My husband struggles to understand why I constantly stick up for people where we live in the face of attacks from many different directions. There is a pervading stench of nastiness in the town we live in near the Welsh border. As in other small towns, historically, council housing was located all together.
When we came here we were warned by well-meaning people about certain areas. Having just come from Walsall town centre and been 10 minutes away from bomb scares and the very real threat of rioting (ably sent packing by the steadfastness and good humour from police and citizens alike on social media). But no matter how hard you try, those kind of words seep into your consciousness.
When it came to choosing schools, I could not distance my choices from the memories of my little boy when he was born on the cusp of life and death at 1.5 kg (or 3 lb 1oz if we are really leaving Europe). We put his name down for a small village school with assurances from the head that there had never been any problems with classes being oversubscribed. There were. Last minute, days before the end of term I think, we were told that he was the 11th child out of a class of 10. With no places left by now at the closest school, which is ‘Excellent’ (it is and so is the Head - she has been brilliant at community relations as well), but was in the heart of the area we had been warned about. We ended up with a place quite far and up steep hills. We couldn’t use the special bike attachment I bought on EBay to cycle to the village school. All the other children at his new school had been to the same nursery. Problems quickly became apparent. Our very friendly child tried day after day (agonizing to watch but I stayed until it was time to go in) to play with other children there. They had a relentless game of running away each time he came up. And he kept trying. Every time I dropped him off, right until the end for three months or so until a dinner lady we knew from our church said, “Just get him to another school.”
I thought that leaving him at the hospital in an incubator after I was discharged was the hardest thing ever, but paled in comparison to knowingly (under the threat of fines we couldn’t afford) leaving him at that school in the care of people who didn’t even bother to check if he had had a drink. He was scared to go to the loos, but nobody found out until I went with him one day when I was picking him up. At 4, he had worked out that if he didn’t drink anything, he wouldn’t have to.
The school said he just didn’t like playing with other children. He is one of the most sociable children I know but if it hadn’t been for the fact that we had always taken him to church and he had always been joyfully embraced as a co-conspirator in all games and fun by other children there, I would have started to believe them. My sense of being his mother, of knowing who he was, of being the source of his protection and well-being was being eroded day by day.
But why did it happen?
He was caught up in politics and decisions made by grown-ups including me.
By the school there is a field and a 1970’s housing estate. UKIP were slashing and burning what was historically a mining area and former Labour stronghold as they exploited the divides in our community from all angles. Funding for the Rugby Club came on the back of our development. Quickly we were labelled a ghetto and a letter was written by a UKIP councilor claiming that most people on our development were not local (he could tell by our accents) and were from ‘the South’. All the while, as he had been involved in planning, he was fully aware that there was an unusually high proportion of affordable homes here. I’ve heard 60% and 80% bandied around. You need a local connection to be eligible. You don't have to be born here though. Having jobs in the area, children in school etc for the required number of years counts. We took the opportunity (after moving to the town a few years before) of buying a shared ownership house and fitted the bill of incomers including the accent. My husband was not born in this country – he was born in Harare (then Salisbury) in Zimbabwe, but has always had a British passport at the insistence of his father. Second generation Zimbabweans had to choose whether to have a Zimbabwe passport or a British one but couldn’t have both. I’m more local, but not Local, having been born 30 miles away. And here we were at a school next to the site of yet another housing estate on the green fields of Lydney. Perceptions are all when it comes to votes, so although our own estate was built on land allocated for a decade or so for housing and the new one was to be outside of all the local plans, we were demonised.
One of the main protagonists and the source of the little round bruises he used to come home with from being kicked (as I found out one bedtime a month or so after it started) also lived on our estate but crucially had been to the same nursery as all the other children going to start. If you feel like you could be marginalised yourself, young or old, one way not to be is to find a victim more vulnerable than yourself. At 4, who can blame you – especially as (in our case) parents were telling children not to play with you because you came from that even dodgier new bit of town where all the extremely dodgy people that the big scary city across the water could not house. Including immigrants. Chucked into this toxic mix the fact that I was sticking up in public for this new repository for all the angry feelings about the proposed development/ lack of local housing/ reality TV about benefits claimants (we have a few but in reality almost everybody works here). UKIP were gaining ground.
