond geographical boundaries. It’s hard to persuade people to take action on issues that are far away, and different artistic forms have always been a way to break down these barriers – from the iconic photographic exhibitions to films and documentaries to poetry. With Munduruku, Greenpeace have taken that tradition into an emerging art form, and shown that there’s no reason why campaign groups can’t also be key drivers of innovation in the arts.

As Speller explains:

“This links back to Greenpeace’s theory of change around bearing witness. As one of Greenpeace’s founders, Ben Metcalfe, put it ‘Once you have witnessed an injustice, you cannot claim ignorance as a defence for inaction. You make an ethical choice: to act or not.’ Right from the first Greenpeace voyage to Amchitka in the early-70s we’ve always used communications technology to bring stories to people around the world so they can bear witness with us and make their own choice to act. VR is just the latest technology that allows us to do this, though in a more immersive and powerful way.”

When I went along to its only current European showing, in the Future Play VR studio in Edinburgh, this particular installation was high demand: the word had got out, that this was the VR show to see in Edinburgh this year, perhaps because it had been shortlisted for a string of awards in this emerging world. But mostly, it’s not for us: there are five of their VR pods touring Brazil. Already, thousands of people there have taken part in the experience. At the end, as you are pushed out into the river in a canoe, the group’s leader asks you to join them in their fight to save their forest and their way of life. It will be fascinating to see how many do.

A Munduruku boy looks at the Tapajós river, while butterflies fly around him in Sawré Muybu village near Itaituba, in Pará state.
Menino Munduruku observa o Tapajós, enquanto borboletas voam ao redor, na aldeia Sawré Muybu, em Itaituba, no Pará.

19th September 2017

Lessons from Shirebrook: Economic change is nothing new – civil society must shape it, or be shaped by it

To say that society is shaped by the relations underpinning the way that economic activity is organized is not a new idea. It is most famously associated with Karl Marx, but you don’t have to be a Marxist to recognise that culture, customs and civic life are all to some degree influenced by economic forces.

Britain’s economy, like other advanced countries, has undergone immense change in recent decades. An economic model that was once highly dependent on manufacturing and mining in the North, Midlands, Scotland and Wales, has given way to one which has prioritised London’s status as a global hub for financial services, while leaving other regions to suffer from industrial decline.

From the 1840s to the 1960s, manufacturing employed roughly 40% of workers. Now it employs only 8%. Between 2005 and 2010 alone, 600,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. Secure, unionised jobs have been replaced with low skilled, insecure service-orientated roles. Globalisation has swept away entire industries, while advances in computer processing and networked communication has transformed the nature of work. The impact across society has been enormous.

Few places embody these changes more dramatically than Shirebrook, the small town in the Bolsover district of north-east Derbyshire, on the border with Nottinghamshire. A key mining area for over a century, the closure of Shirebrook Colliery in 1993 left a gaping hole economic and social fabric of the community. Today the site of the colliery is still home to the town’s major employer. But the employer is no longer British Coal – it is Sports Direct.

The firm’s national distribution centre was established there in 2005 and employs around 5,000 people. Most are employed on zero-hour contracts, and last year a parliamentary committee said working conditions at the warehouse resembled ‘Victorian workhouse’. A significant number of the workers were recruited from eastern Europe. The council estimates that up to 1,500 people migrant workers arrived in Shirebrook within just a few years.

Such rapid changes have been a source of tension in the community. In last year’s EU referendum, Bolsover returned one of the highest Leave votes, at 70.3%.

For civil society, the challenge is how to adapt in such a fast changing world. Many of the traditional pillars of civil society, such as trade unions and charities, emerged in the context of an economy which no longer exists.

I visited Shirebrook, as part of Civil Society Futures to speak to people about how civil society is responding to these changes. In the village hall I spoke to Ian, a volunteer with the trade union Unite who teaches English to Eastern European migrant workers. He explained that breaking down language barriers is an important way to build cohesion in the workplace and in the community: “We are helping people become members of our community – regardless of where they come from.”

Unite has also pioneered a number of innovative approaches to draw attention to Sports Direct and help affected workers. In 2015, it launched a confidential advice and support line as part of a campaign to confront abusive work practices, and this was followed by a national campaign year in 30 cities, collecting 20,000 signatures on a petition. In 2016 the union won a £1 million back-payment for workers who had been paid less than the minimum wage.

Recent migrants are also contributing to a flourishing of new initiatives designed to build community cohesion. On the main square, I spoke to Natalia, who runs the Two Flags restaurant and café. She explained that she started the café to break down some of the barriers that existed between different cultures in the area: “It’s very important to bring people together from different cultures. My hope is that people will come to (the) café and talk to each other, try new food, and learn from each other.” As well as running the café Natalia also volunteers with the local police and provides translation services for people new to the area.

Change, of course, is nothing new. A cursory review of the history of Shirebrook shows that it has always been a place of change and upheaval. In 1891 the town only had a population of 567, but by 1901 this had increased tenfold to over 6,200 following the opening of the colliery 1896.

People moved to Shirebrook from across the UK and further afield at a scale even bigger than the immigration seen in the last decade. A contemporary account recorded by the Durham Miners’ Museum describes an issue familiar in the town today: “unfortunately the houses were not being built fast enough to satisfy the tremendous growth in population which Shirebrook was experiencing. Some people had to live in tents and huts which were erected in nearby fields. This in turn led to health and hygiene difficulties.”

