Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Democracy – not the same as getting what you want

I had a very enjoyable career in the field of planning.  By far the most satisfying aspect of writing planning policy is discussing what you are doing with the interested general public.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, when someone shows sufficient interest in your work, and they are driven to come and talk to you about it, there is little more satisfying than talking about it.  In planning, people were often driven by objection to something – a housing proposal near them, a development that they felt was detrimental to their area, something already happening that they didn’t like.  Discussion would often lead to understanding, even if it didn’t resolve objection.

Objection without understanding is objectionable in itself.  If someone can’t be bothered to find out the reasons behind an action, but just object, this is lazy and ignorant.  I find petitions tend to be the most obvious example of this.  Many petitions are blindly signed without any feeling toward the issue being petitioned about.  Even worse than this, however, is complaining that your objection wasn’t listened to; what the objector usually means is that they didn’t get their own way.  Just because a person objects, doesn’t mean the recipient will change their view.  How many times have I faced angry people who think that they weren’t listened to just because things weren’t changed to reflect their view?

I raise this because the recent vote by the Church of England demonstrates a similar principle, and no-one seems to have noticed.  To me, the Church’s decision not to have women bishops is insanity.  How a significant organisation that literally preaches equality, compassion, opportunity and understanding can deliberately restrict the progression of a particular sex is totally beyond me.  How it can go on batting this issue backwards and forwards decade after decade in clear opposition of most people in this country is mind-blowing.  How it can have such a ridiculous voting system which allows a minority to maintain an untenable status quo is quite astonishing.   But it does.

The furore that followed the vote is understandable.  But, they have voted; those eligible to vote have cast it.  The rules of the vote have been followed, the decision has been made.  This was a vote carried out within the rules set out.  A position has been reached which cannot be questioned – the resolution has to be the official position of the Church.  The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury was very outspoken, clearly in favour of the ordination of women, and pressed the Church to ‘resolve the issue once and for all’.  It seems to have escaped even him that they have just resolved it.  He is effectively moaning because he didn’t get his way.

The same is true of all of those speaking out against the decision in favour of women bishops.  Of course the outcome is stupid; of course the outcome is flying in the face of where we are in this 21st century; of course they should have made another decision.  But for now, they have resolved it.  The issue won’t go away; they will vote again in time; but really, stop going on about it just because you didn’t get your own way.  There is a process, you know.

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What value do local people bring to placemaking?

Google ‘Andover Estate’ and you’ll find a relentless list of negative outpourings about this sprawling but dense Council estate north of the Seven Sisters Road – police, assaults, witnesses, drugs, gangs, fear, murder.  You might find that Ann Widdecombe spent a night or two on the estate in 2006 and didn’t leave it with a flattering opinion.   You could stumble on something positive, but the chinks of light are hard to come by.

At the beginning of  my career, in the mid 1990s, the most satisfying part of town planning was explaining the process of forward planning and policy writing to those who came to the office, usually because they’d found out that something was going to be built that would affect them.  When people engaged directly with the process, they understood what we were trying to do; as important, if not more important, we understood what drove them and what their concerns were.  Working with the public has remained the most satisfying element, and as ‘consultation’ became ‘engagement’, as coming to us has become going to them, and forward planning has become community led planning, it remains so.
On the first visit of a neighbourhood planning project on the estate in 2011, and with prior knowledge limited to that Google search, I struggled to find the way into Andover from the surrounding roads.  It was forbidding, impenetrable.  The estate was hard and harsh; there were no clear lines of sight; walkways criss-crossed overhead, external stairways rose up and twisted out of sight, lines of garages faced the roads, and each other, at ground level.  People seemed suddenly to loiter, collect, watch, threaten.  Trees and open spaces were worn, play areas cried out for attention and repair.  I was daunted.

I was meeting Richard Schunemann, long term resident and campaigner on the estate and, as it transpires, all round inspiration.  Fighting, yet accepting of, the negative perception of the estate, Richard and his colleagues running the community hub at the heart of the estate had achieved incremental and iterative improvement over ten years, including a beautiful community space right in the middle of the estate, complete with bespoke, artistic children’s play space.  Still unwilling to give control to the Council, he put some trust in my organisation to deliver a plan to use left over space on the fringes of the estate more productively.

Richard himself was unsure of the feelings of the residents towards the possibility of new development on the estate, perhaps new people coming in.  Gathering a diverse group of residents on the final day of the project, even he was surprised at the loyalty residents had towards the estate, how people liked the location and the sense of community that existed, but also at the severe problems of accommodation, maintenance, access and fear which was very real.  As a resident, he was opened unto the stories the estate offered, to the experience of living there beyond the perception.