I had no idea that setting up a residents’ association to work at bridging the false representations and urban myths from both home owners and housing association tenants would ever lead me to being vilified as ‘dangerous’ but it did – in public and to a new friend from a rented home we had been quietly assisting with various things since we first met her. The councilor making these claims was soon (and vociferously) put right in front of the other people in her shop. My friend came to tell me, concerned for me. We carried on as before, helping anyone who asked us, mediating when requested to about parking and other contentious issues. We gave up, in the current political climate of our town and uncertainty about the next stage of our development, on what some would say were idealist plans for the community: an orchard, a kitchen garden, a shipping container that we were offered (had land also been offered) to turn into a space to offer to the multiple agencies who would have then been able to work more locally. We have no bus connections and had to campaign for two years for lighting on the only footpath. Our estate is cut off from the reset of the town by concrete barriers 3m long by 1.5 m high (still with you in spirit, metric EU) that we christened ‘Checkpoint Charlie’. They are still there. We retreated back behind the barricades and out of the sight of the public eye in a closed Facebook group starting regrouping and rebuilding our community damaged by those who are threatening by united communities and seek to divide them. We became more democratic. We dropped the committee model and opened up all decisions to the rest of the members. We don’t advertise to newcomers but ask those with new neighbours to let them know about our group. There is more than one group – a result of early schisms exploited by those in power, but out of 200 homes, we now have 170 + members.
I have received direct threats once from one person who criticized me for deleting posts. I’ve always been aware that myself and other admins of the group have a lot of power ourselves, but are not elected. I’ve invited people who seem to have the best mediation skills, and are most motivated to help their neighbours out and it does on the whole seem to work. After the threats though I asked everyone if they would like to consider being an admin. (No takers.) It’s meant getting to know someone who voted ‘Out’ at the same time as standing by a co-admin who decided to step down after the threats. Although he posted anti-immigration propaganda before the referendum, he expressed his concerns about racism afterwards. I’m looking forward to a proper conversation with him sometime and I’m very glad we are working together still to pull our community into a shape that welcomes people and helps them in times of need.
Nobody mentioned the referendum. We reacted by helping to solve someone’s plumbing problem the day after the vote. Together.Who knows what the future will bring for us? Hey, maybe the trains will even run on time.
The question was put to us Twitter followers of Bromford Lab whether 'communities should choose new members'. Community is being bandied about in a very wide context including possible inputs into selection from police and housing officers. Selection does already take place (I have proof in the form of an email from a Housing Officer asking me if I knew of anyone interested in a tenancy who was (preferably) in work), but flipping it into this terminology is a calculated step to gain acceptance and justify the reasoning behind it. Which Housing Association would not want to choose 'good' tenants if they have their eyes on short term profit driven goals and not rely on the chancier prospects of real communities (meaning the people that actually live there) positively influencing and being influenced for the good in turn by people who would be turned away by the selection process. It is important to make the distinction and not muddy the water. Be clear on who is selecting and for what purpose.
Last week that changed to a trial coming to four areas.
These are the reasons why I think this should not go ahead, which I will try and pin down in the next few days, starting with....
1. It's a social experiment and there is no safeguarding of consent.
Who needs to give their consent for any experiment involving human beings to be ethical? Any person affected by it. So who would be affected by this experiment?
The people who are judged fit or not fit to move into a neighbourhood. There are life-long ramifications as a consequence of decisions like this. If applicants knew there was a selection process and that it was down to communities themselves to choose, it could adversely impact on how they felt about themselves if not chosen.
The applicants' children (and children's children to the 7th + generation). Children are the people most affected by this experiment and the least likely to have any part in the decision. They may end up not being able to have the same choices about school that they would have otherwise. Positive influence from potential neighbours may be lost or gained. Their whole future could depend on where they live and who they grow up with.
Their friends and other relatives. There already is selection on the new build site that we live on in favour of a local connection. I would like to speak up for those whose friends have been their 'real' family and who, for whatever reason, would be better off away from birth families. No one seems to take this into account perhaps because no one has thought about things in that way, but it's not uncommon to be in this situation at all. Any mental health professional could tell you that. Individual circumstances need to take priority over sweepingly general policy.
