For years, I worked on behalf of the community sector to help central government (and the voluntary sector) change their assumptions about community groups and small charities. In governance terms, I was advocating a lighter touch regime for un-constituted and emerging citizen-led groups and trying to avoid the mechanistic application of wider models of charity governance to their rather less formal lives. This week I attended the AGM of a local Tenants and Residents’ Association (TRA) which exemplified the ways in which citizen participation is corralled, shaped and controlled by the authorities.
My experience at this TRA is, I want to stress, not peculiar to housing groups but illustrates a tendency in residentially-based bodies such as community associations, village halls and small community centres. In trying to help such bodies play a role in local affairs, the models of governance and the norms of behaviour demanded by larger decision-making agencies are all too often ‘imposed by consensus’. The only model proffered is one appropriate to another more formal setting and another age – and no one knows any different!
Getting to the AGM
In this instance, the AGM 2012 was called after AGM 2011 was called and inquorate five times. This AGM was brought about because one citizen with energy, experience and enthusiasm has moved in and made it his mission to revive and renew this area. His work had already led to several successful projects being funded and delivered in the area and he had now worked with the chair/treasurer and the secretary – the treasurer had resigned and so the chair has been covering those responsibilities as well – to bring about a new committee.
The chair had been doing the job reluctantly for years and now wanted to step down. This had not been possible whilst other willing people were not available. The secretary and the new guy had put their heads together to gather opinion, to seek funding and to coordinate the delivery of some new play facilities and some new flower-beds. They had searched high and low for alternative sources of money and made several pending applications for further resources for the TRA.
Cold, dingy and reluctant
The meeting was held on a cold February evening in the tired TRA hall. (Snowy photo above – credit: Zara Lloyd, my organiser colleague in Walworth) The heating was not cooperating and so hats, coats, scarves and gloves were of the moment. To obtain a quorum, adverts / agendas had been widely displayed in the relevant blocks and the new guy was that evening eagerly visiting good contacts to encourage them to attend. The meeting was started when the local authority housing officer introduced herself and the chair opened the meeting by thanking people for attending and pointing to the advert / agenda on people’s seats. She then said little for the rest of the evening.
Issues at random
The meeting was essentially chaired by the housing officer, who whilst fair and clear was also keen to get the business done quickly – given the cold. Residents raised issues from the floor at random as they saw an opportunity to ‘have their say’. Most were voiced in combative terms, with some angry voices and forceful language. ‘It’s not fair!’ ‘We weren’t consulted!’ ‘How much longer will it take?’ – these were the phrases that peppered the discussion. Some of the issues raised could be taken up by the new committee at their first meeting but the range of concerns were never constrained by the nature of this annual meeting or the powers of this body.
When issues such as parking permits and repairs were raised, my neighbour – one of the ward councillors – would step quietly in and suggest that the speaker talked to him after the meeting or, in one instance – in combination with an executive member of the Council who sits for the ward as well – that they would ‘take that back’ for consideration at the Town Hall. Trying to resolve the issues of individual residents is the stock in trade of ward councillors of course but I was struck in this context how disempowering it was for the collective in the room.
Winning the battle
The reality of the meeting – cold and dismal as the circumstances were – was that the LB Southwark was doing all in its power to sustain the TRA, to tackle the concerns of individual residents and to support the emergence of new leadership. In due time, with the assistance of the housing officer in the chair, the annual accounts were accepted and the new committee were voted in unopposed, including the active new resident as vice-chair. (Some constitutional issues arose when no minutes of the AGM 2010 could be found to be agreed!) The housing officer provided packs for the new committee members and promised training for all office holders. I popped up and introduced our work on the estates and the Council’s tenant participation officer introduced herself too. We dispersed into the night – result!
Losing the war
But the meeting had failed on so many levels too. The council’s primary goal had been realised – a renewed TRA leadership at a relatively uneventful AGM. But in the process – and by the process too – the residents of those estates had been taught that they remained completely dependent on the council and on outside agencies to tackle their concerns. Their collective capacity to problem-solve had been completely unexplored. As a bystander, I left saddened and feeling that a shrinking civic bureaucracy was continuing to do things in the same way without offering residents any real power of self-determination, any prospect of co-design.
The following morning I met a woman in another part of Walworth entirely who turned out to be quite involved in her own TRA. She had some ideas for the area which showed that her vision was wider than most of her immediate neighbours. But when I came to ask her about a project idea to improve the immediate patch, she said the TRA had done all those and there was nothing more to do! The routine answer from her neighbours to my question about having an influence on the area’s life reflects the assumption that TRA meetings are the only way to ‘have your say’.
Dependence and collusion
Southwark is exceptional as the largest social landlord in Western Europe. It has nurtured TRAs across the borough and now has over 80 registered with the support service. The role of TRAs may then be disproportionately strong as the only local ‘voice of the people’. However, the unequal interaction between the community’s culture and that of the Council leads to the TRAs remaining dependent and always playing the recalcitrant teenager. They have become in practice part of the governance of the estates and those chairs and secretaries who have been successful can wield significant power in their fiefdom, with the collusion of the Council.
Flexible, resilient and independent
An authentic voice from the grassroots needs to guard against the imposition of norms of behaviour – such as constitutions, agendas, board meetings and working groups – that reflect the assumptions of the outside powerbrokers and do not serve the purpose of the group. We need to explore models of decision-making that are inclusive and support different ideas. Our models of leadership need to be dispersed and contextual rather than fixed in specific groups or roles. We need to use cheap mobile technology to enable involvement beyond meetings and to reach out to new participants. Most of all, we need to sustain a unswerving vigilance over our independence. Surely we must be done with the old moribund ways soon?
Mark Parker (n.d.) Tending Your Board – a seasonal guide to improving the way your Board works Governance Hub / bassac – just to prove that you can still improve the old models whilst working for the new ones!
Hazel Capper (2009) Liberating Leadership – a Fresh Perspective from the Community Sector Community Sector Coalition – an indigenous Frierian / Alinskian model of leadership with resources to make it happen – one I played a part in. Now support training offered by a new social enterprise at http://www.liberatingleadership.co.uk/
Seeds for Change are a collective supporting activists to use non-hierarchical models of decision-making. Their website has a broad range of excellent free resources to help with consensus decision-making, facilitation and planning campaigns. Find them at http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/free/resources#grp
The School of Commoning is an educational resource for those seeking to create fair and sustainable collective resources, be those land, money, buildings, organisations or global society as a whole. They can be found at http://www.schoolofcommoning.com/about-us
Trapese Collective (eds) (2007) Do It Yourself – A handbook for changing our world Pluto Press