Cameron’s ‘big society’ concept is as hard to grasp as it is to buy into. It’s centered on the notions that people will volunteer to provide public services in place of the state and that residents should drive local council spending and direction.
Phrases like ‘community empowerment’ and ‘people power’ guff through big society rhetoric. There are already training courses (complete with hefty price tags) for government and third-sector officers who, presumably, can’t picture big society themselves.
The thing is – none of it matters a damn. Neither ‘community empowerment’ nor ‘people power’ will make it past rhetoric under Cameron’s administration. The realities of Tory rule in local government are vicious service cuts and a chilling detachment from people who need public services. There is no engagement. There is no consultation with poorer communities. Funding is cut and services eliminated without a word of discussion with service users and providers.
We’ve focused on this for several years at the Tory Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet councils. Let’s spend some time now in Skelmersdale – a working-class town in the Conservative West Lancashire borough:
Skelmersdale is a small (pop 38,000), Labour-voting new town that was built in the early 1960s to rehouse families from Liverpool estates.
Skem’s sprawling green fields and bright new estates drew the young families crowd in droves: Skem local Theresa Mackin, for example, made the move from Liverpool 44 years ago â€˜because it was green, and I got a house [instead of a flat].’
â€˜We felt like films stars, to have this new house when we just got married,’ says Barry Nolan, a plumber and local councillor who moved from Bootle to Skem in 1966.
Ted and Hazel Scully, and Sandra Porter were also impressed. Ted worked as a builder when he and Hazel moved to the Firbeck and Findon estate in Skem 35 years ago. He and Hazel had young children, and they liked Skem’s green fields and sense of community. There were new schools for the kids and a decent standard of living for a family on a builder’s wage.
They also believed that council tenancy was synonymous with security.
Alas – all that has changed.
For the past three years, Firbeck and Findon tenants have been battling council plans to demolish their homes. Their Tory-led borough council wants to demolish the Firbeck and Findon estate, build plush apartments for private sale in its place and move tenants like the Scullies and Porter to homes on less lucrative land (Firbeck and Findon is right next to Skem town centre and the green (if presently unkempt) banks of the River Tawd).
The tenants first heard of the plans in 2007, when they got letters from the council alerting them to the forthcoming demolition. Not a single councillor came to tell them about the plans in person. No meetings with residents – some of whom had lived in their homes for nearly 40 years – were scheduled. Hazel Scully describes the news as “a complete shock. We hadn’t heard anything from the council.” (My own calls to West Lancashire Conservatives have gone unreturned for a year).
It was up to residents to defend their homes. Scully sniggers when we talk about community empowerment: for her, empowerment has meant spending her retirement acquiring an in-depth knowledge of council operations.
She and Porter have written a stack of letters, taken petitions around town, joined tenants’ groups and learned how to bail up councillors and St Modwen’s senior managers (St Modwen’s is the council’s private housing development partner) at meetings, in the street and/or whenever their paths sync. They’ve learned to read council files, shadow key political players and patrol their estate for anyone who looks like they’re planning to swing a wrecking-ball.
‘The council said â€“ don’t worry, bulldozers aren’t coming over the hill in the morningâ€¦ but nobody believes the council,’ Scully says.
Indeed. Here’s Hazel Scully on community empowerment (she starts with a few words on tenants’ concerns about George Osborne’s spending review):
Early in August 2010, David Cameron scared a whole strata when he said secure council tenancy was no longer a right.
I thought about this a lot as I walked around Skem. The likes of Hazel Scully and Sandra Porter don’t see council tenancy – or lifelong council tenancy – as a right, exactly. They see council tenancy as a deal.
Their family breadwinners were low paid, but they worked and paid their taxes and received, in exchange, a home of happy standard. ‘We have real pride in our homes,’ says Scully. ‘They are not just houses. They’re homes.’
Several times over the years, Ted and Hazel thought about buying their flat, but they decided the advantages of buying were oversold. As private owners, they would have struggled to pay for maintenance. They would also have been left with a house worth barely enough for a deposit on another home – flats on Firbeck go for about £55,000 when times are good, which they are not.
As for the private rental market in which the Conservatives have such faith – well, the thought of private rental in this neighbourhood turns people cold. I see why when Scully and Porter take me to look at a block of privately-owned flats at the back of Firbeck and Findon. I feel the fear myself when I see them.
The flats are let to Polish and Portuguese immigrants. You don’t have to be a council tenant to take a dim view of the prospect of life at the mercy of this sort of landlord:
Scully and Porter made an unhappy discovery while they were trawling through council papers last year. They saw that Firbeck and Findon had been left off the capital works programme for 2010. No money had been set aside for maintenance work on the estate.
They tore round to the town hall. The council argued there was no point spending money on the estate if it was to be demolished. Scully and Porter argued that their flats would end up looking a lot like the ones owned by private landlords if they were left to rot while the council dithered over demolition.
The council backed down. The tenants are not sure why – they say they like to think their successes are triumphs of people power, but suspect the truth is the recession is forcing the council’s hand. Regenerating Skem by building private flats for sale on Firbeck and Findon was a brighter idea in 2007 than it is in 2010.
Whatever the case, the council officers have turned up on the estate for graffiti cleaning, pavement fixes, a coat of paint for council flats and new grass to replace dying shrubs.
‘Could be a sweetener to buy us off,’ Scully says, but even if it is, she’s delighted with it. That coat of paint and those small squares of new grass have given people renewed pride in their estate.
Which could be useful.
The truth is that these people are on their own.
There’s an awful crisis of representation for people who rely on council housing. Let’s end this chapter with Hazel Scully on Rosie Cooper, her local MP: