I was asked to speak on a panel at a Future of London event at the end of last year. The subject was co-production in the built environment.
I am not feeling co-production.
I am not feeling the built environment.
As in, when I examine my thoughts and feelings on this subject, there is a blank. Given I have been asked to say something, that emptiness will have to change.
The audience was largely council housing officers, planners and developers. That’s the other thing – you have to know your audience and read the room if you want some kind of connection and enlivening dialogue and I do want that.
The event organisers define the topic as:
“Put simply, co-production means a relationship where professionals and citizens sharing power to plan and deliver schemes or services together, such as a successful estate regeneration. Co-production is one way to rethink how we engage with communities – and collaborate with them in a more meaningful way”
My blankness is because I believe co-production is vacuous. A nothing word. Power is not shared. Schemes are not planned together. Engagement is not meaningful. At best it can refer to what we try to do all the time, so why make it something grander than it is? At worst it is a deception and a fraud, claiming to share and care and doing the opposite – a top-down diktat with a bit of PR wrapped around it. To be fair I did say that to the organisers beforehand, so they know what to expect.
If I was to talk to someone on the EL1, 2 or 3 bus about how they’d like to co-produce something, with me, the council, the developer or the NHS, what do you think would happen? The word would mean nothing. Why use words that baffle people? But, if I pushed on and did a bit of translation, I’d still get push back. Usually along the lines of ‘they are just going to do what they always do’. In policy terms, I am being told to eff off.
How do we get to what is real?
I listened to people in the room, I tried to open myself up to what they were saying. I tried to put myself in their shoes. The alternative being to run my own movies on them, going to places I’ve been before in my head and in my day-to-day work.
The question I asked my statutory and private sector participants was: how safe do you feel in your job role, to take risks? Alongside that, how comfortable are you with conflict?
Those questions apply to anyone I work with. I should say, risks and conflict can and maybe should be fun and creative. It doesn’t have to be heavy. A lot of co-production and partnership working is boring, enervating and we should reframe it. It needs disrupting.
Maybe the question I am asking is how does it feel to be you, in your role? Is it safe, can it be dynamic?
The responses I got tended to immediately fix on the limits of what the senior managers and leaders of private and public sector housing and regeneration staff would allow them to do. We hit a limit very quickly. No, there are very definite things I can’t do. No, they don’t allow me to do that. What I understood was that for most staff the need to manage their safety and their relationships internally was far more important than co-production with residents.
The place to start is with what is real for people trying to do co-production. Then we can have a genuine conversation, and then we can take genuine action.
If co-production is about shifting power. It does claim to be that after all. How can you shift power for residents when you can’t empower yourself in your own workplace? If you can’t take risks, you keep having to look upwards to figure out what you are allowed or NOT allowed to do. At its starkest co-production is the authorised lie you have to publicly tell people because you fear for your job. And you fear your bosses more than you fear residents and the community.
There is a difference between words and deeds. There is a difference between strategy and culture. There is a difference between hype and reality. In the workplace there is a difference between what we think and what we say. And residents pick up on that dissonance and reject it in a heartbeat.
That is why only 2% of the population trust developers and 12% of politicians generally. That is why two-thirds of people distrust local councillors and landlords of private housing. (Sources here & here)
If there is this distrust. It is not my distrust. Mori document this year on year in their veracity index, then what is the solution and the action? For me, it is to talk about it, make it visible and, as much as possible, be as open as you possibly can be in actions and words. That vulnerability and candour becomes contagious, in a good way. Co-production is about pretence. What does the opposite look like? Do that.
The other thing a resident said at the event was, rather than trying to play at being developers, shouldn’t councils and housing associations, fulfil their duty of care obligations and just do housing management better, like getting repairs fixed on time and keeping people safe in their homes? Strip it down to the basics, that made a lot of sense.
Thames Life Director
Hey all, I’m Lucy and I’ve been a resident of Thames View for 18 years. I’m a creative at heart with a passion for all things positive that bring people together. I love to sew, paint, dance and play computer games/design using virtual reality.