The flip side of selection is segregation. I am writing this on an estate that is divided from the street closest to us by a wall - a wooden one - but a wall none the less. Why is this there? Unless you truly believe that 'health and safety' is likely to be impeded worse by walking on a tarmac path than slithering down a dangerous mud bank with nettles and brambles either side of you whilst pushing a buggy and holding a toddler's hand, then the letter from a resident of the other side calling us a ghetto amongst others is likely to be a contributing factor, supported by the potential to build a house where the path runs and use up every inch of land. To borrow a word from another culture, you have apartheid.
Each neighbourhood is affected. Both the selective one making the judgement calls and the one from which others are being chosen. A similar scenario takes place when governments actively select engineers, doctors and other professionals who want to come and live here compared to other workers. Our country is enriched at the expense of countries who have trained their professional people only to see them snapped up by wealthier nations.
When you extrapolate, divided families lead to divided communities. Divided communities lead to loss of cohesion. Loss of cohesion in many towns leads to disaffection on a mass scale. And this 'experiment' is not been undertaken in one community, but four at a time.
How could you possibly then gain consent from all those affected? You can't. You can't even make it to the second level - the children. If there's no consent, then it's not ethical, simple as that.
One night, two years after we moved to the Forest of Dean, I was up late in our damp, private rental property idly meandering through the Internet and checking out possible new homes on a housing marketing site. We had a three year old who had been born very early and who had suffered from asthma associated with lots of chest infections since he was a baby. My husband also has asthma - possibly as a result of having grown up in Zimbabwe with a different climate and pollen varieties though it started after he ran through a field of 'mealies' (maize) as a child. I've also had asthma, but mine started after working in a lab that tested the size of particles of different compounds. All of us were suffering from the damp conditions. Walls newly painted when we moved in quickly became covered in black mould. We did all we could to air the house and heat it, which was very expensive in the winter time, but our landlord, a local GP was not willing to help us and simply took the route of blaming us for causing condensation. Added to paper-thin walls next to our baby's room, another house move seemed like the only option. The law is all very well, but if you are working there is no legal aid and besides, the conditions would remain the whole time we were fighting a case. It was much easier to move, theoretically.
We had come from living in a 'rent to buy' property in the West Midlands. The year after our son was born riots hit the country, although they didn't hit Walsall, with it's police doing a great job of lowering tensions via Twitter with Tweets such as, "Walsall Police Station is not on fire (photo). It is very not on fire." We were living 10 minutes away from the town centre, and had only viewed our home during the week in the day time (top tip there - go and see new properties at a variety of times and weekdays - it turned out to be the red light district). A month after we had moved in, our son was born scarily early and proximity of that house to the Manor Hospital, which we had not taken into account when we moved in, suddenly became of overriding importance. I could walk there after I was discharged, an emergency C-section having left me not able to drive. He survived and I'll never forget how small he looked taking him into the town centre for the first time in his pram. I almost turned round and came straight home again. We miss Walsall for friends, a lively and diverse community, for my step family and for our little church at the end of the road, where we found Aunty Becky (our son's Godmother) after an appeal by the pastor for someone who would like to come and 'cuddle a baby'. There was swine flu around when our son was born so I avoided all public places for the first three months and felt isolated. Becky stepped into the gap and has been part of our family ever since.
After the riots though, came a couple of bomb scares. A Muslim man rushed past me in the opposite direction as I was headed into town and urged me and others to turn round and go back home. I didn't want to live in the city any more, so an 18 month job search began. With family on the northern edge of the Forest of Dean and in Devon and Cornwall, job offers popping up suddenly in Gloucester, when we came to test out a tent in the last weekend of the summer and visit my Godson at the same time in Lydney, it seemed like a great solution all round. We moved. The house seemed lovely. It was right by the local park.
It's been a bitter-sweet experience. We love the Forest and can go and visit my family there and back in a day. We love our friends here and the lovely Welsh-borders accent our son is developing. Oakdale Links started on that night when I was 'just looking' really. The developers for Lydney had bought www.oakdale-lydney.co.uk but had not bought www.oakdale-lydney.org.uk so a mischievous impulse lead to me purchasing the domain name for £10. I decided to use it to put down all the information we had searched for about our new home town and the area. It had been hard to find for us and I thought maybe I could turn this into a business opportunity with advertising space. There is still room for that on our website if anyone is interested! After a tortuous and unbelievably stressful process and with generous microloans and gifts that covered our fees from friends and family, we were able to use up the last of our savings and buy our shared ownership home. Given the conditions we had been living in and the fact that we had been homeless for two weeks as we had to make a decision not to renew the rent for another six months, our home seemed to be a miracle for us.
