Making connections

A recent independent inquiry – Civil Society Futures – published its report in the middle of November, called “The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society,” which said that civil society must up its game, or risk complete irrelevance.

I usually abhor acronyms, but it came up with one – PACT – to describe the process of change it says needs to occur:

* Power: argues power needs to be shifted so that everyone is involved in decision-making;

* Accountability: organisation must be more accountable to communities they serve;

* Connection: civil society must build broader and deeper connection within and between communities;

* Trust: organisations need to put effort into building and earning trust and ensure they are behaving in line with their values.

Top (L-R): Yogesh, Sue, Charlotte; Middle (L-R): Wilf, Mel, Di; Bottom (L-R): Camilla, Luke, Paul. Members of the ‘Getting Around’ subject group, bringing a variety of experiences from across the community.

It’s for reasons very similar to this that I’ve joined other residents where I live since July to be part of the process of building the new neighbourhood plan for the town – Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore, in the district of Hart, which is in the North-East corner of Hampshire.

I’m co-leading the subject group (members pictured above) which is looking at issues to do with ‘Getting Around‘ – that’s anything to do with being a pedestrian, with cycling, with using public and community transport, and of course, driving in its many and varied forms.

I’m on a bus… making connections.

We’ve just posted the latest update on our group’s work, entitled ‘Making connections‘ – click here for more – as well as all the previous posts here.

You can find the main website for our local neighbourhood plan here.

Neighbourhood planning will never be the answer to all the issues anyone has in their local area, but it can be a useful start – and what we’ve found as a group of residents is that, as an excuse for starting to have those conversations about issues, and engaging with the processes in the local community, some of those dynamics to do with power, accountability, connection and trust start to move.  And who knows – we might finally get that bus to Fleet we’ve waited so long for!

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Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

Resist!

Over the last few months, I’ve had cause to concentrate my focus on the theory and practice of turning protest into power, to an extent that I probably haven’t done since the mid-90s. The campaigns-related side of public relations, and best ways of developing effective strategies are obviously things which have dominated my time as a communications practitioner, and then in teaching in around ten years as a lecturer on the subject, but I’ve been reflecting enough of late to feel the urge to post my thoughts here.

It began after reading ‘How To Resist: Turn Protest Into Power’ by Matthew Bolton (2017: London, Bloomsbury). This post would have remained a simple book review. I didn’t realise that I had failed to type up the notes I had made on the book, but in the intervening period, I managed to get embroiled in the democratic process more than I had intended. I’m now co-leading a group of local residents where I live examining issues connected with “Getting Around” as our local town council look towards developing a new neighbourhood plan) – as well as finding myself leading a very measured protest against the axing of a community bus service, so I may as well bring these three things together into a single post on the theory and practice of ‘resisting’.

And back in the middle of October, I had the added benefit of attending the launch of the RSATeenAgency’ which provides further scope for reflection on some of these themes.

I’ll begin with the book, as it had been on a pile of purchased, ‘yet to read’ titles by my bed, but circumstances conspired over the summer to make it even more attractive to read. With Brexit weakness and incompetence being displayed by our political class; Austerity-fuelled policies serving to deprive citizens of meaningful innovation or control over public policy, and a series of gigantic moral outrages such as Windrush and Grenfell, I know from my experience, and that of my peers that we have never felt so in need of political solutions, but equally, never so emasculated by the paucity of quality on offer from our party political system.

Having been involved to some degree in campaigning during my professional life too (only to feel let down by the bastardisation through a thirst for votes of some of the original campaigning ideals of the ‘community politics’ approach I had been introduced to as a teen by the Liberals), this new book tantalised me.  It is penned by Matthew Bolton, who has been at the heart of the Citizens UK movement, and as such, is able to call upon lessons from practical campaigns (and wins at that) such as for the Living Wage, particularly on campuses of specific universities, for their cleaners, and for contract cleaners at HSBC.

The book is full of valuable lessons, such as the need for anyone embarking on any campaigns to do a ‘power analysis’, not just of structures, but of people, not just external to the campaign, but within it too.  Also, the need to ask oneself, “What can I do in my everyday life to affect this?” – it might not just rely on megaphones and banners.

Indeed, if I had any criticism of the book (and I don’t really), it would be that I would like to see more dedicated to this last aspect, as well as the time/attention given to the flair with which  we can try to trip-up wrong-doers who might have excessive power. I’d maybe like to see as much attention given to the leading by example stuff, which I think probably has more scope in a tired and cynical age.