I came across Thames Life back in 2018 when it was TWCP and I was introduced to Matt by a local group I was planning to create sewing workshops for. Fast forward 3 years and many sewing sessions later, I began working as a peer researcher with Barking Riverside Limited & The Young Foundation on a project named Thames Futures. Here we spoke with over 140 residents with the aim of ensuring the decision makers delivering the new development, respond to the priorities decided by the residents of Thames Ward.
After listening to the many views of my neighbours, the itch to become more involved in my community became so much more intense. I joined a local litter picking group, Roding Rubbish, to help with the clean-up of our green spaces and then got involved with the resident-led Ripple Nature Reserve Reach-Out group, where I found myself back in contact with Thames Life, as they are a hugely valued asset of the group. From then on, I was encouraged by both Nia and Matt to go forth and prosper with my passion and opinions about community resilience and civic strengths. As a result I put myself forward as the RNR’s social media manager and was voted in as Vice Chair of the Thames Ward Residence Association (formally Tenants Residence Association).
As a self-employed small business owner of House Of Loulee, creating African Print children’s clothing, community, in general, was always at the forefront of my mind however I’ve always felt this deep connection to my local community and that I wasn’t doing enough via my business, so when I was approached by Matt to apply for the role of Health Outreach Officer, I jumped at the chance! This would be my opportunity to act on all the research findings and bring my neighbours with me to become a force to be reckoned with. I am a strong believer of strength in numbers, so let us support each other in building community resilience and take actions that will create a community our future generations will be proud to support.
Health Outreach Officer
Hi all, I’m Zahra. A lover of food, travel and Netflix. I have been a resident of Phase 2 on the Barking Riverside estate since 2020 and thank the Lord my husband and I moved to a bigger place ahead of the pandemic! Born and bred a North Londoner, now an East Londoner for the past 7 years and absolutely loving it. Moving from the green of Hainault, to the more urban Barking Riverside, the community feel here is truly what makes this place feel like home.
Pre-Pandemic, I was working in Marketing Agencies activating events, print media and TV and radio ads for global brands such as Guinness, Smirnoff, Silver Spoon Sugar and Jura. I loved my time in the marketing world, the projects were pretty amazing, but it was quite a work hard, play hard environment, which I no longer found rewarding, fulfilling or complementary to settling down and growing our little family. I had felt the itch to move to a different sector but with no idea on what sector or how to make the move.
After working in corporate marketing for 10 years, I found losing my job due to the pandemic, the perfect opportunity to search for a more fulfilling role. I soon found a part time job as Operations & Communications Lead for Church At Barking Riverside, and that helped introduce me to so many wonderful people in the community who make a real impact on those around us. It reignited my love for writing and inspired a dormant want to be active in my community. It led me to join the Resident Editorial Board for The RiverView, become a Trustee for Thames Life (previously TWCP) and be a part of the Barking Reach Resident Association. I have found a passion to make sure everyone on the estate and the wider Borough, has a platform to voice their opinions and concerns, as well as share their loves and joys.
Since getting involved with Thames Life and The RiverView, I was looking for another part time job to supplement my work at the Church. I then found out Zainab (Thames Life Communications & Outreach Officer) would be going on maternity leave and needed cover while she was off. It was the perfect opportunity for me to apply and luckily I was successful! It means I am back to being in full time employment locally and in a position to still be impactful in our community. It also gives me more exposure to the voluntary sector as a whole and all the stakeholders involved.
My hope for the Wards is for everyone to feel they have a place to have their say and speak their truth. Having a young family myself, I really hope this is the area my daughter and those of the next generation can thrive, in a safe environment. Thames Life is and will continue to be a driving force in making that happen and I’m so excited to be a part of the team, even if it’s just for a year!
Communications & Outreach Officer
Funders often ask for a ‘theory of change’ statement. Here’s one I made earlier, from our 2017-2020 strategic plan:
‘long term sustainable change is only possible when it is defined and led by local people, who initiate their own agenda and build it from within the local community.’
It is specific – change only happens when residents lead it from within their communities.
It is also different from most of the other statements, which tend to assume change comes from working across sectors and sharing power. That assumes by working across sectors and sharing power, residents and communities will benefit. That is a lazy assumption and a dangerous one.
What I can confidently believe in, is that when residents and community groups come together, things can genuinely change for the better. Everything else is much less certain.
I put it to you that there are three basic ways to make change happen.
