Trust and its bedfellows, cohesion and strong community relations, are commodities high in demand but scarce in supply.
Moreover, they are depreciating assets that require continuous investment and cultivation. They are no longer the preserve of folk with ’non-jobs’ but critical to local government.
Ben Page once again reminded us that local government is one of the most trusted parts of government. Despite austerity our reputation remains buoyant, as does relative faith in local decision makers. But beyond this, the picture is more mixed. Indeed, levels of trust and engagement matter most in places where the role of the state is pivotal. Where cohesion is under pressure, trust and confidence is often at its lowest ebb. Faith in Kensington & Chelsea took a major hit in the days following the Grenfell disaster, although we’ve since learned in many parts of North Kensington relationships with the council never really existed in the first place.
The borough I work for remains vigilant about risk while actively pursuing community cohesion and developing trust. The 21st century has brought huge change. In 2001 almost 90% of our population was white British; today that figure is less than 50%. While we are no strangers to mass migration (the early 20th century saw the influx of workers from the North West and Ireland to work in the Dagenham Ford factory) it is the pace and scale that is startling. Our population is growing faster than almost anywhere in the country. Meanwhile 30% of residents are under 18 and half of these are under seven. We’ve become very good at building schools.
In 2006, we gained notoriety when 13 British National Party candidates were elected to the council, only for them to lose all their seats four years later. A decade on, in the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack, it transpired that two of the terrorists lived in Barking. Our annual residents’ survey confirms our older, white, working-class citizens are the least satisfied, the most fearful, and convinced we’re not a place where people get along. The researchers describe swathes of our community as ‘disengaged’. However, when you talk to people, what you hear is despair.
We are responding in three broad ways.
First, with faith groups, schools, other institutions and our neighbouring boroughs across East London, we are proactive in countering extremism and radicalisation. Working closely with the Home Office, we are piloting community-led approaches to Prevent. We are blessed with a community of established mosques that are beacons in this field, nurturing peer-led approaches to challenge and support best practice. It is also about keeping our focus wide. Our most recent referral to Channel, the service that supports individuals at risk of radicalisation, for example, related to a Polish far-right extremist young man.
Second, it’s about maximising opportunities for people to come together. We’ve developed a programme of summer festivals for all residents: from ‘Elvisfest’ to Chas & Dave to Iftar street parties. With only modest funding from the council and significant sponsorship, this summer 80,000 residents attended at least one of 10 free events we hosted.
Last month we launched ‘Every One Every Day’, the country’s largest and most innovative approach to community participation. We’re working in partnership with Participatory City, supported by £6.4m of funding from the Big Lottery and the Lankelly Chase and Esmee Fairburn Foundations to catalyse thousands of community-led projects. Our aspiration is that every household can access 100 activities from their doorstep.
Finally, it’s about reimagining the role of the council. This is about challenging, for example, our approach to regeneration so we avoid extreme gentrification and instead leverage our unique growth opportunity to develop thousands of new homes for aspirational local Londoners as they are: workers earning the minimum wage, essential public servants, those at the start of adulthood and those in the closing years of life. It’s about boldly redesigning services to get upstream of complex needs by tackling root causes. As resources diminish, the task is to understand what makes a public service intervention pivotal to someone’s life. This means designing in solutions within our community and where that capacity does not exist, developing it. It is also about grasping the intersectional character of an individual’s circumstance. Services once at the periphery are moving centre-stage: domestic violence; drug and alcohol, childcare and PHSE; the kick-starters that can change everything.
Ultimately, this is all about a new relationship with citizens where we convene the resources that help people to help themselves. But without trust, there is no relationship. So the first task is a mindset shift that sees every contact with our organisation as an opportunity to win trust. It is a principle I have never witnessed in action, but one we must embrace.
Chris Naylor, chief executive, Barking & Dagenham LBC