Boundary Community Launderette
A few months ago I moved into the Shoreditch area from neighbouring Bow having lived in East London for nearly ten years. I’m attracted to it for many reasons: it’s an artistic, entrepreneurial, and technological hub, has a lot of social problems alongside tremendous wealth, and is a place where a lot is going on that feels quite big society in many ways, even though politically it is heavily dominated by Labour (which as I have argued before has roots in social action which are well worth reviving by its new leader).
In the past Shoreditch was also a hotbed of citizen-led social reform. Shaftesbury worked with others here to establish education for those on low incomes such as the Ragged Schools here. This was also close to the birthplace of the settlement movement in which those connected to universities settled students in slum areas to live and work alongside local people through whose efforts according to Wikipedia “settlement houses were established for education, savings, sports, and arts”. Octavia Hill was also active in and around the area, pioneering reforms that lead to the establishment of Royal Parks and social housing all over the country. Shaftesbury also started social franchises for ex-chimney sweeps and beggars called the Shoe Black Brigade in and around the area to help them make an alternative living.
Today there are tremendous challenges as well as opportunities. Hackney and parts of Shoreditch are known for their high levels of poverty, there are problems with gang violence and shootings, and high levels of turnover in the population and over-crowding among both the immigrant and white population relating to housing shortages, and while the council has clearly improved services over the years since it had to be taken over, there is still a huge amount to do. But once again there are examples of social reform from the Mayor’s Fund backed City Year initiative, to the Headway head injury charity’s centre whose Timebank I have recently joined (see this Guardianarticle on the potential of time credits to transform public services), to the work of Citizen’s UK who have recently hired a community organiser to work in the area funded by the Mayor’s fund which also supports the Playing to Win initiative led by Greenhouse schools with Street Lead, London Youth, working with schools and youth clubs to tackle social problems using sports and games; to faith-based initiatives led by local churches with the support and interest of organisations such as Street Pastors.
Shoreditch is undoubtedly very different from many parts of the UK, particularly compared to rural Cumbria which I visited a few months ago hosted by MP Rory Stewart. In Penrith, the concerns were more about access to broadband, and more control over planning to create homes for young people who would otherwise leave for the cities, and community transport since public transport could often be quite limited. In Shoreditch, the issues are more to do with people not knowing each other, crime, and unemployment particularly for young people and men. But there are similarities as well: from a desire in both places for more multi-use community spaces through which local services can be delivered by a mix of the people themselves, the state, and voluntary and community enterprises; to an interest in sustainability whether it be in anaerobic digesters in the one, or city farms and guerilla gardening in the other. Above all there are paradoxical similarities to how poverty may need to be approached in both places, which is surprising given how one is extremely low density and the other extremely high density compared to other parts of the country. I was shown in Cumbria the farmhouse of a lady who was a widow on state benefits and one of a million people who are classed as in rural poverty. Recently, my church leader told me about a man he helped in Shoreditch who had racked up thousands of pounds in debts having been repeatedly sent warnings and notices because a) he had been misdiagnosed when getting his benefits such that his dyslexia was not picked up and support not provided to help him cope with it, and b) because the energy company had mistakenly read the wrong meter and charged him instead of his neighbour for the energy used. In both cases, a local neighbourhood group is able to do far more and at a more human, granular level, than the state ever could, no matter how much non-existent money we pump into it. In the case of the rural widow, she would not have been picked up by the state’s statisticians since super-output level data in her area does not identify her (the farmland and property around her tend to be inhabited by wealthy farmers or second-homers). In the latter case, the managerialist approach taken by the state using databases and call centres and tick-boxes failed to ensure enough time was spent observing the man’s life and the difficulties he faced, which would have been easier and possibly lower cost had he been part of a group of citizens, encouraged to get out and about rather than isolated at home. This is why I am passionate about groups, particularly those with a range of people from different backgrounds in them, supported by the voluntary, government, and business sectors, but not dominated or bypassed by them unless a high level of professional skill and interaction is genuinely needed. This is why I am working with others to establish the Shoreditch Group, a bunch of local citizens, philanthropists, and neighbours who want to help to bring change and improvement to the area, meeting in the pub once a month (if you think you are one of them, get in touch via #NatWei and let’s meet up!).
Unlike in moderately dense areas, where aspects of Big Society have often been in existence through local assocations, neighbourliness, and public services funded through taxation as well as local fundraising*, our most dense urban areas or peripheral estates and most rural areas are having to create new forms of Big Society which are interesting and often novel and present potential glimpses into the future as we seek to reinvent the welfare state and re-empower the citizen and citizen group in the face of technological, demographic, and economic transition. It does not seem an accident that Hackney and Shoreditch is seeing and has seen for many years a bewildering amount of lifestyle transformation, with the rise of the organic and sustainable urban farming movement and services (see Hackney City Farm), the harnessing of web-enabled community arts to bring people together to regenerate run down areas (see I AM HERE run on the Kingland and Haggerston estate), and multi-use community facilities such as the Boundary Community Launderette (a not-for-profit community business run by volunteer directors that washes clothes, lends books, acts as a gallery and raises money for charity). Groups like these are showing us how to draw communities together and unlock the potential that exists in them. There is furthermore a curious obsession with bikes (I have to admit I tend to walk more than cycle since the drivers round here terrify me!), and a profusion of the kind of fascinating slightly anarchic social media driven citizen-led movements and hyperlocal activity that Tessy Britton writes about, as well as the kind of more “old-fashioned” neighbouring which often faith groups in the area are starting to rediscover which John McKnight calls us to live out in Abundant Community.
This is an environment which has fostered the rise of social movements for centuries, and seems increasingly a difficult place for Big Charity and Big Government to penetrate or transform for the better. But I agree with Bubb that there are opportunities here for partnership between larger and smaller charities, the state, and citizens and citizen groups to help widows and the isolated, and everyone else alike and empower them in turn to help themselves and others around them. There are ways that Big Government, Charity, and Business can harness models to do this more effectively such as social franchising (see Foodbank and the People’s Supermarket), the “freemium” model (give your IP away for free and provide value added support, a model which Alcoholics Anonymous kind of follows), and classic joint ventures to reach the unreached and connect them with supportive local groups and services.
So to conclude, I’m excited to be here, excited to get to know my neighbours, and definitely up for learning and listening. There is going to be, given its political and social make-up, huge debate about Big Society or other participatory approaches to the relationship between the citizen, state, and voluntary and business worlds here as much as there will be all over the country and around the world in the coming decades. Julian Dobson’s point that there is still much to be done to build a consensus on the way forward is as true here in Shoreditch as around the country: how will we harness what can be fickle voluntary action, alongside what can sometimes be clunky monolithic state provision, together with markets that are not always moral? I think part of the answer is around understanding citizens, giving a voice to those who don’t shout the loudest, and empowering them to redefine a new settlement that fits best their individual and our collective circumstances. So here’s to the Big Citizen, to big citizens everywhere, and to Shoreditch – my new home.
Next post: Dealing with the Great Transition using big society participatory approaches in local government
* There are still many exceptions in moderately dense areas: I have been told wealthy commuter belts can be particularly alienating, where affluenza and social isolation, and the ability to purchase most of your services seems to coincide at times with high levels of family and community breakdown