- Change imposed from above by the powerful
- Change from below (when those who are not individually powerful take collective action)
- Change where we meet in the middle, with different levels of power, and thrash things out
My feeling is most change is imposed from above – option 1. And what option 1 does is pretend to be option 3, claiming to be about equal partners finding common agreement.
To avoid this, I go with option 2 as an antidote to phoniness. In archery the idea is to aim and shoot high because of gravity. I know option 2 is going to hit some headwinds, but to hell with it, let’s give it a go!
If we can agree in advance that community-led change often gets derailed, if we know this, in our guts, to be true, then let’s skip the statements about change being possible when powerful organisations come together with less powerful ones. Partnerships and power sharing can happen, but even when it does, it is less than what it is cracked up to be.
Mostly we don’t think much about how change happens and settle for platitudes about how we are all in it together. Let’s be clear: we are not all in it together. There are very real differences of power, identity and money. There are different agendas and that is healthy. Without these differences being made visible and expressed, we might as well settle for dictatorship – see option one.
Because change from above is brutal, we are supposed to all agree that partnership and meeting in the middle is possible and taking place. But it mostly is not. When you next go to a partnership meeting ask who chairs the meeting, who sets the agenda, who does all the speaking, who is getting paid and how much? It is unlikely to be residents or community groups. Better to call it what it appears to be: change from above.
Another way to look at it is, who are the partners who are supposed to be sharing power?
- Public Sector (example: council)
- Private Sector (example: developer)
- Community Sector (example: small volunteer group)
Think of partnership as a three-legged stool. Council, developer, resident group. Then ask if all the legs are equal and how that might affect things.
These sectors – public, private and community – are not remotely equal. The first two have organised people and money, the community does not. Having organised staff and millions of pounds of money is power. Not having money or people who work for you, limits your ability to act. Before buying into the warm words of partnership across sectors, it is worth thinking through how the power imbalance is likely to play out and not pay lip service to what was never the case in the first place.
Partnership has been called ‘the suspension of mutual loathing in the pursuit of money’. That’s a bit harsh but you get the point. Partnership is where voluntary sector groups and ‘partners’ live. This generates gaslighting – mystical vague theories of change about power sharing, a triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one.
If you can imagine a different world, where change flows upwards from communities, it is possible to take the actions to bring this, little by little, into being. For some people this is unimaginable, and it stops there. Community-led change requires imagination and creativity. It will lead to endless frustration and disappointment. Worse than that, community-led change will get turned inside out, manipulated into serving the purposes of other sectors, public and private, endlessly made into a vehicle of convenience.
But imagination and creativity will tell us it can be different, and we will find a way because that is what communities and people do.
Thames Life Director
On Thursday 3rd November, Thames Ward Community Project formally relaunched as “Thames Life.” An evening that brought together local people, and partners, it was a celebration of the pioneering work taking place in the area led by residents. TWCP has evolved from a community project into a community development trust with a new ethos. The vision is one of ‘a diverse and vibrant community where residents are driving change’. Through creating positive spaces, including meet ups and forums, and opportunities for residents to be empowered, Thames Life hopes to uplift resident wellbeing for the long term.
The event was opened by trustee co-chairs Anna Pollard and Josiah Oyekunle who shared on the beginning of the project; being a direct response to the lack of social infrastructure in the area, to its growth of projects by thematic actions groups. They emphasized the need for assets managed by the community to ensure longevity of the project. As a local resident and worker for Thames Life, I shared on my journey from living in isolation of community activities to being fully engaged and how it has changed my perception of living here. Additionally, I shared Thames Life’s new branding and the need for an image that represented our dynamic and exciting future. CEO, Matt Scott ended the talks with our key highlights as community development trust, including the RiverView newspaper, Young Citizen Action Group, Ripple Nature Reserve resident group and work around health.
The evening continued with local entertainment from poet Romeo Murisa (@Swvrthy), DJ Josiah Oyekunle (@TheKingsDecree), and musician Joshua Nwafor (@j_jenius1). Local residents praised the impact of the night on social media:
“We’ve lived in Barking Riverside for 10 years and last night I was overwhelmed by the passion and community spirit by people that have only been in the development a few years.” – local resident
“To see members of the community relaxed and relating was a rejuvenating experience. The expression of experiences, music and poetry dressed the evening. Alongside was refreshments. Thanks everyone.” – local resident
Awesome evening – it was great to see so many people come together from all over the Thames View and Riverside wards. Very well done to all! – local resident
For more information visit our new website to find out more: www.thames-life.org.uk or @thameslifecdt on social media platforms.