So that's why we fight for it.
It quickly became apparent that there was tension between the earliest residents (all social tenants) and builders, with JCB's driving recklessly fast past young children playing on bikes. A new friend took pity on us as we were peering over the fence at our house being built and invited s in to look around her house. Three years later, she was later evicted, which seemed symptomatic of a darkness that seemed determined to destroy any sparks of human happiness here. In the mean time, having spent a year giving her lifts to the doctors and to get shopping, with no sign of a promised bus link, we decided that we should do a petition. We got everyone on the estate at the time to sign it (apart from four people who were out) and talking that night, my husband and I decided it was time to take the momentum and form a residents' association.
From the very earliest days, we worked across tenure types. We started out following a traditional committee set up but a couple of years ago, our Facebook group took off and with the difficulties in making meetings accessible (the right time and day) for working people, parents with children and the general business of life, combined with no central meeting place except our outdoor spaces, we have evolved so that all important decisions are put to the whole group. We know this is not perfect. We campaigned for a notice board so we can be inclusive, but this was hijacked by the Town Council administration who put up an official one. We were offered a key to it and a panel to use, but neither offer came to fruition.
We went through a time when we hand delivered newsletters to everyone, but this requires funds and we wanted to remain open to everyone living here and so didn't want to impose membership fees. Not everyone is on Facebook, but most are. We have built a local economy, with one of the rules being that if someone posts something for sale, it's only put on once per week and not artificially bumped up the posts. We are able to react quickly to events such as the regular car crashes at our roundabout. On one occasion a local paper, the Gloucester Citizen contacted us through Twitter and within 12 hours, they were helping us in our campaign for a safer junction. People have shared information that helps everyone, found new friendships, we've co-ordinated events and a community Christmas tree for the annual festival at St Mary's, our Parish Church. The overwhelming impression, despite occasional spats, is that the vast majority of people here care deeply about their neighbours and their community. Most have family living nearby, some families have several members within Oakdale itself, aided by the differing tenure types in some cases.
In other words, what we are doing works and we are doing it in the face of an onslaught of negativity towards our estate from the outside - inaugurated by local politicians who sought to capitalise by gaining votes from those opposed to new housing developments. We struggle with schools being full - I talked to someone last night who was told she had to (without a car) get four children to four different schools (luckily she had the guts to go to appeal and win). We struggle when it's wet and muddy as residents have had to create their own path to get children to school across wasteland. We struggle with getting off our estate in one piece if we do have cars as there is one roundabout, poor visibility and no speed limit reduction on the bypass that is our only route anywhere and that is one of the most dangerous roads in the country.
But we are here, we have hope for the future and we are in it for the long-haul, for our children, so that our little six and seven year olds can go on being so proud of where they live that, like my son, they can call out to the entire coachload of the school trip as they go past, "That's Oakdale! That's where I live!" without being shushed by neighbours on the bus who don't want the other parents to know where they are living. One day, hopefully before his lovely innocent happiness about where he lives is shattered, people might be on a waiting list waiting to get a home here. We will be ready to welcome them when they do.
Before the first foundation was dug though the miry clay of Oakdale, someone in a remote office somewhere made a decision to re-route a footpath. This footpath was well used and had been for over 20 years. It cut across the front of the Foundry and on to the land that up until their eviction was the home of Lydney Golf Club. A private road bisects it. It used to lead to the keeper's cottage and is only one lane wide. It was never part of the public right of way, presumably because no one saw the need as the right of way continued on the other side of it. Nowadays, the route is blocked off by wooden boards. If Banksy were to happen along, he would be able to see the similarities between other more famous walls that divide neighbourhoods that have been his canvas, for if you read the planning documents for outline permission of Phase Two, you can see the fear that lies behind the doors on the Other Side and some of the consequence of public figures describing our mixed tenure estate as a ghetto before it was three years old.
The trouble is that this wall is not guarded and hedged about with razor wire and so people that have children in the nearest primary school lying in the direction that good ol' crow so beloved by the County Council flies, want to walk to school.
