THE MYTH OF DOUBLE DEVOLUTION - a community activist tells it like it is

A mock up postcard I did this time last year

"I call it 'double devolution' - not just devolution that takes power from central government and gives it to local government, but power that goes from local government down to local people, providing a critical role for individuals and neighbourhoods, often through the voluntary sector." (David Miliband, MP for South Shields, speaking in The Guardian, 21st February 2006).

At 10.30 pm last night, 25th December, Christmas day, my wife was assaulted on her way to my daughter’s house a few streets away, walking past floodlit shops and by two youths, one of whom threw her up against a wall, ripped her coat from her and held a knife to her throat.

Welcome to Lukes Lane estate, Hebburn, South Tyneside. I’ll not cite the myriad harrowing official statistics that accompany the mention of the estate – relating to poor health, unemployment, crime etc – let’s just say the estate suffers a lot from social deprivation and ranks as one of the most socially excluded areas in the country.

Crime-wise, things here have deteriorated of late and I can’t recall incidents on the current scale being this bad in years. Most of it just never makes the press, like there is some big bloody official conspiracy of silence. My wife’s case just takes the fucking biscuit. I say this because for well over two years I’ve been heavily involved, with a small band of local residents, in trying to get this damned estate sorted out via our participatory appraisal work and our community action group efforts, not least of which has been the Community Safety Forums we have attended and which have turned out to be little more than talking shops. Neither will I cite the amount of work we, the Lukes Lane Community Group, have done since September 2006 – I’ll let our AGM report speak for itself.

I flicked through my diary earlier and began counting. Between January 5th and December 18th this year, I attended 218 meetings, forums, conferences and events with regards putting this community right and, more, I play an active part on six committees and panels. And if there is one thing I can say, hand on heart, it’s that ‘double devolution’ is a load of bollocks. It’s a phrase which is about as empty as the George Bush Book of Wisdom.

I attend a lot of action planning forums. These are meetings attended by an assortment of service providers and council officers, each meeting focusing on one of the topics of concern that arose from the participatory appraisal work we carried out here over twelve months (safer streets, employment, healthy lifestyles, children etc). And ‘double devolution’ is a phrase that is bandied about a lot at these and similar meetings I go to; which is understandable as the phrase comes from David Miliband, the Blairite MP for South Shields, and South Shields is where South Tyneside council is headquartered So its like here is where they are trying out double devolution big time.

The local authority is quite simply devolving jack shit to the local community groups. If anything it wraps up community groups in red tape and nonsensical legislation, terrified we begin to function as we wish; terrified we start to make a difference – which is quite easy really if they left us alone – less we make their roles look surplus to requirements.

Whilst we on Lukes Lane have phrases like double devolution rammed down out throats, we are constantly reminded by council officials of the minimum role we have at the community house on our own estate.

First of all we are told, when the facility first opened back in February of this year, that we could use one of the rooms in the new community house as a base and we then secured NRF funding to furnish the room with office equipment and computers. We are then promised a phone and broadband connection. And before you know it the council come along and hand over the room to their own staff and CVS come along and tell us they’re taking the office equipment back – the latter palaver is a tit-for-tat move by CVS, because, as we were informed at our AGM, they considered my annual report to be critical of them. And as for the phone and broadband connection? – a figment of our imagination.

We have a key to the facility, which is helpful when we have group meetings or are organasing for something like a fete, but must use it as sparingly as possible and must never be there when other service providers are there. Its really got fuck all to do with privacy and everything to do with the fact that here is a group of community activists who know the estate better than every council official and service provider together, who know well the issues here and have a better insight than anyone into how to sort them within the confines of a profit-driven market system. Me, I’ve lived here since 1967, others were literally born here – yet our role as “service providers” (their words) in our own right is given lip service.

When we first set up a community group website – not the current one cited above – I began uploading photographs of the area and commenting on them (some included in the postcard above) and also posting the minutes of our community group meetings - Crikes, we just wanted to be open and democratic! Within a flash we had thought police, officers from South Tyneside Homes, who now manage council housing stock in the borough, visiting us to tell us what we should and should not post on the web site.