Communications and Outreach Officer
What is it?
We are proud to be an accredited Living Wage employer, joining over 11,000 UK businesses and organisations.
The campaign for a Living Wage was started by Citizens UK in 2001, it is a movement of independent businesses, organisations and citizens who believe a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. They have been campaigning since to ensure everyone has a wage that actually meets their everyday needs.
In April 2016, the government introduced a higher minimum wage rate for all staff over 25 years of age inspired by the Living Wage campaign. However, this wage is not calculated according to what employees and their families need to live. The government minimum takes into account what is affordable for businesses.
The real Living Wage rates are higher because they are based on what people need to get by.
Why pay it?
Organisations that pay the real living wage have seen an increase in employee motivation and retention, and as an organisation we believe it’s good for society to practice internally what we believe; people deserve to be paid fairly for their work.
Become a Living Wage employer
Hello everyone, I am Margarida! I love spreadsheets, cycling, video games, cartoons and I believe that with love and community, we can make the world a more welcoming and lovely place for us all.
I first came across TWCP through a friend who had just joined a new project there. The person who was supporting my friend was going on holiday, and she shared concerns about what that could entail. I offered to help and supported the team with some data analysis and tweaking some procedures and systems for that program. It was extremely gratifying to feel so appreciated and useful. At some point I met Matt. We had a great, long chat about our long life commitment to building community, social change models and we shared some of the stories we’ve gathered along our activism journeys.
I’ve been involved in the volunteer sector for over 20 years and although my passions and the projects that I choose to give myself to are broad in scope and ever-changing, building community and improving the lives of marginalised groups has always been at the centre of what I do.
Early this year I covered a maternity leave as Executive Director of a small organisation that works with families with young children in Barking and Dagenham, Early Years Cocoon C.I.C. . I got to know the needs and concerns of our families by working very closely with them. I also realised that families believe there is a huge lack of support and/or are unaware of the available services in the borough. There’s a lot of work to be done in this regard.
When I learned about the Governance Manager vacancy, I knew I wanted it!
What is Governance, you might ask? Governance is “the systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation” (according to The Governance of Voluntary Organisations, Cornforth 2003).
I believe good governance in a resident-led charity is essential. If the regulations and procedures are well designed and clearly communicated, they empower and support staff in their work and help the organisation run smoother, which makes for a better service for everyone, therefore creating a self-feeding cycle of trust within the charity and everyone we encounter. This trust is essential for residents to participate and get actively involved; without which it’s very hard to fulfil the charity’s objectives.
I feel privileged to be working for an organisation that is actively seeking to bring about improvements for the community through social change. I’m excited to get to know the residents and to put my experience in service of a cause I believe in.
Maria Alyokhina wrote the book ‘Riot Days’ (Penguin: 2017) about her experience of activism and imprisonment. Every page a testament to living one’s truth in the face of real and actual oppression. In her case, a feminist in modern day Russia as part of the punk band ‘Pussy Riot’. For those that don’t remember their protest in February 21, 2012, directed at the Orthodox Church leaders support for Putin during his election campaign, first of all where were you and second, never doubt the importance and impact of creative dissent.
Unlike much of the art we see in London, in galleries or regeneration makeovers where something communal or edgy ends up co-opted and corporatized, this is real. Something the powers that be couldn’t pretend they were down with.
I mention it because I think so much of the way charities, the public sector and wider private agencies operate locally can feel like a mutual conspiracy to suck the life out of things. Deadly boring and deeply ineffective. On top of that, repressive – shunning different ideas and perspectives. Under the Best Value regime for commissioning and procurement government spoke of the guiding principles are being the three E’s – equity, economy, efficiency. This could now be updated as the three C’s – control, contract, con-trick. That is sometimes how it feels, repeatedly – control, contracts, conning people. Three card monte.