We haven't done a survey, but maybe it's because they do not own cars, have one car per household and it's needed for work, or maybe because they are concerned, as good responsible citizens, for their own health and wellbeing and that of their children. Maybe they are getting ready for Transition to a zero carbon economy. Any which way, politicians of all shades and planners should be supporting this choice and making it obtainable.
Choosing this route means that for five minutes risking life and limb in the mud slithering down a steep bank to a hole in the hedge with toddlers falling onto nettles and babies in buggies, they gain 4 x 15 minutes (an hour) a day in time saved from walking the other way. The other way being the focus of a previous Oakdale Links campaign because for two years it was without lights and had holes in the road. The surface has still not been completed and huge concrete barriers carry on the Socialrealismus and 'Checkpoint Charlie' ambiance despite the old guard hut being finally demolished. (We would have converted it and turned it into a community facility by a kitchen garden that would have supplied fresh fruit and veg to people, but that is another story.) It's not great, it's still not that safe and it's in the wrong direction, but soon I am predicting it will be the only choice. Cue the razor wire around the People's Choice.
Because that 100 yards of land equals potential profit. Never mind that it's the boggiest spot in a the whole development and would yield all the same problems for householders as the rest of our gardens (and then some). Never mind the promise of an estate 'permeated' by footpaths.
Never mind that the ill-informed opinions of a few have held sway and denied safe passage for hundreds of people four times a day to the neighbouring road, Lakeside Avenue. There is no mention of the rights and needs of the community that live here no matter how much authorities kowtow to the ideology and rhetoric of Asset Based Community Development. Profit before people and town centre rennovations before ghetto.
But see, this is the thing. That school has recently become the first in the County to achieve an award for its training of students in Human Rights. The head teacher organised letters from the children who lived here asserting their Human Rights to our MP. Our MP came to visit them. We presume that he has the ear of the Prime Minister as he is the Chief Whip. If all the government initiatives that would support a footpath as the blessed crow flies straight and safe to school were implemented, who could put up an argument not to have this route validated, made safe and a part of all future plans for Oakdale. Sustainable development, health and wellbeing, community initiatives like a walking bus, enabling parents to get back home sooner thus increasing the chances of being able to do a part time job....makes sense doesn't it? Thinking about it also released people to a creative community brain storm. Someone offered pallets to make a path. Someone else offered a circular saw to cut them up. Several options were tossed around and bark chips as a degradable temporary solution suitable for buggies and little people seemed to be a good idea. Volunteers sprang out of the shadows and a work party was set up to strim nettles. The ghetto is an edgy and creative place and always has been.
Yeah, but no.
Not if you are willing to turn a blind eye to all of that because the bling of developer's promises distracts the crow from his flight path and inveigles him westwards when he was supposed to lead us East. We presume a shot gun awaits and expect every day for the razor wire to come and fill that gap in the hedge. Health and safety and all that. Can't have people walking just where they want to/ need to/ should be allowed to can you now? Not with all that bling dancing just out of sight. Caw!
As a rule, I am not keen on board games. Although as the third child of four, you had to compete to survive in our family, the ruthlessness with which the Scrabble or Monopoly games were pursued to the bitter end put me off for life, or so I thought. I turned my attention to other ways to get even with my older sibling and became a fairly good cartoonist at an early age.
I was not nice.
There were reasons, and I was regularly sent to grandparents to prevent me being torn limb from limb as retribution stalked our four storey, ramshackle Victorian home from attics to cellars. Fortunately, my Nan had a deep, passionate and abiding love for all her lambs. I can only remember her raising her voice once when I was fighting with my sister. That was enough. There was no way I wanted to see that look in her eyes again.
It was a natural progression to spend my first day at school in the corner for fighting at lunchtime however, although that time my opponent became my best friend until High School loomed and separated us permanently. She became a lawyer but before we parted, I remember what happened when her parents divorced. She and her sister moved out of the family home with their mum. I have vague memories of a cramped, damp place with their bedroom scarcely big enough for one child, but we all played there anyhow. Her sister had been interrogated by her mum as to what had happened, so took on her young shoulders responsibility for what had happened. The conversation with mum had led to the arguments and the splitting-up of parents. Had she told her mum a lie, this would not have happened, therefore she had caused it. This is how children perceive things: in the most logical way.
