Learning from the bottom up

Community Groups in Tower Hamlets listed by Google

The Greater London Authority commissioned a report to uncover the work of community groups regarding environmental issues in Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

The GLA report Inequalities and Environmental Action was conducted remotely online as we came to the end of the Covid-19 restrictions in late 2021 and early 2022. Centric Lab produced the report which surveyed 143 community groups and organisations, including the Geezers here in Bow. The Mayor of London’s programme aims to gain insights and change policy by learning from the bottom up. They say that challenges don’t hold people down. Communities are groups of people who work to improve local peoples lives.

The purpose of the GLA report is to provide a database of organisations, collate the insights gained, uncover trends and areas in need of help. The report says: “Many of the communities that were hardest hit by Covid-19 were already advocating for environmental action such as adequate housing, fairer wages, access to green spaces, shelter for the unhoused, migrant rights, or clean air.” It says that strategies need to be led by communities as they have experience and knowledge learnt over a long period of time.

In analysing the 143 groups the study discovered: “The vast majority of organisations were unincorporated according to the Charities Commission and Companies House registers. There could be various reasons for this, such as lack of resources or lack of knowledge of the system. This could impact future funding opportunities that require a legal entity.”

This suggests to me that the lack of knowledge was at the GLA. So now they’ve discovered this they need to change their rules on funding, and get rid of the obstacles to granting it. They also observed that: “The majority of groups are open to the public with low barriers to entry; no formal application, no fees and easy access.” Real life goes on outside the public sector walled garden.

There was a lot of emphasis in the report on the Green New Deal which would skew the results they were collecting. They discovered that: “Recognition and relation to a Green New Deal was very low,” and “…people did not align themselves with a Green New Deal (GND).”

Interviews conducted through online means or via Zoom 

The GLA released a sample of interviews.

Abigail Woodman of Save Lea Marshes & East London Waterworks Park pointed out that they had to spend hours responding to consultations that professionals are paid a lot of money to perform. “And if they don’t do it, then it’s going to be deemed that they’re not interested or it didn’t work or local people aren’t worth listening to because they didn’t get involved with a digital thing…”

Barrie Stradling of the Geezers Club (ourbow.com) was interviewed on Zoom. Continuing Abigail Woodman’s point he said: “There’s no wi-fi at our community centre so that would be the first problem to solve”.

Barrie went on to say that the Geezers Club was formed as a result of Age UK bringing people together to understand why men don’t go to resource centres. After conversations a group agreed that having a little place they could go, that they could call their own, was integral to talking about their local neighbourhood: “We need more resources for that [physical community spaces], so people are not isolated”.

Helga Lang of Wellington Estate TRA Committee also made the point that

“ You have to have a space that people can meet and discuss issues.”

“How useful is it to be shown all the things you can’t take on? How useful is that? And then the irony is most of them [local community] don’t have Wi Fi internet. Most of them don’t have a device. So you’re going to be losing a whole raft of people that haven’t even got the means to take part in terms of equipment and programme. I mean, the very people you want to hear from aren’t going to be able to access it. Stop servicing our community. Come and ask what we need, and then work with what we need. We don’t need to have your fancy computer app.”

The report found a theme of lack of accountability, transparency and integrity from public officials running though the interviews.

Gerry Matthews of Wellington Estate Tenants Residents Association said:

“We’ve got 35 cycle spaces on our estate. I calculated on the old London plan, the one that has just been superseded, I calculated that we would need for our estate, on their calculations, if we were a new build, 580 cycle parking spaces. But now post Grenfell fire regulations are much stricter and so if your bike is not locked in your home, or in one of these designated 35 spaces. Your bike will get an eviction notice and it’s a tenancy issue. So there’s that kind of thing, and we get sucked in.”

In response the report says: “Decarbonisation aims to be delivered by cycle friendly streets however an existing community is getting penalised for having bicycles without adequate cycle storage in their area. In Gerry’s opinion it should not have to be her responsibility to navigate multiple policy documents to make a claim for the respect that would be shown to a more affluent incoming community. Issues like this underpin the experience of gentrification, not just expensive coffee shops.”

Heather Mendick of Morning Lane People’s Space says: “The whole nested layer of planning documents that come down from national to London to local is a mess. We’ve just been upgraded to a town centre. That sounds good, right? But it’s awful because that means we’ve got to have high density developments in a place that was never designed for them. It’s a horrible abuse of language as well. People use the term town-centre to talk about something which is local to them and belongs to them. And suddenly it’s colonised by planning to mean a place where you have to build loads of bloody houses that people can’t afford!”

Theres lots more community comment in the abbreviated report to read here from page 37 onwards.

The GLA should be congratulated on undertaking this report. It’s thrown up many questions and, I’d imagine, some unexpected responses. Learning from the bottom up rather than imposing from the top down, must surely be the best way forwards for our city.

Alan Tucker

The screengrab at the top here shows how many Community Groups Google thinks there are in Tower Hamlets. Readers with Google accounts could help here by adding their own group to Google Maps.

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