I am of course being deeply unfair if I leave it there. To quote a former council leader ‘we are all good people stuck in a bad system’ (Barry Quirk – Esprit de corps: leadership for progressive change in local government). He goes on to say:
“Councils are public institutions and as such have a legal and constitutional status, but they are socially constructed. It’s the people in them that make them work or fail. It’s no good blaming the construct when the essence of organization is something that we have built ourselves… if local government is ineffective it’s our own feckless fatalism… that are at fault. If things are not going well, there is no one to blame but ourselves. We socially construct the system that we then claim traps us from being effective. So how can good people escape the trap? First, by being open and honest about the failings and deficiencies”
Taking my lead from this council leader, I also want to be open and escape the trap. My sense is that all is not right, which is why I do community work. I don’t assume equal partnership is a given and I rarely experience it, either for myself but most importantly for community groups and residents. They are not treated as equals. They do not get the justice and respect they deserve. The heating and water supplies often don’t work, the parking fines mount up, the rat problem isn’t tackled, the GP waiting times get longer, the cost of housing goes up and up. Land value rules everything around us – a license to print money. Since 2010 councils have on average at least 50% less money due to cuts. Think about what that means in terms of who does and doesn’t have power and remember ‘if you want change you need power’: land values go up – those who control land that can be developed control everything and stand to profit by it. The rest of us are trapped. So trapped it becomes routine. Which leads me to one of my favourite quotes from an Italian author Italo Calvino:
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Our new vision is about ‘residents driving change’. Our mission ‘to create positive spaces and opportunities for resident empowerment and wellbeing’. Quirk warns of feckless fatalism, Calvino speaks of escape, exhorting those who would not be feckless and fatalistic to be vigilant and give such people ‘space’. Hence our mission – positive spaces. We want spaces – not just buildings and community centers that don’t cost the earth due to spurious notions of financial viability but also the head space and the oxygen in the room to speak up and not be closed down, shouted down, but space to be, to endure, to act in alignment with our own beliefs and agendas rather than incorporation into someone else’s ambitions.
Yes I got all of this from reading a book about a Russian feminist. I do tend to read a lot of books though. It is how I decompress and feel enchantment with the world that is all too often dreary.
Maria Alyokhina writes:
‘You have a routine; you have a schedule for life and living. Do you also have a set schedule for thinking? Why don’t you tell them no? Why can’t you even think about telling them no? Why does this thought seem pointless to you? When did it become pointless for you?’ – p.75 / isolation
Later on she quotes someone else:
‘If you dream alone, the dream remains only a dream; but if you dream with others, you create reality.’ – Subcomandante Marcos
Long may we dream and act together.
As this chapter of working in Thames View and Barking Riverside closes and another begins I’ve been reflecting on our pilot, Wellbeing Navigators. The standout thing for me has been the relationships formed between all our participants and clients. There are so many different activities, groups and projects going on around here that once you open your eyes to them you start to see a different landscape: a network of residents striving to make their neighbourhood more connected, fun and greener. I have seen former wellbeing navigator volunteers and clients go on to work on the Henry programme, start cooking classes at the Participatory City Warehouse or leading campaigns to open up our local nature reserve. One thing leads to another as they say.
During our pilot we have helped people retrain – learning skills in motivational interviewing, mental health awareness and social prescribing and to seek new opportunities for employment – coming out of the pandemic. It’s been heartening to have applicants call me to say that having been helped out of rough patches themselves they just want to give something back to their community having been locked away for 18 months of lockdown. This eagerness has allowed us to reconnect many isolated residents back with their community, get active and feeling healthier again. Just a few warm conversations can ignite a life changing transformation. One resident we were chatting to was unaware that our Barking Food Forest was literally on his doorstep, now he’s helping to run it!
Over the course of walking groups, workshops, community events and 1-2-1s I have seen neighbours who have never met before, meet for the first time and form strong bonds of solidarity as they discuss the common challenges of bills, health, homes and overcoming loneliness in a busy city. It’s quite surprising sometimes how easily friendships can form. Despite the fact many of us spend most of our time looking at screens surrounded by four walls, once we are out and about talking to people we really are all the same: looking for a sense of connection and belonging within our community.
Wellbeing Navigator Volunteer Coordinator