Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Were 18thC Africans in Britain ‘Georgians’?


Elizabeth Dido Belle, George Bridgetower,  Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, Joseph Emidy and  Bill Richmond are among the best known  Africans who came to Britain from the West Indies, the North American Colonies, and  other parts of Europe in the 18th Century. There were many others who were servants, seamen and  soldiers, like William Fifefield in Newcastle. In 2016 Black Cultural Archives put on the exhibition ‘Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar’  at  Black Cultural Archives, curated by S. I. (Steve) Martin, the black historian and creative writer. This led me to organise and  chair a roundtable discussion to examine aspects of our understanding of ‘Black Georgians’ in Britain, at the Annual Conference of the British Society for  18thC Studies at Oxford in January 2017.

What follows are key points made in the presentations by members of the panel Judith Bryan (Roehampton University), Brycchan Carey (Northumbria University), Kathleen Chater  (Independent historian), Ryan Hanley (New College, Oxford), and Arthur Torrington (The Equiano Society), based on their  introductory remarks and the discussion that followed.

What do we mean by Georgians?

 Brycchan started by discussing the term ‘Black Georgian’. The word ‘Georgian’ was not used at the time. It is the creation of Victorian historians. Nor has it been widely used by historians of the 18thC and the early modern period. Literary scholars term the period as Augustine and Romantic. The term is used mainly in relation to architecture, art and design, and includes ‘Regency’. It is specifically used in relation to Royal History.

The concept is complex  especially when applied to other parts of the Empire, like to the American colonists. It implies they were subjects of the King Georges. Slaves were not subjects but legally chattel, they were property with no rights or responsibilities. They were ‘legal prisoners of war’. If they were emancipated they became subjects of the King Georges.

Ignatius Sancho was a ‘Georgian’ who lived with aristocrats and had a room at Windsor Castle. Equiano served in the Royal Navy. How willingly did they identify with ‘Georgian’ Britain? Sancho was patriotic but also African. Describing Africans as ‘Georgians’ is therefore problematic. But is is a fruitful way to open discussion about allegiances and identities and about slavery.

There is a great emphasis on what Kath Chater described as  ‘the usual subjects’ i.e. Equiano and Sancho. It is easy to create an image that is not typical of the experience of most Africans in British in the ‘Georgian’ period. Her database has up to 5,000 Africans back to Tudor times. Most experienced life in Britain as did white people, living ordinary lives. The ‘Black Georgian experience is based on the writings of a few like Equiano and Sancho.  There are problems with the use of the word ‘black’ in the 18th and early 19thCs. as it was used to describe Africans, Indians and whites with dark complexions.

As  a novelist Judith Bryan  is  interested in the 18th and 19thCs, when there were an estimated 15,000 Africans in Britain, whose presence has been overlooked. Africans who wrote their histories have been constructed as heroes and protagonists. Bu they were fully human with ordinary but rich lives. Mary Prince asserts her rights over her own body, and resists her employer trying to take control of her body. In her Court evidence she clearly made sexual choices. Vincent Caretta suggests that Equiano came from South Carolina not Africa. By bringing the African experience from the margins to the centre in his Narrative Equiano manipulates his readers for his own purposes . Writings like his are a starting point for thinking about the lives of other Africans. Using historical fiction allows contemporary authors to explore experiences, attitudes and beliefs at the time .

Problems with ‘Black British History’

There was also discussion about ‘British Black History’. RH  spoke briefly about the development of black British history as an academic sub-discipline, beginning with the rise of labour history, the Sheffield School (migration studies), through the History Workshop movement, the 'New Imperial History’, and into more recent developments such as intersectional studies into the queer and non-binary black experience. He raised a number of questions as to the traditional association between black history and working-class history Is the history of black people in C18th Britain necessarily a working-class history? If so, then what about figures like Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho? As with gender history, scholars are increasingly incorporating black history and literature into broad-ranging, general courses.