On hundreds of occasions now, myself and other members of our group, have been contacted directly by residents who want an issue resolved with the council or some other problem looking into it. And we’re right on the ball, using our own phones and making the right connections and with some success. And you tell the council officials what you’re doing, as a way of showing why you really need a base at the community house – because people trust their own kind and not some overpaid and indifferent, unfeeling bureaucrat – and they’ll say: “Well, that isn’t really what your role is. If they need advice they should come and see service providers at the community house.” Little wonder that the group here is united in finding the approach of town hall officers to us to be sometimes insulting, sometimes condescending and a lot of the time patronising. They simply need us to make themselves look good. We help them tick the boxes, so to speak.

Earlier this year the community group were interviewed by officers from the Audit Commission, carrying out one of their regular service inspections (seeing how central government cash is being spent). The local council brought them to see us because here was a new community house in operation - well "operation" is maybe an overstatement -and with an active community group. All the town hall top brass were asked to leave the community house, where were were being interviewed, throughout the visit, so we had a chance to speak candidly to them. And what we told them! – mostly about the bollocks we have to put up with, the constant cock ups and let downs we encounter at the hands of council staff and service providers. It was a lengthy interview and we well articulated our concerns. But did any of what we imparted appear in their report. No fucking way.

The Audit Commission, in their own words, “assessed South Tyneside Council as providing a ‘good’, two-star service that has promising prospects for improvement.”

The report stated: “The Council has introduced an innovative approach to neighbourhood and area working which takes a holistic, sustainable approach, develops the capacity of the community, and is targeted on benefiting the most disadvantaged first.”

Read the report here. Personally, speaking as a community activist, I think it’s a crock of shit. A whitewash! You just can’t win.

I’ve written this hastily and maybe with an anger that precludes objectivity– I could probably get a Phd thesis out of the ‘double devolution’ bollocks I’ve encountered in the last two years, so maybe I will return to the topic later. When we set up our nascent community group – this was back when we got involved with the PA work – we had a motto: “Putting the unity back into community.” When we became ‘official’ we changed it to “One Community, One Voice”. We were deadly serious both times – all of us who got involved had a genuine desire to help sort things out here, to address problems that have been ignored since the estate was built in the mid 60s. We believed the estate and its people were worth it. The community group is all too aware that people are more than capable of identifying the problems they face each day, are more than capable of taking care of their own destiny, of sorting out those problems collectively and without the interference of leaders and bureaucrats, though we often despair that more local residents will not get involved. And this is what makes a mockery of double devolution, because whilst the high ranking bureaucrats and control freaks patronisingly tell us they are giving us 'more power', the sad and depressing truth is that we, the workers, the little people in the deprived communities, already have power, a real though latent power that lies in our collective strength, in our shared experience of the rat-race, in our pooled knowledge and skills. We don’t need these confusionists in Whitehall or in the town hall, the lackeys of capitalism, giving us 'power' – we already bloody possess it and one day we’ll hopefully use it to wrest control of our communities and indeed our planet from them.

And after two years of hard-slog community activity, bar increasing a sense of community, we’ve honestly sorted no problems out, and in many ways I can’t help but feel I’ve betrayed people and was partly to blame for the incident my wife endured last night. Someone has to feel guilty – its certainly not going to be the perps, and less still the damned bureaucrats we have to work "in partnership" with.


The police phoned up this afternoon (27th December). They say they have looked at the footage from a brand new security camera that faces the shops and that the incident is "out of range". Which is utter bollocks - they know it and everyone on the estate knows it - because they have not been able to get a signal for any security camera they have installed here, ever. They have never captured one incident on camera. Moreover, this particular incident happened within 27 metres of the camera (see photo below - the white lines hows the distance from the camera to the scene of the attack). Christ, this is exactly what the camera was set up for - to monitor anti-social behaviour at the shops on the estate. Not to worry, the word is out and we'll soon have the perps ourselves.


robert said...

Hey John,
sorry to hear that, comrade - hope your wife's ok.


ajohnstone said...

Add my sympathy to Robert's and i hope your wife is bearing up

John: said...

Thanks, comrades, much appreciated.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the missus. Agreed, double devolution is utter bollocks.