By Sam Tomlin
My involvement in local politics and activism is relatively recent. Having moved to Noel Park estate in Haringey just over a year ago, my knowledge of local processes, councils and decision making was very limited. In all reality this is still the case for the most part. As I started to spend more time in my community (rather than just in my house), I started to see there were different things that not only could I get involved in, but there was a great need for residents like myself to get involved in.
I have been blessed with getting to know many people with far more community activism experience than me in both the local residents association and also my local church, both of which do fantastic work in Noel Park to provide for needs of residents and also fight for the voice of residents to be heard.
I have learnt, however, that even with wonderful, passionate and dedicated people in local organisations, fighting for these things can often be an uphill battle, especially for poor communities like ours. At times, it just feels like no one is willing or wants to hear our voices, something which can be very disempowering for local people. Three short examples illustrate this over the past months.
The first was just a few weeks ago. I was working at the community centre at my church on a Monday morning when we heard a loud whirring sound. We looked out the window and across the street, tree-cutters had started to fell the eight trees opposite our building. According to the leaders of the community centre, both local churches and the residents association, the Council had entirely by-passed its duty to consult with local people about the removal of the trees and simply put some laminated A4 paper signs on a few of the trees to say that the works would be going ahead. Confronting the workers, my fellow community-centre workers all but enacted the activist dream of tying themselves to the trees before the local councillor was called & the relevant council director was made aware of his error. Off went the tree-cutters and we were promised a further period of consultation before they would begin work again.
Nevertheless, next week at exactly the same time, the whirring began again. Again we ran to the rescue of the trees only to find a second one had been felled. Completely disregarding the agreement, someone had ‘made a mistake’ and sent the cutters to work again.
The second example is that of our community school, which Dave Cohen wrote about a few weeks ago. In a similar vein, our opinion as residents (and especially those of the parents) was circumvented in the process of it being forced to become an Academy in an arguably ideologically-driven agenda from the Secretary of State for Education. Local people in Haringey felt so strongly about this, that nearly 1,000 of us marched from another primary school being forced to become an Academy to the Civic centre to make our voices heard (not that it did much good).
The final example is of our community park. Like the majority of services throughout the country, park services have been slashed, and our park did not escape the chop. It is now not rare for the gates to be left unlocked and un-monitored, making it much more likely that gangs monopolise the park, and worsening the problem of dog-fighting in particular. In November 2011, over 2,500 people signed a petition opposing the 50% cuts to parks staffing and maintenance budget. This prompted a public debate around the issue, but campaigners were angry at the decision not to have a vote on the issue, calling it disrespectful.
What these three short examples illustrate is not, I think, that local people are against changes per se and unbelievably naive in thinking we should get it all our own way. It may well be that there are good reasons for 1) The trees to go, and be replaced by better ones 2) Our local school to become an Academy and 3) For the parks services to be cut in order to help the council balance the books. The issue is, that both at a local and nation level, it feels like government is not inclined to engage local people in the decision making process. Even if you have already made up your mind, let us know why a certain option is the best option, so we know what is going on and have the right to campaign knowing more of the facts.
This issue is of course, most severe in the poorest areas where many people do not speak English, do not know how to engage with the political system or are so disenfranchised from the political system that they would not be inclined to make their point to the decision makers. Having lived in much wealthier areas, none of these issues have ever raised their heads, where residents groups are keenly attended by the middle-classes and it is understood how best to mobilize people if you want something to be changed and get your voice heard.
So my message to local and national government: please make more effort to engage with local people in poorer areas before ploughing ahead with decisions, even if it is just to inform about the decisions which have been made. With the cuts it is natural that resources for even this task will be depleted, but my fear is that if the effort is not made, a widening of the gap between richer and poorer areas will be inevitable and further disenfranchisement and disempowerment of local people will be the result.