I emphasised the need to account for a plurality of black experiences in the Georgian period. I supported Arthur’s point that much of the momentum and best quality research has come from outside academia, and that those of us working in universities need to catch up and work to develop partnerships.

 that it had been deeply influenced by the left and Marxists. It has its own special history month. It is a sub-division of ‘history from below’ movement (e.g. History Workshop).  A new imperial history emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.  Catherine Hall for example looked at information on the effect of the colonies on the metropolis. It is clear that the Black experience was migratory. The weakness of British Black History is that it collapses a broad range of very diverse every day experiences into something homogenous but actually diverse. There is a tendency to lump the celebrities into an artificial  category of ‘Black Intellectuals’. Is this a coherent category? Is there anything about them that goes beyond being ‘Black’? Marcus Redicker’s ideas re-race and class among the trans-Atlantic proletariat are relevant in this respect. Can we think about that linking slaves and textile workers in Manchester? There are new directions in Black British studies, including an emphasis on race and class identify and on sexuality. Should these be part of normal rather than special research? 

The work of the Equiano Society

Arthur Torrington discussed the importance of the work of the Equiano Society.   Sam King and he set up The Equiano Society (TES)  in 1996 as a community organisation that has publicised the life and times of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, the African) because the latter was known to university lecturers, but not widely known to the public.  TES has since organised events in London to inform people in communities about Equiano, and the first at St Martins in the Field, Trafalgar Square (in March 1997) to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death. TES led the lobby for him to be included in the national curriculum and this materialised in 2008, but he was taken out by Michael Gove MP in 2010 when the Conservative Government was in power.  Major events included an exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2007 after TES and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery received £653,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. A plaque (the first for a Black Briton) was unveiled for Equiano at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey on 9th February 2009, to mark the 250th anniversary year of his baptism in St Margaret’s.  Community events have been the major force in raising awareness of Black British history, and the past 20 years have seen a new interest in the subject.

Why do Africans seem to disappear in the 19thC?

This question is often asked at talks to local groups. The discussion focussed in the fact that there was Intermarriage between Africans and British white men and women.  Francis Barber is one example, of an African who married a white woman and had children.  Resident plantation owners often had children with slave women, and send their children to Britain. Nathaniel Wells inherited his white father’s estate and became a prominent figure . Many of the well-known Black figures in the 19th and early 20thCs were their sons, daughters and grand children. This is true of ‘ordinary’ families as well. The children and grandchildren became absorbed into the general population and as had been shown in David Olusoga’s BBC TV programme. How does mixed heritage relate to both white and black history.

Kathy Chater emphasised that they also disappear as of having African heritage because the records did not normally highlight ethnicity. While place of birth was always in the Census, ethnicity was not added until 1991. Sometime parish records up to the end of the 18th record where some Africans came from, or noted their colour, and used words ‘like ‘negro’. ‘Blackness’ was rarely recorded in the Settlement records kept to register who was eligible in receive poor law support in the parish they lived in. This makes it difficult to reconstruct the lives and ancestries of people.

Were the Sons of Africa a network?

There was a difference of opinion about the nature of the Sons of Africa, who included Equiano, and who wrote letters against the slave trade. It can be seen as a pressure group, a network, a lobby group, but not an organised or structured group. The Sons were well connected and therefore had some influence. It is clear that Africans met to socialise, to share information and to engage politically. There are 18thC press reports about Africans meeting at social events, and this was treated with a degree of fear. London was a typical in that because there were a larger number of Africans living or passing through it was possible to come together more easily. Less easy in the provinces where Africans were more thinly dispersed. Even in London it is not clear whether Equiano and Sancho met. Robert Wedderburn and William Davidson would have met but this would have been through the Spencean Philantropists.

It was hoped that the issues raised would be further explored by those present through their work on British Black studies, whether from a historical, genealogical, or literary perspective.  

An afterthought from Ryan Hanley

‘Something I wanted to say but didn’t get around to is to suggest that there is such a thing as specialist research skills for black history (especially when looking for lesser-known individuals) and it would be good to incorporate these into university syllabi, perhaps through the publication of a textbook aimed at undergraduate students and community historians.’

After thoughts from Sean Creighton

Arthur’s stress on the role of community based historians and activists in progressing Black History was an important reminder of the need for academics to pay more attention to what is happening and to forger partnerships. Brychann endorsed this and is one of those who is active in doing this. In another session Matthew Grenby recognised the need for those links. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project is a good example of collaboration.

