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David Wilcox

Voices from the Tower may change tone of #TheWayAhead for civil society, as well as much else

6 min read

Yesterday's event about The Way Ahead for London civil society offered more detail about the formal plans for a resource hub, and other support systems for community groups, organisations and charities.

However, the emotional tone was set by reflections at the start and finish on the Grenfell Tower disaster.

At the start Geraldine Blake, project officer for The Way Ahead, expressed our deep sympathy for the individuals, families and communities affected, and admiration for the extraordinary effort of volunteers.

I think we all immediately brought to mind both the horror of the burned out tower, and the news images of volunteers rapidly organising to provide support when, it seemed, official bodies were unable to respond.

Photo Eastern Eye

Photo Eastern Eye

Wasn't that the best of "civil society"?

Two overlapping themes emerging from conversations. Yes, on the one hand the efforts of individuals and small groups generally outweigh those of organisations and charities in London, even if they usually have a lower profile.

On the other hand the community centres, sports halls, other facilities and services used by volunteers are an essential part of the civil society infrastructure now under threat from funding cuts. That’s the dual challenge being addressed in The Way Ahead: maintaining what people called the plumbing and connective tissue as well as inspiring and supporting the individuals and groups. But is the balance right?

One of the recurring criticisms of The Way Ahead process, as I wrote here, has been poor communication and engagement with Londoners and small groups.

At the end of the event, Richard Lee, cordinator of the campaigning network Justspace again referred to Grenfell Tower, and I asked him to reprise his remarks for me.

As you can hear in the interview, Richard argues that the tone, and maybe the substance of The Way Ahead documents, should be changed. (Links to documents in this post). He says that the part of civil society that really came forward in the wake of the disaster were activists, small community groups, and people who wanted to take part purely as volunteers.

People felt humbled looking at this and seeing how this part of civil society really took charge in providing for the needs of the people there.

When we look at The Way Ahead Change documents, and the proposals for the hub, do they actually also include these community voices, these activists, those doing things voluntarily, those who are part of small community groups? They don't, and I’m not alone in thinking this.

There are other people in the room today who equally feel we cannot give consent to these documents as they stand.

Richard refers to an event on July 12, organised by Matt Scott, with Richard, me and others, when there will be an opportunity to contribute fresh ideas. He calls for space in The Way Ahead process to both reflect on the implications of the disaster, and incorporate these ideas.

An open event for people active in their community to network and build alliances for collective action

As part of this event we will explore how community groups and Londoners can influence ‘The Way Ahead’ agenda and proposed London Hub.

I then talked to Geraldine Blake, project officer for The Way Ahead, who explained the substantial consultation processes that informed development of the documents, adding:

I liked Richard's point that we change the tone of of the Change Plans to make sense of them to frontline community organisations and activists. That’s absolutely something we'll feed in.

I'm very very keen to be part of the event in a few weeks and feed that in to The Way Ahead Change Plan. What we want is the strongest possible plan that means something to all the people that need to be involved in actually making it happen.

Geraldine said that this is a moment when the value of civil society has become very clear, and we need to capitalise on it for longer-term benefit. It is also important to recognise the value of locally-rooted organisations in joining things up.

In my next interview, Matt Scott suggests we must go deeper on engagement and create spaces where people can set out their own stories, and build much stronger networks and coalitions. He said that today was made up of quite formal presentations and complex table discussions. The event on June 12 will provide conversation space during an afternoon and evening, and hopefully start to mobilise a different part of civil society. Most community groups are small, and would not walk through the door of a formal event.

The Way Ahead is a fantastic opportunity to get the sector where it should be in London, because we have a desperately low profile - and I'm keen too do a different kind of event with different kind of conversations