So, what other signposts for us? The importance of relationships – of the human aspects in our lives, in ultimately achieving change.  For example, activating word of mouth. In addition to power analysis, other priorities for Bolton are listening (what do people care about? What is their self-interest? How do they frame issues?); the need to constantly look out for potential team members; the importance of honing your story; and looking at both internal and external action as different priorities.

Once you get the ball rolling, numbers will ultimately be important – a critical mass. Networks and word of mouth are the best way of achieving this, and those direct relationships. Direct, broadcast shortcuts might be attractive, but they are no substitute.

Activity to achieve this, more often than not, must be meaningful (not gimmicky), yet enjoyable.

Bolton does propose some ideas to help with ‘tactical innovations’ in delivering campaigns – a phrase I picked up from a discussion I heard on a BBC World Service show (an episode of ‘The Real Story’), about whether protests have had their day, in the light of the ‘blimp’ during Trump’s visit during the Summer of 2018. It was coined by L.A. Kauffman (Direct Action and the Invention of American Radicalism), who argued that you often need such devices merely as ‘troop motivators’ during bleak times. Also on Ritula Shah’s panel were David Graeber, Dana Fisher, and Fatima Shabodien. You can listen to the show by clicking here. I thoroughly recommend it.

Click through to listen to this discussion on Protest.

He suggests widening the net – finding ‘unusual allies’ – it is from these connections that you will be successful in synthesising ideas, contributing from a wide range of experiences, so as to discover surprises, turn heads, and find those creative tactics and campaign content. Bolton offers some ultimate tips to campaigners:-

* look after yourself/pace yourself; * ask yourself what you really care about, to best identify motivators; * stop doing some things; delegate others; * weave social change into your life, to make it more effective and fundamental; * do it as part of a team; * be strategic; make a plan; * take control of your schedule, and ensure it includes one-to-one conversations; * find time.

Bolton ended with an iron rule – never do for others what they can do for themselves. I don’t always practice what he preaches, but I do see it’s importance.

This is important. It’s where I came in. It’s what that ‘community politics’ thing was supposed to be about, but politicians liked doing things ‘to’ people, because it helped them collect votes.

This should be about showing people how to do it for themselves – and the thrill of the transformative effect for themselves and the community when they do. Otherwise, we will be back to square one very quickly.

I’m not at all sure that there is much hope – but we have to be optimistic that it is worth a try – and willing to laugh at the absurdity of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Using Slinkachu-style models as a consultation tool for qualitative research in local community cafe, Cafe 46.

Being in that frame of mind, and having read ‘Resist‘, when I saw that the Town Council group on my local patch working on creating a new Neighbourhood Plan earlier this summer, as a way of creating a shared vision for our town, and providing an ‘additional layer of control’ over development decisions’ were having a public meeting, me and a friend went along.

We came away, having ‘stepped up to the plate‘, volunteering together to co-lead the subject group looking at transport and traffic issues.  We already felt we had made a difference by getting agreement for its focus to shift to “Getting Around” so it can look at issues for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and users of public & community transport too, as a one of the best ways to solve issues for drivers stuck in jams and looking for a parking space.

My own personal motivation was having to surrender my driving licence a few years ago due to my neurological condition, I discovered just how woeful public transport has become. Despite being the second largest town in our district/borough, we have no bus connection to the largest town (despite it being only four miles away), no direct bus connection to the mainline London Waterloo railway services, and the last bus back from the nearest major town leaves there at 8.50pm!

Some days I have a real ‘high’ about the possibilities the process gives us, and just what level of innovation may be deliverable.  On other days, I am down in the doldrums, worried that it all might just be a toothless paper exercise (I have bad experiences of public sector ‘consultations’).  I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in between, and I just have to manage my expectations – but if you don’t take part, you can’t shape things.  In addition, as well as the formal process of creating a Neighbourhood Plan, the whole thing means conversations are happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen; the seeds of other campaign ideas are being planted; and networks are being created in the process, so it’s a valuable thing in itself for that reason, if nothing else.

You can read blog posts on the specific journey of our ‘Getting Around‘ group of the Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore Neighbourhood Plan in our beautiful corner of North-East Hampshire at https://ydf-np.org.uk/getting-around/ .

The regulars on the free community bus facing the axe by Sainsbury’s.