From my perspective this co-operation should include:

1.    Inviting alumni involved in history work to speak to undergraduates and postgraduates at the Universities they attended
2.    Linking with community historians in the area where a University exists so that a local/regional dimension is added in to course content

But it also requires academics in the same University or regional group to link together across different departments.   There is such a network in the North East  but as yet it does not seem to draw speakers from community historians.

The handout at the roundtable included the following thoughts from Judith Bryan.

‘An estimated 15,000 Africans lived and worked in Britain during the Georgian period, yet institutional, scholarly and popular representations frequently overlook or marginalise this presence, for example the recent British Library exhibition Georgians Revealed (dubbed by Miranda Kaufman, ‘Georgians Unrevealed’). Fictional representations play an important role in shaping popular knowledge because stories may be used to carry history. African writers in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth century self-consciously exploit the power of story-telling. In recounting their travels, adventures, relationships, successes and failures, Equiano and Seacole construct themselves as heroes in their narrative, authoring their lives whilst chronicling their times. Conversely, Wedderburn critiques the status quo by unapologetically presenting himself as an anti-hero. Sancho asserts himself as a sentimental man of letters, a family man, a gentleman. Prince takes ownership of her body and destiny, refuting the assumed passivity of enslaved Africans. The literary productions of these black Georgians bring the African experience from the margins to the centre, and in doing so offer a starting point and a template for contemporary writers. Events such as the arrival in Britain of African veterans of the American Revolution and their dependants; the Sierra Leone resettlement scheme; the Cato St conspiracy; and the sustained engagement of British-based Africans in abolitionist campaigns have parallels with current concerns, for example around migration, labour rights, state violence against African heritage people in the diaspora, the challenge of obtaining justice for poor or marginalised people, the effects of capitalism and globalisation on lives of ordinary people, and so on. Fiction, as a form of historical reconstruction, makes it possible to bring the long eighteenth century into new and thrilling focus, and to maintain its enduring relevance.’

Judith Bryan lectures in Creative Writing at University of Roehampton. Her novel Bernard and The Cloth Monkey (HarperCollins 1998) won the 1997 Saga Prize. Her most recent publications are short story ‘Randall & Sons’ in Closure, (Peepal Tree 2015); and a chapter in Challenging History in the Museum, (Ashgate 2014). At the time of the roundtable she was working on a novel God of Thunder, an historical fantasy, masquerading as non fiction about the catastrophic disruption of history occasioned by transatlantic slavery. Further details about Judith and her work can be seen at

Brycchan Carey is a Professor of English at Northumbria University whose publications include British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility (Palgrave, 2005) and From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Antislavery (Yale, 2012). His book Unnatural Empire: Slavery, Abolition, and Colonial Natural History, 1650–1840, is being published by Yale in 2018.  He is working on an essay collection co-edited with Tom Krise and Nicole Aljoe on Early Caribbean Literary Histories, to be published by Palgrave, and an edition of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative in the Oxford University Press World’s Classics series. His content rich website is at

Kathleen Chater is an independent scholar.  She worked for the BBC until 1994, when she left and became a self-employed tutor in research techniques for the media and for family and local history.  She had also written books and articles on history and genealogy and researched several exhibitions on the black presence in Newham and one in Enfield.  Her doctoral thesis is published as Untold Histories: Black people in England and Wales during the British slave trade c. 1660-1807 (Manchester University Press, 2009). Her 2011 talk ‘Untold histories’ at The National Archives can be listened to as a podcast at

Ryan Hanley is is Salvesen Junior Fellow in History at New College, Oxford. In 2015 he was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Alexander Prize for his article on James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, the first black author published in Britain. He is currently working on a monograph on black writing in Britain, 1770-1830. Further details about Ryan and his publications can be seen at

Arthur Torrington CBE is a community advocate, co-founder (with the late Sam B. King MBE) and Secretary of The Equiano Society, established in 1996 in London.   The organisation keeps alive Equiano’s story, and also publicises the heritage of other African and Caribbean people who settled in the UK over the centuries.  The Equiano Society website is at

Should a follow-up session be held at BSECS in January 2018?

