The community, the council & me

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As Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, I am a Champion of the Borough in which I have spent my entire life. Armed with a deep and representative understanding of the local culture and history, my job is to listen to my community and help it get where it wants to go. Once I have heard what residents are telling me, it is my job to work with my colleagues in the Council to enact our community’s vision and act as its ambassador to the wider world.

It is as simple as that.

I have always derived my values from what I see and hear around me, from my peers, neighbours, friends and family; from the community. My Mum and Dad taught me many lessons in life, but two in particular have made me the person I am today; never judge others, and never bow down to prejudice and bullying. We are all, no matter our wealth or background, equally deserving of fairness and respect, and we must all challenge unfairness and oppression wherever we see it.

This is another reason I am proud to be from Barking and Dagenham. From Mary Wollstonecraft – the 18th century feminist scholar – to the women of Ford who fought for equal pay and rights in the 1960s and later in the 1980s, our residents have always been prepared to stand up for what is fair and just.

As a teenager, I had my own first taste of community activism. I strongly believed students should have a say in school matters, and I became the first child on our Parent Teacher Association. I was also in the first scout troop to accept girls as members. And in 1985 I led my fellow students in a school walkout against renovation work which was endangering our health.

It is this practice of engaging with my family, friends, neighbours and peers which has given me a classically East End sense of right and wrong, and a set of values centred round fairness and community. That is why I feel at home in the Labour movement. The Labour Party remains a broad church, home to progressives of every kind, from working-class socialists to liberal intellectuals, and everyone in between. A commitment to fairness and to community is passionately shared by every wing of the movement.

This sense of fairness and community runs deep through this country’s psyche. It is the belief which drove Attlee’s post-war Government to articulate and enshrine the four central pillars of our society.

Firstly, that everyone should have access to free, first class healthcare.

Secondly, that everyone should be able to find a safe, decent home.

Thirdly, that everyone should be supported in their hour of need (welfare).

Finally, that every child should be allowed the opportunity, through education, to lead better lives than their parents, regardless of their background or wealth.

It was these four pillars which built the original welfare state, and it is these four pillars which remain so crucial to our society today. Austerity may have sought to weaken and undermine these values, but the 2017 general election clearly proved that they remain as important now as they have been for generations.

Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 general election campaign awoke the widespread passion felt for these policies of fairness; a passion long-held but recently threatened, just as it energised the younger generation, politicised by Brexit, tuition fees and the housing crisis.

Public services have reached breaking point, but the general election showed that we will not let go without a fight. Now, as a strengthened opposition facing a propped-up, unstable government, Labour must unite and provide a viable alternative to the Conservative’s ineffective Government. To do this, we must rebuild a pragmatic and modern approach towards these shared values of fairness and community. We need to take practical steps to strengthen and sustain our public services, such as by writing off the tuition fee debt held by those graduates who go to work in the public sector, by encouraging innovation and transformation, as well as investing in our public services.

The Labour movement must also realise and respect the experience and values of local government. Councillors around the country are often more in touch with and representative of their communities than national politicians. Through representation on the National Executive Committee, and the thoughtful use of candidate contracts, Labour can strengthen the ties between local and national politics, and draw its strength from communities across the country. This approach will allow us to move forward with one voice, and ensure no-one is left behind.

I joined the council in 2010 – after driving the BNP out of the borough – with a group of friends and colleagues motivated by their connection with and place within the community, and a common vision of what we could achieve if we modernised the council’s services and attitudes, and incorporate the values of the New East.

As well as those from the trade union movement which had traditionally provided a supply of councillors in the past, a product of the borough’s industrial heritage, many of us who came into the council in 2010, came from backgrounds in the voluntary sector, resident’s associations and other community positions.

One such colleague is Cllr Saima Ashraf, who joined the council at the same time I did. After moving to the UK from France with her three daughters, she found herself abandoned in a homeless hostel with her young children. She could not speak a word of English and did not know anyone, let alone understand our complicated public services. She volunteered for a charity shop and began to break down the language barrier. After the Met Police supported Saima when dealing with her abusive husband, she joined as a volunteer. Her confidence grew as quickly as her understanding of our community and legal system, and she joined the family of the Labour Party.