I mentioned those days when I am in the doldrums.  One reason I had good cause to be reminded of why the clouds can often obscure my optimism is when Sainsbury’s recently announced with no notice that they were axing a valuable community resource – a free shopper’s bus which takes many older people, and disabled as well as other members of the community to a local superstore (Watchmoor Park, Blackwater Valley Road) otherwise inaccessible by public transport.  Many of these people are not on the internet either, and the Stagecoach contracted bus delivers passengers right back to their doorsteps with their shopping.

The reason I felt so down?  A little research on my part in the neighbouring council offices (Surrey Heath) unearthed the fact that Sainsbury’s were legally obliged to be providing the bus service as a condition of them securing planning permission for an extension to the store back in 2004!  Despite this, Sainsbury’s have felt able to ignore this, and no democratic scrutiny or enforcement has stopped them from doing so.  Hopefully, an intervention from me, with support from fellow passengers and a local councillor will get the wheels of legal enforcement moving by the local authority – but it may be too late to stop an interruption to the service on which many rely.  If the bus does end, despite my success in navigating the system and getting the supermarket’s ‘collar felt’, I will find it difficult to have any faith in shaping future planning policies, if I’ve just seen a historical planning condition which affects so many people woefully ignored!

Still, it has been a good example of putting some of the lessons of Matthew Bolton’s book into practice – particularly with regard to power analysis, and the importance of relationships. Yes, posting on Facebook groups, photo-opportunities, yes, but some of the most valuable insights were about talking to the people affected by the issue, and understanding the real heart of the power when it comes to the problem.

I’ve already combined a lot of things into this post, but I will touch on one other.  I was lucky enough to attend the mid-October launch of the RSA report “TeenAgency” on how young people people are changing the world, and how best to support them in their efforts to make a difference in their communities.  It deserves a post in its own right, and I will hopefully get round to doing so in  due course.

Panellists Ruth Ibegbuna (founder of the RECLAIM project in Manchester, and now of the Roots Programme) and Sam Conniff-Allende (founder of Livity, and now author of ‘Be More Pirate‘), together with some particularly powerful contributions from young people on the panel made strong points about the need to have ambition and imagination in supporting youth-led social action, and rather than accepting ‘tokenism’ which creates ‘special panels’ with a place for a young person reserved on them, we need to always question where power lies, and be prepared to help mentor young people to support them in building networks for themselves, and busting open established power structures, because it will probably benefit us all in creating a more open, transparent, supportive and dynamic society for all, not just for young people.

I was lucky enough to go along to the launch of the report with a few friends:- Ed Mather (the director of Yateley Sixth Form, at my local comprehensive, Yateley School); a good friend, Luke Buckland (who is co-leading the subject work I talked about earlier on our local Neighbourhood Plan), and a best friend who is soon to take up post in an exciting new academic leadership position when a powerhouse brand will take all its prestige and head-turning ‘clout’ and use it to make new moves in higher education.  We’d arrived after only having just met-up with one of my first bosses, Sir Simon Hughes, who has recently been installed as the new Chancellor of London South Bank University.

These networks, built from the friendships you assemble along the path you tread in life’s rich tapestry can also form the basis of some interesting partnerships, and the germ of some creative ideas when you campaign.  They need to be celebrated, nurtured, and above all, shared with a new generation.  One point which came out powerfully in the ‘TeenAgency’ event is that there are some people who are born into classes with these networks ‘ready made’, or bought, courtesy of private education.  The rest of us must make common cause to overcome that advantage of others – and often, it only takes a knock on a door, or a simple request to get that access shared.  We need a bit more solidarity!

And perhaps I need to write shorter posts! I’ll return to some of the more specific issues I’ve in bite-size form in future posts.  Thanks for bearing with me!

 

Stepping-up

I’ve just come to the end of 18 months volunteering with Citizens Advice Hart.  When I was first retired off from work with my neurological condition, I at least wanted to ensure I was still contributing my recent PR experience (and dare I say it, professional skills) to a community cause.

This Citizens Advice Bureau dates back further than the Yateley portacabin - but demonstrates its vital role over the years.

This Citizens Advice Bureau dates back further than the Yateley portacabin of the 1980s – but demonstrates its vital role over the years – more here.

Citizens Advice has always been important to me since they helped my own family in the mid 1980s, when they were based in a ‘portacabin‘ behind the Royal Oak pub in Yateley.  Since then, their recipe of free, confidential, impartial and independent advice, combined with campaigning on those issues which have presented themselves to those organisation with regularity has become more important.  With a widening gap between rich and poor, and Government relying more on austerity as a strategy, Citizens Advice has as good as become the last stop-gap for those at the sharp end looking for help and support.