In that context, a new community came together. In 1898, there was a major strike. Miners were joined by “enginemen and firemen” and shut the pit down, demanding better safety conditions. The mine’s owners tried to bring workers in from Glasgow and South Wales to break the strike, but both accepted train fairs home when they found a picket line. Gradually, conditions improved. The Shirebrook model village – social housing built by the colliery ­– provided homes for the new miners.

In other words, the advent of coal mining itself led to the emergence of new forms of civic society such as trade unions, social clubs, and sports teams – many of which still have a strong presence in the area.

As the example of Shirebrook illustrates, economic change is nothing new. The challenge for civil society is to understand it, to grasp it and to shape it. Looking ahead to the future, this means thinking about the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change, artificial intelligence, automation and an aging population, to name just a few. And let’s not forget about Brexit.

But civil society doesn’t need to be a passive bystander. It can either shape the economy, or be shaped by it. The future of the country hangs in the balance – why should it be left to the state and the market? Civil society can surely lead the way.

18th September 2017

It’s time for charities to make executive pay public (and other highlights from the new Charity Governance Code)

From transparency to board diversity, the new Charity Governance Code is designed to rebuild trust.

Civil Society Futures asked me to blog about the new Charity Governance Code. Although, as chair of the Code’s Steering Group, I’ve written lots of articles about it, this request immediately put me into a spin as I wondered what was so newsworthy and interesting about the Code that would get attention amongst the thought-provoking contributions on the Inquiry’s website to date.

Nick Perks in his excellent blog articulates so well that governance matters, so I don’t want to repeat his words, nor do I want to rake over the charity ‘shock, horror’ stories of the past few years.

That said, the work to produce the new Code, which we also hope not-for-profits as well as charities will use, draws upon what we perceive as the public’s loss of innocence in their relationship with charities, and we highlight how the Code might play a role in re-building that trust.

The background is that since 2005 charities’ have had their own Governance Code. There is a Steering Group of sector infrastructure bodies and umbrella bodies which oversees the Code, and I am the independent (in all senses) chair of that Group.

When the Code was first introduced it set the standard for charities. While many charities used it, it was somewhat frustrating, especially when compared to the adoption rates for other similar Codes in other sectors, that many did not.

Following earlier consultation, we published a new Charity Governance Code in July this year. Publishing the new Code aims to encourage discussion and debate about the Code itself; what the standard of governance should be that charities should aim for in the coming decade; whether charities need to make a measurable shift, and how the Code can be used to raise the bar.

Now I know that good governance is not intrinsically interesting or exciting to most people – your average person participates in civil society organisations because they’re inspired by the cause; because they want to make a difference; not (usually) because they have a profound interest in the process of governance.

Fundamentally, we went to the trouble of updating the new Code because we see that there’s a badge of honour in being a charity: they have that status because they deliver a public good or benefit. Put simply we think that a charity that aspires to meet the Code is a sign that the charity takes its custodian responsibility seriously.

Shifting expectations about transparency

The Code assumes that charities, in their role as custodians of this public good or benefit, should be open in their work, unless there is a good reason for them not to be. Expectations of openness are surely now such that all charities should adopt a redisposition to disclosing information rather than withholding it; and to making a public statement around how their accountabilities are structured and delivered. However, it may be that the concept that ‘sunshine is the strongest disinfectant’ has a while to go before it becomes the norm in the charity sector. To give one practical example, in my discussions with charities I’ve encountered are cautious or reluctant about disclosing senior executive pay, as recommended by the new Code. Most charities do not currently buy into the perceived advantages found in the transparency demonstrated at the BBC and elsewhere.

Embracing diversity and constructive challenge

The new Code deliberately stresses the importance of diversity – in its widest sense – for charity boards. People with different backgrounds, life experiences, career paths and diversity of thought bring a richness to debates about how a charity navigates change. Yet, while some charities are doing great work in this area, the feedback that we’re getting on the new Code is that many charities are nervous about how to make that commitment real; and how it should translate into public accounts for how they are addressing diversity. I wonder if this nervousness also goes to bigger questions about individuals’ time and commitment to participate in civil society, including charities.

A willingness to learn and evolve

The feedback that we’ve received is that, generally, charities are on top of basic policies and procedures. The area for development is seen as group dynamics – how people work together and how constructive challenge might be embraced to enable richer discussions and better solutions. The Code explicitly suggests that good boards will take time-out to discuss their dynamics and ability to work together as a team.

Our premise is that a forward-looking board is one which embraces a regular review of their performance, and that they aren’t scared by such a prospect. The Code recommends that every three years larger charities seek an external evaluation to provide critical challenge and scrutiny to the organisation. This is an approach found in housing, sport and listed companies. However, it will be a new development for many in the sector, as a review of larger charities’ governance by Grant Thornton carried out in 2015 found that relatively few charities report board evaluations, with the majority making no reference to having undertaken one at all.

Of course, much will stay the same when looking at organisation’s governance, but the Code is intended to enable charities to ask profound questions about how they’re structured and organised to ensure that they retain the ‘good’, without becoming fixed or inflexible about the possibilities and benefits of potential changes.

The next few years will show whether the Code has achieved that aim.

We look forward to hearing any feedback on whether and how the Code works in practice and its relevancy for charities and their boards.


11th September 2017