Since 2010, Saima has proven herself an incredibly effective Councillor and community leader, and is now the Deputy Leader of the Council. Her story is an inspiration to us all. It should be one of many for what we want to achieve as a community; a welcoming borough where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

I instinctively understand that, as a champion of the community, the Council’s job is to deliver the community’s vision; to build the New East. This vision is born out of an ideology of fairness and community, not a dogmatic ideology of times gone-by. It must be led by the community, facilitated by the Council, and invested in by our partners. For this reason, we must be pragmatic rather than dogmatic, harness the public, private and voluntary sectors however possible, and attract the investment and partnership necessary to achieve our vision.

The Council can and will achieve this by doing three simple things; listening, facilitating, and communicating.

The first job of any public servant is to listen to those they serve. In the run up to the 2006 local elections we had stopped doing this, and we lost touch with the community. We could not hear what people were telling us, and we did not notice their pain. As a result, many turned to those who claimed to listen and claimed to support them, and twelve British National Party councillors were elected out of thirteen candidates. This should have been a shock and much-needed wake-up call for all mainstream political parties, and for London’s institutions, as it was for the local Labour Party.

We went back to basics.

We hit the streets and started knocking on doors for the first time in years. Between 2006 and 2010 the Party’s contact rate with our residents increased from 6 to 65 per cent.

Contact in my own ward of Alibon improved from 7 to 90 per cent.

We spent those four years getting back in touch with the community, listening, and regaining trust. I knocked on endless doors and asked: ‘I can’t do anything about West Ham, Gordon Brown or the weather, but what else can I help you with?’

We heard and understood our community for the first time in years, and in 2010 they rewarded us by ‘booting out’ the BNP and returning all 51 Labour candidates.

At the time we called our approach the ‘Barking Model’, the principle of community re-engagement through grassroots activism. The importance of the ability to listen and display basic human empathy should not be underestimated.

We have witnessed this importance recently, when comparing Corbyn’s open and engaging election campaign with May’s robotic, standoffish and patronising efforts, or in the Government’s immediate response to the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. Engagement and, where possible, co-production have long-since formed a central element of our Council’s approach – constant discussion and collaboration with our residents guides everything we do and everything we aim for.

Despite the brutal programme of austerity pursued by successive Governments since 2010, the Council’s responsibility to facilitate change remains steadfast. We exist to use the public, private and voluntary sectors, harnessing partnership and investment from all sources, to help the community get where it wants to go. In recent years – as demand and pressure on our budgets have increased – this has meant fundamentally changing the way the Council relates to our residents, as well as how it communicates and delivers services.

We cannot be a parent to our residents, but we must remain a dented shield for the most vulnerable, and a partner to the aspirational. Nor are we motivated by private interest, seeking profit for one part of the community at the expense of others.

Everyone has a place and there is a place for everyone in our community, but there is no room for gentrification. We cannot stubbornly cling on to the outdated, siloed methods of delivering public services in the twentieth century. Nor can we call for change and hope for the best. Instead, we are responding to the challenges we face by providing innovative, targeted, seamless services which enable each person and family, and tackle the root cause of the problem at hand.

We are building a new kind of Council focused on outcomes, fit to serve the needs of the community, and able to stand the test of time. In turn, this approach will empower every resident to participate in the life of the borough; to take control of their own lives, support those of their family, and play an active role in the community. We will build a sense of participative citizenship; an active, involved and resilient community. This is where working-class pragmatism meets 21st century public service. It is the future of Barking and Dagenham. It could be a future shared by communities up and down the country.

Lastly, it is crucial that the Council communicates effectively, both with the residents of the Borough and the wider world. This is a time of great change, and we must ensure our residents are fully aware of the opportunities available to them as part of the greatest city in the world. We must also inform residents, and the wider world, of the work we are undertaking to form the community’s vision of an inclusive, modern and growing Borough. Community engagement at every opportunity is vital.

Councillor Darren Rodwell

Leader, London Borough of Barking & Dagenham


Further questions

What is the role of a local authority in the 21st century?

How can the state, both local and national, be more responsive to the communities it serves?

What are the most effective means of communicating with citizens?

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