I know most people have ever increasing workloads and time-pressures in their working lives, but the contribution I have been able to make in the last 18 months has underlined just how much we can all make if we were able to volunteer just a small amount of time to local charities, community organisations or campaigns.

Dealing with life's transitions - like having a baby. Photo taken at Ewshot Recreation Ground.

Dealing with life’s transitions – like having a baby. Photo taken on steps of the slide at Ewshot Recreation Ground.

I was excited to be able to bring my 18 months to a close by producing a postcard-led volunteer recruitment campaign, “Change a Life – One Step at a Time”.  It featured scenes which utilised Slinkachu-style street art, which I photographed in locations throughout our largely rural area, to help bring a district to life which many of our residents were unaware of.

Dealing with life's transitions - like bereavement. Photo taken on the steps of Odiham War Memorial.

Dealing with life’s transitions – like bereavement. Photo taken on the steps of Odiham War Memorial.

The scenes each illustrated a different ‘life transition’ which the charity is likely to help local people, so that potential volunteers can get an insight into the kind of work they could help with.  Previously the charity had found it difficult to get permission to share examples of case studies, and this overcame that problem.

The local newspaper – the ‘Fleet and Yateley News & Mail‘ were so impressed, they gave us a full page feature on the initiative.

Citizens Advice Hart's "Change a Life - One Step at a Time" campaign in the "Fleet and Yateley News & Mail"

Citizens Advice Hart’s “Change a Life – One Step at a Time” campaign in the “Fleet and Yateley News & Mail”

The full campaign was explained in this blog post.

It had social media extensions on Instagram and Pinterest, and the postcards are designed to be used regularly as banners on Twitter and Facebook.

It has been a real thrill to work with staff and fellow volunteers to help spread the word on the local Citizens Advice.  When I first began, I helped show how media relations works, and how the potential of a story can be properly unlocked.  They ended up on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, in the pages of the Spectator magazine and in the local media too.  As well as helping them embrace social media, I then worked with the trustees on pulling together a full communications strategy.

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The biggest thrill was embracing some of the best practice from of the best agencies I have had the privilege of engaging with over time to run a session with the team of 30 or so volunteers to help unlock the true nature of the charity’s communication problem – and how to overcome it.  We were able to see how some solutions directly led to changes in service delivery – and changes in how we thought about how the service might work in the future.  It also helped volunteers and staff see how PR is about much more than press releases, but can actually help the organisation keep a focus on improving relationships with people.  And it helped put them in the driving seat of the analysis stage of compiling a communications strategy.

After 18 months, I had to remember that I was retired off for a reason, and will be concentrating on that for a bit.  But in the meantime, I just wanted to pen a post recommending that as many people as possible – whether they are PRs, marketers, lawyers, accountants – whatever, volunteer their time with a local charity, community organisation or campaign for change that is dear to them.  Some ‘CPD‘ schemes include volunteering as part of their structures – but it’s just a great thing in it’s own right!

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Fun Palaces come to Yateley

Saturday 1st October 2016 sees the Fun Palaces weekend – ‘an ongoing campaign for culture at the heart of community, with an annual weekend of arts and science events created by, for and with local people.’

funpalace

This year, my home village of Yateley’s library will be hosting a Fun Palace event – and I will be sharing the delights of ‘Slinkachu’ style street art photography with those who come along.  We’ll be encouraging people to use my figures, and try their hand at it amongst the books and shelves of Yateley Library, to see what they can come up with.

Here’s a few ideas with books I had lying around the house, to demonstrate the kinds of things you can do amongst the shelves on the day.

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If you’ve never seen much about ‘Slinkachu’, this is a useful link to read more.  And you can also see how I’ve helped the local Citizens Advice Hart make use of this approach to photography in their campaigning on their blog.  They will be launching a new volunteer recruitment campaign using ‘Slinkachu’ photography in the coming weeks.

I love the central manifesto of the Fun Palaces movement:- “We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.  We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a fun palace.”

The common good!

The event is from 10.00am-4.00pm on Saturday 1st October at Yateley Library on School Lane, and my Slinkachu stuff will be running from 12.00noon-4.00pm.

Boundaries

The Local Government Boundary Review have just published their final recommendations for Hampshire County Council.  I took part in the consultation process at the end of last year.

I wasn’t expecting my comments to be acted upon, but I at least expected them to be acknowledged in the consultation report.  They were not.

