Photo: Community Rights Project
St Pauls is a community in transition. Local people are being increasingly priced out by soaring living costs while those who can no longer afford to live in more expensive places move into the area. Historically, St Pauls has had a strong sense of identity and the community is now struggling to keep up with changes.
I’ve been working as a community organiser in St Pauls since 2012, listening to people, exploring their issues, challenging them into action and supporting them to connect with others. Throughout this process I have met hundreds of people. They are frustrated about the lack of voice they have in how the area is run: issues ranging from rubbish, neglect of the neighbourhood by the local authorities and lack of opportunities for young people, to gentrification, the impact of cuts on local services and the risks faced by local grassroots organisations including the Malcolm X Centre and St Pauls Carnival.
A recurring issue is about the money that comes into the community for service delivery being taken up by big service providers. These larger companies are not held accountable by Bristol council, while local voluntary organisations, which could potentially deliver better value for money, provide local jobs and improve the local economy but struggle to make ends meet.
For example, a social enterprise, Learning Partnership West (LPW) took over the running of the St Pauls Adventure Playground in 2013 after the council slashed the youth provision budget by a third, leading to the deterioration of the service and the facilities. A meeting was called in October, in which LPW and the commissioner for Bristol Youth Links (the ‘umbrella’ organisation for council-commissioned youth services) were questioned about the lack of a social impact assessment and a cost-benefit analysis on LPW’s work since its contract started.
The meeting was triggered by the arrest of more than 20 young people who were dealing drugs in the neighbourhood. There was a lot of anger, as the community felt this could have been prevented, and the cost of processing and incarceration will be higher, both economically and socially.
What if the money spent on youth services in St Pauls was given to local organisations? They wouldn’t need to spend time and money building trust with the youth, because they know the youth; they are the youth. What if St Pauls Adventure Playground was run by the community – including parents? Not as volunteers, but getting paid and sustaining the place as a social enterprise. Imagine if the grassroots organisations in St Pauls were to work together as a consortium? They could effectively compete for service delivery tenders and employ local people to deliver.
What can be done?
Neighbourhood Forums are meetings run by the council where the community can raise issues, but often they are poorly advertised and not participatory enough. This leads to the same people attending, and young people having no interest. What if Neighbourhood Forums were run by the community? What if we tried new ways of meeting?
The Localism Act gives powers to communities through Neighbourhood Planning and Community Rights. The Community Right to Challenge can be used to challenge how public services are being delivered, force them back to tender and the community can potentially take over the running of the service. The Community Right To Bid can be used to register assets of community interest such as green spaces, pubs, shops, community centres and playgrounds. This freezes any potential sale of the asset for six months giving the community time to raise money to bid.
A coalition of grassroots community groups has come together through the St Pauls Community Rights Project to provide free training to people living, working and volunteering in St Pauls. Subjects covered include community organising, community rights, campaigning, participatory leadership and facilitation. The Malcolm X Centre, Full Circle Youth and Family Project, and the St Pauls Adventure Playground Committee, with support from Community CoLab (a social enterprise I set up) and ACORN, have joined forces to create spaces to have meaningful conversations leading to action and change.
We’re running training sessions on the first Saturday of every month from March to June, 10am-5pm at Docklands Centre, 74-80 City Rd, Bristol BS2 8UH. We hope to inspire and be inspired by trying new ways of engaging, meeting and collaborating.