I has been suggested that there should be a follow-up session on 18thC Black British History in the BSECS Annual Conference next January. If so should it focus around:
(1)    showing how the black population was all over the country
(2)    lesser known individuals especially outside London
(3)    the role of black soldiers and sailors
(4)    the contrasts of experience: Nathaniel Wells at the top of society and the black poor and the lives of black prostitutes

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The importance of knowing about Labour history

A few months ago I was asked if I would facilitate some sessions on the history of the Labour Party as part of the political education activity in a Constituency Labour Party. Unfortunately with the turmoil in the Party in the period heading up to the General Election these sessions were put on hold, and may be activated later.
The thinking behind the sessions was that with so many new members of the Party, there is not much knowledge or understanding about the history of the Party. Indeed longer term members also do not know much about it.

This is nothing new. When I joined Battersea Labour Party in the early 1970s there was little knowledge of even its own history, and we used the 50th Anniversary of the General Strike in 1976 to kick-start work on the history of the Party and the labour movement, which I have continued to work on since. That early work also linked in with initiatives within the wider Labour Party in London, and through Labour Heritage, the affiliated history group which concentrates on Party history within the wider movement, and of which I was Secretary for a couple of years in the early 2000s.

The Party was luke warm about commemorating the 2006 Anniversary of its adopting the name Labour Party having been the Labour Representation Committee formed in 1900. in 2006. This was because It was now controlled by New Labour, which had no understanding of Party history or if it did not want members to know too much about it. New Labour was in the midst of changing the nature of the Party trying to turn it into a different kind of organisation than it had been in the past. It introduced a form of ‘democratic centralism’ with the emphasis on dictat and control from the top, in which the collective voice of the membership was kicked into the side lines.

I have just rediscovered the text of a talk I gave at the West London West London Labour History Day School in October 2002 in which I reflected on New Labour and history.

I suggested that there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of New Labour.

·       On the one hand it wanted citizens to be actively involved in the decisions that affect them in the neighbourhoods, local authorities and regions in which they live. This was central to the Government’s Urban White Paper, Neighbourhood Renewal, regeneration and social inclusion strategies.

·       On the other hand it had disempowered its own members, and belittled the historic achievements of labour movement and Party activists – Old Labour as it calls them.
The legacy of the labour movement in its widest sense from the 18th Century was the creation of collective organisations through which the social injustices of capitalism could be challenged and through which support services could be provided when workers and their families needed it: the benefits and medical services provided by the friendly societies and trade unions, unadulterated food and other goods at fair prices through the retail co-operatives, home ownership along with which increasingly went the vote through building societies, social and leisure activities through the working men’s and miners’ welfare clubs, education activities through the co-operative societies, trade unions and then through the Workers’ Educational association which would celebrate its 100th Anniversary in January 2003.

At the political level a range of organisations fought for the extension of the vote to include men and later women. The organised labour movement broke through into Parliament in 1892 and then in local government, and campaigned and when in power developed public services. And while there were disagreements over strategy and tactics, there was a vision to achieve social justice and equal opportunities as a minimum and the overthrow or transformation of capitalism into socialism as a maximum.

Without this legacy there would have been no Labour Government in 1945 with its breakthrough in the development of public services, especially the Health Service. While public services were never perfect, they began to be damaged when Labour took a wrong turn in 1976 with the deal with the International Monetary Fund, culminating in the Winter of Discontent, and laying the foundations for the Thatcherite attack on the organised labour movement and its legacy and its attempt to destroy support for socialism in the UK.  At the heart of that attack was the roll-back of the New Unionist agenda of the late 1880s and early 1890s based on fair wages, direct labour and municipally controlled services.

When New Labour gained power in 1997 it inherited a legacy of tremendous damage not just to services and employment, but to thousands of communities, and more importantly to millions of people who had been thrown by Thatcherism onto the scrap heap with public services crumbling around them.

The New Labour Government recognised that it would take 15-20 years to reverse the damage. It wants to mobilise people, but it continues to marginalise the very organisations that gave it birth, the trade unions, in some cases to vilify them, and to hamstring its own members. It blundered to confrontation with the Fire Brigades Union because of its failure to address fundamental issues of pay and conditions of public sector workers that are not as simple as take-home pay and overtime, but housing and transport costs. The problem of the cost of public service workers has been an Achilles Heel in the relationship between the public sector trade unions and labour movement controlled local authorities since the 1890s.
The labour movement from the 19th Century and Labour Party political support in the 20th Century were built from below. It is precisely why remembering and celebrating that past history, warts and all, is important.

