Stories rarely remain unchanged, the context in which they’re told matters just as much as the context referred to by the story. I wrote this sequence of 21 stories about 15 months ago. You may have read some or all of them in their earlier form. Reading it now, we perhaps see something different, especially as we consider the role of Business and Community after the lockdown.
As I republish these stories, I revise and polish them. Some need little change, for others the changes are extensive. At the end of each story, I add reflections based on where my thinking has moved onto, especially in the context of the Lockdown.
The Demon King?
I quite enjoy playing the villain. When I received a phone call from a terrified council officer, I first realised I’d the part! Perhaps she thought I entered committee meetings through a trapdoor in the floor, exploded a bomb of acrid green smoke, laughed maniacally, and unleashed a few sinister chords from a hidden infernal orchestra!
We met over coffee and became firm friends, once I explained what was really going on. But how did I become the villain?
Forum and Trust
About 10 years earlier, the summer of 1997, we launched Burngreave Community Action Forum (BCAF) as a representative body for inner city Burngreave. This is where I live and so this time I participated as resident and not professional. It was great to work alongside a couple of experienced development workers who helped set everything up.
The next step was the Burngreave Community Action Trust (BCAT). This organisation employed staff to implement agreed community plans.
Everything went well until someone in the council noticed us! They nominated Burngreave for New Deal for Communities, a government scheme that allocated £50 million over 10 years to winning communities. We didn’t ask to be nominated and we had no say whatsoever in the selection.
Burngreave won and that evening several residents we had not seen before, visited a small BCAF Meeting. They told us BCAF/T was not going to get their hands on the money. They got their way and so the upshot was the council became the accountable body. Those who had been involved so far thought New Deal was a few years too early, BCAT was not strong enough to take on the responsibility.
What Went Wrong?
For a few years I was out of the picture. I had a new job with nationwide responsibilities. To tell the truth I was not interested in New Deal. I attended Forum meetings once a quarter and kept in touch.
Seven or 8 years into New Deal, some friends asked me for help. The Trust was funded by New Deal, and there’d been a break down in relationships and New Deal threatened to withdraw funding.
It took a while to work out what was happening. The Chairs of Forum and Trust were not known to me. I discovered they both belonged to a far left political party, renowned for making trouble.
The Forum Chair denounced New Deal staff at a public meeting. New Deal responded by refusing to send staff to the meetings. 60 plus people attended those meetings and it was a great forum for accountability, up to that point.
A few of us offered to join the Trust Board. I found out a year or so later, this was a big mistake. The AGM when I joined was presented with annual accounts, not for the previous year, but the one before. It seems New Deal had made a payment they should not have made. The then Trustees and staff had spent the money and attempted to cover it up.
As this came to light, the Trust chair resigned and the Forum Chair came to a Trustee’s meeting and attempted to bully us. In following up irregularities, we were not following the will of the community and doing honest workers out of their jobs.
We stood firm and the Forum Chair and I were at loggerheads. It was an anxious time but I quite enjoyed my role as villain. Someone asked me why I went to meetings just to sit there quietly. The Chair would rant on, accusing me of all manner of villainy. Why stay quiet? Well, when your deadliest enemy is shooting himself in the foot, it seems pointless to stand in his way!
We had to put the Trust into administration. I had to get consent from 50 members to close it down. I got the signatures through endless door-knocking. The only people to vote against were the two ex-chairs.
I was conflicted throughout this period. The Trust was something I’d invested in during its early years and it was sad to be there at its death. I was furious with the people who’d been so careless or more likely deliberately obstructive for ideological reasons. But this sort of chaos is not uncommon and it is one reason I believe it’s better to invest in business and encourage business to invest in community.
One thing’s for certain, this story plays out regularly in neighbourhoods throughout the country. Entryism, usually from the far left, is not uncommon. Indeed some argue it’s the reason we have our current government with a massive majority. The far left frequently target the Labour Party. (Perhaps the Conservatives have a similar problem these days.)
The problem is not so much far left policies, as their understanding of strategy. Their ideologically driven belligerence overshadows the boring steps needed to actually win political arguments.
Let’s face it, politics is always disappointing. Mostly, i’is holding people to account and it’s a slog. No government delivers on all its promises. Reality tends to intervene.
The pandemic is one such intervention from reality. The lockdown is a political response to a natural phenomenon. It’s not ideal. But it opens up new possibilities.
The lockdown is a slog. It will be with us for a very long time. No ideology prevents that. We must do what’s necessary. The government needs to be held to account but it’s hard to say for certain that any other government would do better, especially over the long haul.
We’re plagued by ideologues of all types, using social media to communicate ideas. We read the virus is a hoax, the lockdown is unnecessary. It’s all a plot from an overbearing state.
It may be tempting to head off down these highways but those who promote these views have no iota of strategic comprehension. They are heading in the wrong direction and when thwarted add their defeat to a growing archive of grievance. This is what happened in Burngreave 10+ years ago, it happened during the 2019 General Election and there are still many true believers.
Business and Community
Business owners know about reality. Those who engage with it in a positive way are more likely to do well. They know the road to success is paved with failures. Those who stay on the road understand success cannot be found without failure.
To put food on the table, you must learn from reality, even if reality challenges cherished beliefs. But reality does not point in one political direction. What it does is teach us the value of being present, of listening, of collaboration. With these tools, business and community support each other.
These are the values business people bring to community. When a business trades in a neighbourhood, they bring spaces with them residents can occupy. Collectively, they help neighbours form community just by being present. Most of these benefits are lost as businesses close under lockdown pressure.
My message is simple. If the government wants to support community then they must invest in small local businesses. That’s the priority. Not community groups or corporate chains but locals who care enough about their neighbourhoods to invest in their future. All they’ll need is a little help!