Jim Minton: communities, the East End and the Mayor

by Jim Minton

Jim Minton is chief executive of Toynbee Hall, which has been working to lessen poverty in the East End since 1884. This is first, very welcome, piece for On London.

Primla smiled: “I learned how to ask why?”

Primla has lived in Tower Hamlets for 47 years. Now aged over 70, she has for the past six months been one of a cohort of community researchers, drawn from day centres, community projects and estates, who have been trained to understand from their friends and neighbours how the community could be better for older people in East London. She was sharing what she had gained from that experience at around the same time as Sadiq Khan published his London strategy for community integration, entitled All of Us, which is currently out for consultation.

All of Us has been developed in the context of long held ambitions of the Mayor and Matthew Ryder, his deputy for social integration, social mobility and community engagement. It says it aims to create “an environment where more Londoners can make new connections, breaking down the barriers of social class and economic inequality and bringing those of different ages and backgrounds together in shared experiences”.

The draft strategy makes some new  money available, including for a Families Fund for community activities, and gives a broader context to some other parts of the Mayor’s agenda – for instance on skills, culture and youth services. The last of these would seem to be particularly pressing, given the challenges of knife crime and other violence affecting young Londoners.

Beyond these specific elements, All of Us sets out a framework for London to help people develop stronger relationships with each other; to boost participation, supporting Londoners to be active citizens with a heavy focus on volunteering; and making commitments around equality. This feels encouraging. Primla, for example, has found real value in making new connections; participating actively in something positive; learning additional skills; and playing a part in making change within her community. And the focus on volunteering as a tool to strengthen bonds between people is also positive – particularly for areas which are changing rapidly, or where inequalities mean that opportunities for social mixing are limited.

By coincidence, in the same week as All of Us was announced, Sajid Javid, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, published the government’s own green paper on community integration, placing a strong emphasis on language skills and teed up by a very personal Introduction, in which Javid talks about the challenges his mother faced as a new migrant to Britain.

The Mayor also commits to strengthening language provision. This matters. At Toynbee Hall, a long established East London charity working to challenge the causes and impact of poverty and inequality, our busy advice centre works with a huge range of people. Debt, financial exclusion and vulnerability to high-cost credit providers can be a hugely harming factor for whole communities as well as the individuals concerned. Our multi-lingual team does its best to ensure language issues are not a barrier to people accessing our help. But it is clear that, for some, the challenge of understanding complex communications about benefits, entitlements to payments, or loan agreements is real.

So language skills are important – although just as clearly, there should be a stronger requirement on public services, the financial services industry and others to make their own communications easier to understand for everyone, whether English is their first language or not.

Where All of Us perhaps most needs strengthening is in relation to its aspiration that people should play “an active part in…the decisions that affect them”. This is welcome, but it is hard to see how the specific proposals will meet it. We are told that the Mayor’s emerging civil society strategy will provide “a more participatory approach to developing and delivering policies and programmes,” though not how it will do that. And Talk London is promoted as somewhere Londoners can influence change, but it feels more like an online chat room, with little sense of how what is contributed there will have an impact.

This is a shame, as the strategy could have gone much further. Perhaps some of the contentiousness around local housing proposals across London might be avoided if whole schemes – including decisions about the financing – had been co-produced with local people. How about requiring evidence of co-design in regeneration projects before granting planning permission?

This isn’t about simple consultation. To work effectively, sometimes you need to start from a blank sheet of paper, empowering people like Primla to understand the issues and constraints, the financial pressures and the range of possible outcomes so they can then genuinely inform what developments should look like.

It would take a bit more time and cost a bit more money, perhaps – though this would be an investment in local social infrastructure. For all the talk of “shared values”, one way of ensuring people respect and tolerate other opinions is to support them in working through the inevitable choices and trade-offs with each other, so they feel a shared responsibility for tough decisions. And if particular groups – such as some young people – do feel marginalized, then giving them a real voice is surely a step forward.

To the Mayor’s credit, All of Us is honest about the complexities, seeking to balance the need to challenge negatives while at the same time talking up opportunity and inclusion. When asked about what they want in their local area – and what they worry about – younger and older people do mention the kinds of things that All of Us might offer: spaces to come together safely; opportunities to do new things and chances to get to know others around them. Most of all, as Primla’s answer implies, people want to know why things are happening and have the opportunity to influence their local surroundings.

As recent events have shown, London isn’t without challenges. But, maybe the right strategy is not the one that is published by City Hall or by government. Instead it is the one that is designed and delivered by communities themselves. When people ask “Why?” the best answer to them is sometimes: “You tell me.”

Read more about Toynbee Hall and its long history here. You can follow Jim Minton on Twitter.

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