I went on to argue that If we wanted the fundamental changes needed went on to argue that ions ofmne the workers has been an Acholles Heel in the relationship between the public sector we need to re-build the faith of ordinary people that their collective voice and action can have an effect. The history of the Labour movement and Party shows that this was done in the past. 
As older forms of working-class and labour movement associations like friendly societies have withered, there has been a mushrooming of new forms of collective organisation especially the diverse range of community organisations and social enterprises. Instead of seeing them as a threat Labour Councillors should see them as allies, moulded in the same tradition out of which the labour movement and the Party itself grew: collective action to address poverty and what we now call social exclusion, to obtain social and economic justice and create a fairer society.

New Labour promoted mutualism, including new forms. Stephen Yeo, an active campaigner and former head of Ruskin College, was writing at the time about Labour’s roots in the working class associational culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries. He talked about New Labour, Old Labour and Old, Old Labour. I referred to my discussion paper ‘Mutuality and Radical Politics’ in which I reviewed mutuality and its relationship to politics at the time.


Labour Heritage

It continues to be active with annual West London and Essex Day Schools, the Annual General Meeting talks and its Bulletin. The Bulletin is an excellent and easy to read source on a wide range of aspects of Labour Party history inc. biographical sketches of activists. It contains the following pieces by me:

·       The summary of my 2002 talk above:

·       Battersea Women’s Socialist Circle 1908-10

·       Workers Educational Association in West London (summary)

·       Preparing to Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Renaming of the Labour Party (1906)

·       Labour in Holborn in the 1930s and 1940s

Mutuality & Radical Politics

In May 2002 I took part in a Day School run by Independent Labour Publications speaking about Mutuality and Radical Politics. It can be read at

Co-operative, Mutual and Social Action in Battersea and Lambeth

My pamphlets:

From Exclusion to Political Control. Radical and Working Class Organisation in Battersea 1830s-1918
Organising Together in Lambeth. A Historical Review of Co-operative and Mutual Social Action
are available from me at
 and-radical-politics/nd 1940srun by Independent Labour Publications speaking about Mutuality and Radical Politics.
Workers' Educational Association

Sections of my essay Battersea and the Formation of the Workers' Eductaional Association in  A Ministry of Enthusiasm: Centenary Essays on the Workers' Educational Association. ed. Stephen K. Roberts (Pluto Press 2003) . 

can be seen on Google Books.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Thomas Spence, Land Nationalisation and the Housing Crisis

On Saturday 29 July Malcolm Chase gave an incisive lecture on the life and ideas of Thomas Spence and land nationalisation for the Socialist History Society. 

He stressed that on land issues  Spence had more influence on Chartism than Thomas Paine, and on Chartist supporters like Thomas E. Bowkett who initiated the Bowkett building society movement, about  which Stan Newens wrote in History Workshop Journal (No 9. Spring 1980), an article well worth reading.

Discussion included the question of whether Spence's ideas remain relevant today. There was a consensus that the issue of land ownership was a major problem at the root of the current housing crisis.  I suggested that his ideas on building a democratic Britain up from the parishes remained an inspiration to thinking about the need for major reform in governance.

You can read what Malcolm has already published about Spence “The Real rights of Man”: Thomas Spence, Paine and Chartism in Miranda revue

which he gave at a 2014 Conférence on Spence in Toulouse.

He also wrote the book about Spence and his followers the Spencean  Philantropists in The People’s Farm. English Radical Agrarianism 1775-1840, originally published in 1988 and republished in 2010 by Breviary Stuff Publications.

Breviary is also publisher of the collection of essays Thomas Spence: The Poor Man’s Revolutionary, edited by Alastair Bonnett & Keith Armstrong.

Keith Armstrong is a leading member of the Thomas Spence Society.