The bottom line is that the local people will always have a unique perspective on place.  They live there, they use the spaces and buildings, and they’re there each day, day and night.  It’s a perspective that planners, politicians, architects, funders and others cannot have.  Naturally, residents usually don’t have the perspective of those trained to understand policy, financial and legislative context, but it is the reason why each should let the other in and allow trust to build.  Any other way is ultimately flawed.

This post was written for The Glass House Community Led Design blog as part of their Debate Series sponsored by The Academy of Urbanism, and it can be viewed here.

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The Enfield Shock Cash Mob

I’ve just returned from the 5th Enfield Shock Cash Mob.  The aim is to gather a (friendly) mob and get them to meet in a pre-arranged place, each with a minimum of £10 in their sweaty hand (or is that just my hand?), and descend on a local shop to spend the money.  The mobsters don’t know in advance where they’re going to, and the shop isn’t expecting them.  The idea is to support the high street, independent traders and buy locally.  All are in the hands of the organiser.  It’s simple and brilliant – and in Enfield, it’s growing.

Enfield’s ring leader is Karen Mercer, who also runs My Coffee Stop on Enfield Chase station.  She got the idea from a similar scheme in Haringey, but the origins are in the US.  Karen’s approach is different because of all the mystery in advance.  Previous shock mobs have primarily focused on food stores, but as 16 people gathered in Enfield town centre this morning, Karen informed us of where we would be descending.

Cosy Cove, in Burleigh Way, Enfield, is a pop-up shop run by 16-25 year olds and backed by Retail Ready People.  It’s a 12 week volunteering and training programme designed to give young people a chance at getting some retail experience, but is also designed to rebuild the reputation of both young people and Enfield after the riots last summer.  Karen explained that not only does today’s cash mob support small town centre shops, it also supports young people and the charitable efforts behind the shop.

After an opening day on Saturday, attended by the local MP, Nick de Bois, the descent of almost 20 people at once into the small space must have been a welcome relief on a crisp late autumn day when trading in the morning looked to have been quite slow.  Mobsters were treated to a range of locally produced and sourced t-shirts, hoodies, cards, tote bags and toiletries.  The cash register was sent into a joyous spin and there were happy faces all around.

The shock cash mobs are proving to be very popular, and Karen – with her infectious energy and optimism – has drawn praise from traders, crafters, the shops themselves and has even caught the attention of the BBC and appeared on News 24 to discuss the idea.  It looks like it may go from strength to strength over the Christmas period.

More can be found about Cosy Cove here.

More on the Cash Mob here.

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A Big Issue with The Big Issue

I recall at the beginning of the 1990s the launch of a magazine to support homeless people, allowing them to some extent work, or gain some recent experience of work, with a view to helping them out of the homeless or marginalised situation they found themselves in.  On the whole, The Big Issue appears to have flourished, and it is sold as a street newspaper across the world.  

I have bought the magazine on a regular basis at times in my past, and I still buy it occasionally now.  Generally speaking, I will look out when I see a seller to see who or what is being shown on the front cover and make a decision to buy on that basis.  I have always admired the way the magazine draws in big names to encourage people to buy it, and understand entirely why this has to be done.  I’ve never bought from a particular place or seller, but will buy from anywhere or anyone when the urge arises.  In principle, I support the idea, aims and the philosophy of the magazine.

However, the front cover aside, I find little of interest in it to make me a regular reader.  There is little to engage me, and buying it is more of a gesture than genuine interest in content, which may be a common emotion amongst buyers.  I have become concerned at the sheer number of sellers now on the streets, particularly in London, where one can barely walk a couple of blocks in the central area without coming across a seller and where sellers are frequently seen in the quieter suburbs – we have a regular outside our Morrisons beyond the North Circular, and always the same woman.  In truth it leads me to question whether the model still works for homeless, vulnerable and marginalised people; whether they can truly leave the trap they are in or whether the sheer volume of people coming to our cities is overwhelming this strand of potential support.

A more worrying development amongst sellers – especially in the heart of in central London – is a desperation to sell the magazines.  As someone who sell on market stalls, I can understand the frustration of having people consistently walking past you and not engaging with you in any way.  In central London, the high numbers of people walking past not engaging with you, combined with the desperate social situation one might find oneself in must be even worse.  But, recently and on more than one occasion, I have seen sellers shouting and swearing and passers by who are not stopping to buy The Big Issue.

Now no magazine is ever going to appeal to everyone; not everyone is going to be empathetic with people sleeping on the streets and not all sellers are going to become irate, but the trend – if it is a trend – for Big Issue vendors venting frustrations owing to a failure to sell magazines is going to undermine the magazine as a whole, and may turn some people off the causes that the magazine is seeking to address.  If the number of sellers is increasing, if the concentration of sellers is increasing, if the circulation of the magazine reduces in any way at all, the frustrations may grow.  It’s a pattern that those running the enterprise ought to keep a watch on.

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