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Only four submissions were apparently received about the ward I made a submission about, so it is pretty easy to track whether my views were noted, let alone acted upon.  I felt the proposals were wrong, and did not meet statutory criteria – little room for confusion there.  I have copied my full response at the end of this post so you can see what I mean.  They refer to the Hart District area of Hampshire.

However, in the report, it says, “We received four submissions relating to this division. Two of the submissions commented on the parish warding arrangements for Yateley. We have considered the evidence and provided for revised parish electoral arrangements for Yateley at page 47 of this report. The remaining submissions commented on the division name. It was argued that Blackwater be included in the name as it would better reflect the communities which make up the division. We are persuaded by the evidence received; however, we consider a division name consisting of Fleet North, Yateley East & Blackwater to be too long. As Blackwater and Yateley make up a significant part of the division, we have re-named the division Yateley East & Blackwater which we consider better reflects communities represented in this division. Subject to this change of division name, we confirm our recommended division as part of our final recommendations.”

No mention that I objected to putting together half of Yateley with part of Fleet which are NOT natural communities, with zero public transport links.  For this, and reasons to do with lack of recognisable community groups and interests across the proposed division, I did NOT feel it met the statutory criteria.

Yateley's Dog & Partridge, near the boundary of two divisions under these proposals, rather than at the heart of one, as under mine.

Yateley’s Dog & Partridge, near the boundary of two divisions under these proposals, rather than at the heart of one, as under mine.

Indeed, additionally, on the proposal for ‘Hartley Wintney and Yateley West‘ division, the report states, “We received support for our draft recommendations relating to Hartley Wintney & Yateley West division,” despite my submission having said that I did not think they met the statutory criteria either for similar reasons.

By deciding to ‘change the name’ of the Yateley East division which had I made a submission about, to take out reference to Fleet, but not to take out the actually area it refers to kind of demonstrates the point I am making, without doing anything about it.

This has totally removed what little faith I had left in public consultation processes.  There has to be a better way if it even turns off political geeks like me from taking part.  Apologies for being such a bore, but I had to get it off my chest.  I don’t really mind that my argument didn’t win the day – I object to the fact that it was ignored completely despite being eminently valid.

My original submission in full, so you can see what I am talking about:

“I wish to comment about the proposed divisions in Hart, specifically, ‘Fleet North & Yateley East‘, but also ‘Hartley Wintney & Yateley West‘ which I do not believe reflect the statutory criteria.  On the summary report pages, the test of ‘Community Identity’ suggests that there should be good transport links across the division, and highlights public transport.  There is NO public transport between Fleet and Yateley, or between Hartley Wintney and Yateley – something I acutely feel as a disabled person.  It asks whether there are recognisable interests, and community groups across the divisions – but as the names suggest, both these divisions ‘bolt’ together natural communities which have been split apart – namely Yateley, and Fleet.  Surely it makes sense to build an electoral division around Yateley as ONE community (which includes Blackwater and Hawley, and possibly Eversley); and an electoral division around Fleet as ONE community – each with very different interests, boundaries, and community groups.  Hartley Wintney more naturally looks west, towards Odiham, and Hook.”

Lost-interest-boring

“To group together ‘Yateley East‘ with ‘Fleet North‘ makes absolutely no sense at all.  I was born in the area, lived here until I was 18, and have just returned a year ago at the age of 44 years.  My mother has lived in Yateley all her life, as has her mother.  When I consulted with my immediate neighbours about the proposition, they were totally bemused.  Fleet and Yateley are the two largest towns in Hart District, approx. five miles apart.  Why would you split each of them, and then create a new division which mixes part of one, with part of another, particularly when they share no public transport link?  Even if you do not accept this argument, then at the very least, the proposed name of the division is inappropriate.  It includes Blackwater and Hawley – places in their own right which share some focus with Yateley, but absolutely none at all with Fleet. ” 

shutterstock_85936765-bored

“My proposal, which I have not tested, would be for a division for the whole of Yateley (which would include Blackwater and Hawley, and possibly Eversley); one for Fleet Town (which could include parts of Fleet North from the previous proposal, including Elvetham Heath – and if any levelling up is needed, this could be done with the division of Church Crookham & Ewshot, which is a more natural fit, and low on numbers).  Similarly, Hartley Wintney would be a more natural fit for the division of Odiham and Hook, which could be renamed accordingly.  This would increase its numbers which are currently a little low.  I believe such a proposal would make a more natural community fit for Fleet and for Yateley (as well as surrounding population centres) reflecting community interests and identities, and could be a more equitable spread of population, thus providing good electoral quality. Crucially, in the case of Yateley and Fleet, it would be based on strong, easily identifiable boundaries, and help deliver strong, effective and convenient local government.  At the moment, local people often struggle to know who their local county councillor is because they do not know which side of an arbitrary boundary they fall on within Yateley or Fleet – this is patently absurd, particularly when it is written into the statutory criteria for your own consultation.”