Duncan Bowie on housing and planning

One of the people attending Malcom's lecture was Duncan Bowie, who teaches spatial planning and housing  at the University of Westminster. He  writes about housing and planning matters in The Chartist magazine. The first 50 of his  historical articles in it have been republished in a collection by the Socialist History Society Our History. Roots of the British Socialist Movement

His writings include:

·       Glistening towers can beguile but won't provide the homes London most needs

·       The issues illustrated by the Grenfell fire disaster

·       Revisiting the land issue 

         in Urban Regeneration and Renewal.  Vol  9. 2016. No.2. pp. 1115-121

His book Radical solutions to the housing supply crisis can be ordered at

He is involved in the Highbury Group on Housing Delivery, the extensive literature of which can be accessed at

The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning

This is the title of his book on the history of planning and land nationalisation published by Routledge

 and of his linked website

Land Nationalisation Society

Among the campaign groups at the end of the 19th and into the early 20thC were the Land Nationalisation Society whose President Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-founder of the theory of evolution, was President and writer in defence of the campaign - see his Land Nationalisation. Its Necessity and Its Aims Being a Comparison of the System of Landlord and Tenant with That of Occupying Ownership in Their Influence on the Well-being of the People 

Land Value Tax 

Another organisation was the English League for the Taxation of Land Values 

Duncan has penned the following chronology on land values in legisation

1885 Royal Commission on Housing of the Working Classes supported taxation of development land.1909 Housing and Planning Act. Tax on undeveloped land ; tax on development value – 50% on increase arising from town planning
1910 Budget (Lloyd George) 20% tax on capital gains on disposal of land
1920 Land taxes repealed. Repayment to landowners.1944 Uthwatt report on betterment
1947 Town and Country Planning Act
Nationalisation of development rights.
100% development charge on development land payable to Central Land Board
Compensation payable to landlords who were refused right to develop land
1952 Repealed by Conservative government
1967 Land Commission Act 
Establishment of land commission with power to acquire, manage and sell land
 40% levy on land disposals
Betterment levy -40% on land  sold, leased or realised by development. Collected by commission and paid to central government.
1970 Repealed by Conservative Government
1975 Community Land Act. LA had power to acquire development land at current use value.
1976 Development Land Tax Act. 80% tax on development gains (66.6% tax on first £150,000).
(50% to LA; 30% to central govt; 20% to LA pool)
1980 Repealed by Local Government, Planning and Land Act
1990 Town and Country Planning Act
s106 Provisions for LPAs to seek contributions to community benefit related to a planning consent – planning gain/planning obligations Not a tax
2011 Localism Act. Power for Local Planning Authorities and Mayor to introduce Community Infrastructure Levy – a tax on new development

The Labour manifesto in the recent General Election says it will ‘consider new options such as a land value tax’ (p. 86)

The Housing Crisis

History Workshop Podcast Episode 3 – History Acts: Housing in Crisis

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Some reflections on community action, Councils and history

We are all players in making history. Some of us bring a historical perspective to trying to understand our experiences.

·        History is about the economic, political and social processes,
·        Community action is an important part of those processes.
·        Ignorance of the local past can lead to making repeated mistakes.

Why community action takes place

  • ·        To campaign against developments proposed by the local authority, other public bodies, private businesses, developers and property owners.
  • ·        To campaign for the provision of new services, to protect existing services and to gain improved service delivery.
  • ·        To provide services and activities to meet the needs of particular groups who are not adequately provided for by others.
  • ·        To collectively work together for a common non-profit purpose.

Community and Organisation

The concept of ‘community’ is fraught with problems of definitions.

Organisationally community action  takes many forms, including local community and voluntary groups, branches of national organisations, and single issue campaigns.

It has a long, long history, including trade unions, co-operatives, building, friendly, insurance and loan societies, as discussed in my review of Lambeth mutual and social action.   

Why did some forms of community action come into being?

Some examples from Lambeth:
  • ·        Coin St organisations  to fight development proposals and then to development land donated for £1 by GLC
  • ·        Friends of the Parks and Open Spaces: to defend and improve these facilities
  • ·        Kennington Association: to fight roadway proposals
  • ·        Friends of Durning Library: to oppose closure
  • ·        West Norwood Fest – to help revive the high street economy

What do community activists want their local Council to do?

  • ·       To provide efficient and responsive services.
  • ·        To reject planning applications they do not like and which do not meet local needs or erode the quality of the local environment.
  • ·        Retain valued local services (private or public) and preserve elements of the built environment.
  • ·        To listen to what local people say, to work with them, and not ignore them and impose their top down solutions.