Thank you for bearing with me!

Thank you for bearing with me!

Bad review for Hampshire’s library decision

Today (18th April) was decision day by Hampshire County Council about the future of its libraries.  A draft strategy had been prepared following one of the largest ever public consultations by the county.

Future of Hampshire's libraries

Future of Hampshire’s libraries

One of the main aspects of the plan was to put the county’s libraries into four ‘tiers’, reflecting their size and importance.  The top two tiers were essentially guaranteed their future, and have the best existing opening hours.

Comparison of Hampshire's library 'tiers'

Comparison of Hampshire’s library ‘tiers’

Like other responses to the consultation, I pointed out that, based on usage data provided my local library in Yateley had been placed in the wrong tier – ‘Tier 3’ rather than ‘Tier 2’.  This meant that, if confirmed, in a year’s time, the library could close, or be handed over to volunteers to run.

Data comparison for Hampshire's libraries

Data comparison for Hampshire’s libraries

Despite a water-tight case, we were ignored in the council’s draft response to the consultation, issued in March, so I took to the local media, and I know others to lobbying.  You can read more of my arguments below.

My letter, published in the Fleet & Yateley News and Mail

My letter, published in the Fleet & Yateley News and Mail

There is no question that we are right, and in the council’s announcement today, they have had to insert a paragraph, finally dealing with the issue.  However, that’s as good as it gets!

Hampshire responds

Hampshire responds

Despite the catchment area and usage figures unquestionably making Yateley a ‘Tier 2’ library, and the council recognising its ‘school library’ status as ‘unique’, it has remained a ‘Tier 3’ library in the decision – which means Yateley Library’s status in the medium term remains uncertain.  The points made about lack of family activities and adult learning opportunities are not something I recognised – and might be something that could be rectified were it open on Wednesdays, and after 5pm on other days.  Absurd!

I feel really let down by the quality of local democratic decision-making.  This is unquestionably a bad decision.  Do Conservative-run Hampshire County Council ignore the town of Yateley because it has had the temerity to return Liberal Democrats as county councillors?

I read more carefully, and discovered that between the original draft of the strategy document, and this final version, a ‘new’ paragraph had been ‘retro-fitted’ to explain how each library’s tier status had been decided (see below), so that Yateley conveniently sits just below the catchment area figure of up to 25,000 to justify ‘Tier 3’ status (Yateley is said to have a catchment of 24,803, although whether this includes new developments, or Eversley is unclear).  No one is convinced – this was never in the original documentation.

'Retro-fitted' explanation paragraph!

‘Retro-fitted’ explanation paragraph!

I owe so much to Yateley Library.  We had no books in my house as a child.  I spent hours in the place, and it stood me in good stead, helping me to get to University at Sussex, and then a career in public relations, including at BBC Radio 1, in parliament, and the civil service.  A second career as a lecturer meant that I have seen again the importance of young students coming to university not only with a love of books, but with an ability to navigate a library.  Yateley’s ‘Tier 3’ status already restricts the number of days it opens, its opening hours – and now leaves a question mark over its longer term future.

Today I have no alternative but to leave a ‘bad review’ for Hampshire County Council’s decision, but a big ‘thank you’ to everyone connected with Yateley Library!  The huge response to the consultation underlined the importance of this issue to local people.  I am grateful to the council for at least taking notice of the point we were raising, but feel deep disappointment at their inability to see it as anything other than nimby-ism, and as such, even having to retro-fit the paragraph in red above, so their plans make sense.  Very poor form.

A landmark decision – local news

Absurdity seems to rule the roost as far as public policy and bureaucracy goes, but when the latest planning application in my local village was submitted, it really seemed to have hoisted the flag to full mast.

The old post office building has been a landmark feature of Yateley village in North East Hampshire from around the early 1930s, replacing previous structures dating back long before.  The recent planning application to Hart District Council seeks to demolish the building, and the neighbouring old postmaster’s bungalow, and replace them with two ‘retail units’, two x three bedroom flats, and three x three bedroom houses.