Councils as mediators

Councils however have to mediate between conflicting interests. For example in relation to planning:

  • ·        they can only reject applications on planning grounds.
  • ·        their powers have been weakened. e.g. the Conservatives rule that offices can be converted to residential without the need for planning permission
  • ·        they face big risks if a planning refusal is rejected at appeal
  • ·        they are loathe to loss the money developers have to pay for infrastructure

Disempowered Councillors

It is not easy being a Councillor; bad enough if you are in the party that is meant to be in control; even more difficult if you are in Opposition. The Executive Leader and Cabinet system does not help because it freezes out most Councillors from actual decision making, and marginalises those who have concerns about the policies being approved by the leadership.

Since 2010 local Councils have had a high percentage of their Government funding withdrawn so they can do less and less.

Questions that need asking about any Council include:

  • ·        How has it coped with opportunities and constraints?
  • ·        Has it run efficient services?
  • ·        Has it ensured that its policies and procedures have minimised the difficulties of accessing the use of its services?
  • ·        How has it sought to moderate the worst possible effects of  reductions in budgets?
  • ·        How effectively has it planned the continual changes in the nature of the local economy, the high turnover of population, the changes in Government policies, and the demands of local people and their organisations?
  • ·        Is it fit for purpose?

The answers to these questions will depend on the experience each individual or family, groups of residents, community and voluntary groups have had in their dealings with the Council. 

Positive and negative aspects of community action interaction with Councils

In terms of community action the relationship with Councils has included:
  • ·        co-operation in taking part in consultations and seeking to positively influence Council policy and procedures.
  • ·        funding of groups by Councils and via Councils from funds under the various urban and regeneration programmes over the years, such as Urban Aid, Inner City Challenge, and Single Regeneration Budget.
  • ·        opposition through petitions, demonstrations, campaigns and direct action.
  • ·        distrust on both sides around issues of Councillors as democratically elected representatives versus community activists who are self-appointed or spokespersons  for small groups, the apparent arrogance and hostility of some Councillors, the inability of Councillors and officers to understand why so many groups exist.
  • unnrtainty as to how to respond when controlling Councillors are themselves at logger-heads e.g. over  rate-capping and the poll-tax.

  • ·        fragility of community and voluntary groups in terms of member involvement, governance, funding.
  • ·        Disagreements between different community groups.

The uniqueness of each local authority

Each local authority area has its own set of dynamics as to how it responds to the challenges and opportunities. Lambeth, for example, is unique. Despite all its problems, the riots, its bad national image and its past conflicts with Government, it has been Labour for most of the period since 1971, and the Conservative Party rarely a significant force. Go over the border to Wandsworth where a different approach by Labour between 1971-78  avoided the conflicts in Lambeth but the Conservatives have been in control since 1978, continually reshaping the Borough so that its demographic profile has fundamentally changed and developers have been allowed what seems to be a free hand to redevelopment the riverside area, helping to drive up housing costs and driving lower income households out of the Borough. Croydon has seen control switch from Labour to Tory and back to Labour this century, growing inequality, a collapse of the local economy, and with private developers ruling the roost in the Town Centre.

The role of historians

It is important to stress that local historians of the modern period should analyse the economic and political processes that have been underway. Community and voluntary organisations and one-off campaigns should ensure they preserve their archives and deposit them. If they do not we lose important material needed to understand how Boroughs like Croydon, Lambeth and Wandsworth have evolved.

Note. This is an edited  and update of some of my talk ‘Reflections on community action in Lambeth’ at Lambeth Archives Day in September 2012.

Related discussion of these issues by me includes:

·        Community & Voluntary Organisations and Local Democracy (December 2012)

·        Building a stronger community in Croydon (December 2012)

·        Croydon and The Role of Community and Voluntary Sector Organisations (December 2012)

·        In defence of the busy body - a reply (July 2013)

·        How can we build a stronger community in Croydon? (July 2014)

·        Croydon’s residents’ associations: power to the people, or routinely ignored? (November 2014)

·        What are the challenges facing Croydon’s communities?  (August 2015)

·        Whose voice will be heard at the Develop Croydon forum?

·        Corporate state consensus in Croydon (March 2016)

·        Will Labour listen in planning on Croydon’s planning  (June 2017)