The old post office is so much a feature of the village, that it has been featured solely, or prominently on a number of Francis Frith postcards.  I’ve featured a number of them on my Pinterest site, with links below:-

This postcard features the old post office stores in all its glory from c. 1950.

This postcard shows off just how much the unique wooden structure is a recognisable part of ‘Church End Green’ in Yateley – supposedly a conservation area.

It is one of the buildings that I most associate with my childhood growing up in the village over 40 years ago.  My Mum says the same, having lived in Yateley all her life of 63 years, and it would have been a feature of my Mum’s Mum’s childhood around 80 years ago (see photo below).

This postcard, from 1965 demonstrates just how much of a Yateley landmark the old post office is.  When ‘Greetings from Yateley‘ are sent, the old post office is one of the buildings chosen to represent the village.

And this is the full image of that highlighted in the postcard above.

This postcard demonstrates the extent to which the old post office dominates the view as you enter ‘Church End Green’ as you head towards Eversely.

And this postcard highlights an issue not strictly considered in the planning application – the extent to which the streetscape will be effected looking back from the area of green in front of Forge Court.  The benches by the Town Council notice board provide a different angle on the old post office, including the church tower peaking out behind it.  If the old post office were to be demolished, and replaced by two, two storey buildings, that view of the church tower would be obscured, and the green backdrop of trees to the village would  be removed.

This is a photo of a similar angle to that postcard above, taken in the last few years.

It has taken a bit of time for some noise to start to roll, mainly via the local newspaper (see here), the community page on Facebook, and word-of-mouth – thank you to those who have taken the time rally to the cause.  For many, it is the stories of the local post office’s links to ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ through author Flora Thompson, who served in the post office in Yateley around 1901.

My Mum's Mum (left) outside the nissen hut she lived in on the common immediately after WWII, demonstrating that pressure for new housing is not new, and something we have to deal with sensitively.

My Mum’s Mum (left) outside the Nissen hut she lived in on the common immediately after WWII, demonstrating that pressure for new housing is not new, and something we have to deal with sensitively.

Of course, it is a national priority that we need more housing – but there are plenty of brownfield locations and places where we can ‘fill in’ – and more effort needs to be put into using the planning system imaginatively to revive areas in more need of regeneration – for example, One Stop, Barclays, and the garage in Village Way are all identified in the most recent plan as locations in need of redevelopment, and all of the shop frontage along Reading Road/The Parade  could be used much more creatively to not only spruce up the shopping frontage, but create low-level housing, as is currently the norm in London.

If you live in Yateley, I urge you to reflect on the issues raised, and if you value your heritage, please take part in the planning consultation (sign a petition by all means, but if you object, you MUST take part in the formal consultation for your view to be counted).  Do not be complacent, or we will lose a local landmark.  You can take part in the consultation and see all of the supporting documents by clicking here and searching for planning reference 15/01828/FUL

It is a shame that such public consultations are not more user-friendly, or visible to the general public.

You can see the objection which I submitted, in full,  by clicking here.  For me, the proposal breaches all planning guidelines and policies.  Essentially;

1) the most recent planning document about this area (a conservation area) identified the buildings as ‘positive buildings’ (‘good examples of relatively unaltered historic buildings’), and under planning legislation, the council has a duty to protect/preserve its character and appearance, and reinforce local distinctiveness.

2) the proposal doesn’t factor in how much of a problem ‘on pavement’ parking already is in the immediate vicinity, and in front of the church, particularly impacting on the elderly and the disabled.  Adding extra retail, and residential development to the area, including a drive-through arch can only impact negatively in this village/conservation setting to the bizarre traffic situation.

If any of this wasn’t reminder enough, it demonstrates the real importance of politics to our everyday lives.

And in case the development does get the green-light, you might want to think about buying some of those Francis Frith images from their website here.

Consulting on consultation

My county council, Hampshire, is currently consulting on “a range of options for managing an anticipated £98 million shortfall in the revenue budget by April 2017, due to on-going reductions in funding from central Government.”

I was looking forward to seeing some innovative examples of engaging with the public, and laying in front of them a major problem that affects us all – after all, a novel solution to the problem may actually reside amongst our collective wisdom.  I was also interested because ‘public consultation’ as a topic has been on the public relations curriculum for some time, and I have long told students it is one of those subjects that industry is woefully bad at, so if they can crack it, not only can they do a lot of good, but there is a career to be made in it.

Hampshire's budget consultation

Hampshire’s budget consultation

My heart sank when I saw what Hampshire had to offer.  To begin with, I wouldn’t have known about it unless an angry person had flagged it up to me in a community Facebook forum.  Secondly, it is a pretty innocuous link on its website – nothing more.

No imaginative thought processes.  No interesting use of video or even Lego to engage the respondent, and encourage them to really think about their area, and their daily lives.  There is a supporting information pack, but it is far too text heavy to engage with a mass audience.  Outside of an election, this could be one of the main ways of reaching out and involving members of the public, so they understanding more about the challenges of public policy, and the local authority understands more about how it needs to meet their needs.

Instead, we have a bog standard survey.  Very long.  Very boring.  Very loaded.

The Lego Town Hall - but no Lego figures in this consultation to encourage participation or creativity.

The Lego Town Hall – but no Lego figures in this consultation to encourage participation or creativity.

It starts off by asking me to name the five most important services I think it should continue to deliver.  No chance for me to rank them all in order of importance – I could only pick five.  Inevitably, the same five to eight will get selected by respondents, giving the council a mandate to chop other services, even if we all want the council to continue delivering them.

Pick just five council services which are important to you.

Pick just five council services which are important to you.

It also asks which services our household have used in the last 12 months.  But what asking that question about our lifetime?  Doesn’t our use of services have a changing pattern over our lifetime – some get used at different times?  And why restrict it to our household?  Shouldn’t it also refer to our families, which may be extended?

Which services have you used in the last 12 months?

Which services have you used in the last 12 months?

The survey does usefully lay out the options about options for efficiencies in council spending, use of reserves, and a variety of options for increases in the level of council tax.  However, once these questions are posed, the overwhelming bulk of the survey is then about priorities for cuts and efficiencies in council spending – making the assumption that this is the priority of the electorate.  It also fails to give the respondents the option to write-in their own suggestions at this stage in specific areas.  Respondents have to to rank each suggestion from the Council in each area of council services – implying that we agree with ALL of them, even though we may passionately disagree with one or all of them.

You have to rank ALL options on adult services - indicating your approval of all of them to some extent. And where did the options come from? And why can't we suggest others?

You have to rank ALL options on adult services – indicating your approval of all of them to some extent. And where did the options come from? And why can’t we suggest others?

You have to rank ALL options on childrens services - indicating your approval of all of them to some extent. And where did the options come from? And why can't we suggest others?

You have to rank ALL options on childrens services – indicating your approval of all of them to some extent. And where did the options come from? And why can’t we suggest others?

I feel sorry for the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens here - because basically you have to vote to commercialise it, or the voluntary sector will get it!! What a loaded choice - who decided to pick on this option, and no others?

I feel sorry for the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens here – because basically you have to vote to commercialise it, or the voluntary sector will get it!! What a loaded choice – who decided to pick on this option, and no others?

Again, who got to pick the options from which we HAVE to pick, from which the council will then claim to have a mandate?

Again, who got to pick the options from which we HAVE to pick, from which the council will then claim to have a mandate?

So, having taught public consultation at undergraduate level for the last nine or so years, I would quite clearly have been using this as an example of a flawed consultation, if I was still looking for case studies in my teaching.  There are plenty of published guidelines for what makes for effective consultation, and plenty of common-sense about transparency, conversation, participation and engagement.  Instead, having just retired through ill-health due to my neurological condition, I am just another punter, whose local authority is going through the motions of preparing the ground for yet more cuts in public spending, which in the last year hit me in the shape of cuts to local bus services.  I wasn’t prepared for how shocking the level of public transport provision had become in rural areas compared to what it was when I was a child – and what it was from where I had been living in London until last year.  The council say less people are using it, but when you cut it to such woeful levels, it is no surprise that such few people use it.  And now it is going to happen all over again with another area of council services.  Or will it?

Of course the council will say that it has left ‘open boxes’ at the end, but at the end of this long survey, any respondent will have been beaten into submission, and their responses pre-framed.  What a missed opportunity for genuine engagement – and another opportunity for public relations to get a bad reputation.  There could have been much better use of supporting video and audio.  Much better use of supporting community events, and face-to-face meetings.  Much better use of social media.

If you do live in Hampshire, it is too important to let yourself be sent to sleep by the whole thing.  Responses will be accepted until midnight on the 6th July, and as well as taking part online on the council website, paper copies are available at local libraries.  Do take part (and I hope you encourage the council to go for options that will allow them to resist austerity, and invest in the common good).