Years later, when I moved back to my home town, by chance, I went to the library when an art exhibition was on and was delighted to discover that the drawings were all by another old comrade from primary school. We had sat next to each other and so had whiled away the hours when we should have been studying for SATs if we were modern day children by honing our drawing skills with cartoons of the teachers (fortunately never discovered as we heard dreadful rumours of 'the slipper' from time to time in its last days of terror in the school room). Then all of a sudden, death came amongst us. His mum, who lived with her family in the next street, developed cancer and died quite soon afterwards. Outwardly, he seemed to just carry on but little things changed, like his habit of bringing in cold toast to school. I guess no one made it for him any more. I didn't know that a silent process of internal disintegration had started within him until I met him so many years later at the art exhibition, post-hospitalisation, post-breakdown, with scuffed nail varnish on his too-long finger nails, as though he was trying to have something of his mum integral to his person. We hugged and I bought an original cartoon that is over where I cook in our kitchen. He was selling them all for no profit but for charity, despite having practically no money.
At secondary school, one my best friends was a survivor of the Vietnam war who had been pulled off a sinking boat by a Japanese navy vessel and taken to a camp there, the reality of which is hitting home every day at the moment when I watch the news. I'm glad to say we are still in touch and are in contact also with another friend, who was also a survivor - army child and refugee from emotional abuse. We all have children of our own now. The youngest amongst them has just survived a major heart operation and my own was in intensive care for the first eight weeks of his life until he reached 5 lb. Then the fun began and those terrible days of beeps and tubes and painful extraction of blood that was all too scarce a commodity ceased.
Children survive all sorts of things, given half a chance, and of those that do, the ones I know have turned out to be the best people in the world. One thing children the world over have in common though is, although they may firmly believe it is not so, they didn't make it happen. Neither did the children in the previous generation - until they grew up. There are no perfect people. We are all at the mercy of our family circumstances. So what did I do when my son wants to play the Junior Monopoly game I bought whilst visiting my Vietnamese friend? When it looked like he was about to go out of the game, I broke the rules, to the chagrin of the person playing with us. I gave him money because he was gutted that the fun looked like it was over and he craves time spent in play with us. Now he does the same for me.
We keep going because the game is the thing and if you can break a pattern of living in each generation, even by the circumstance of being an only child, maybe he will turn out like Nan with a heart so full of love that all wars and disputes are overcome with one single word and walls fall down at a glance. He has already proved he is a survivor, as was his great-grandmother. The combination is very special.
Today I had a conversation with a gardener who is working on the flower beds on the Green outside my home. I asked him to leave intact as many daffodil bulbs as he could as we planted them with some of the children on our first (and only) community day. They haven't flowered this year and need some nutrients added to the soil, but his colleague was quick to point out that, "We are only doing what we are paid to do." Funny that. I'm one of the people paying them and I thought we were paying for maintenance of the grounds. Since when was maintenance of the soil not a part of looking after a garden? Now we have a patch of bare earth 10 feet long that will require weeding - if the weeds can grow that is. I have a feeling that if we'd been allowed to take up the challenge of setting up a community interest company to manage the estate, someone would have sweet-talked a local nursery into some surplus bedding plants by now, thus increasing sales at the sales home opposite and giving us colour all summer. At least though some of the shrubs that were planted are full of busy honey bees this evening - and over half the new tree stock planted has survived without receiving any water.
When we first came here, the Green was tantalisingly close, but locked away behind security fences. It was one of the reasons that we chose our house off plan, before we ever saw it. How lovely, we thought, if our son could just go and play opposite the house with friends.
So when the security fences came down and we were able to take a football out to play, we appreciated it even more. We used the space to get to know new neighbours as they moved in and often took the football out for a kick around with our own and other children. We knew that there were plans for play equipment and asked to be involved in what went in. Nothing materialised, so I asked repeatedly what was going to happen about the play equipment and if we could be consulted as a community about what went in where. We were thinking tree houses, wooden trim trail, stepping posts, swings. We were very naive as far as local authorities go. We didn't even know then that the councils were all scrambling over themselves in running away from taking care of our streets, play areas, transport links and footpaths.
The fences went up again and we lost our football space. We didn't meet up in the same way. Tension and divisions grew up between the streets with no chance to talk about things. Diggers moved in and with a sickening feeling I realised that we were going to lose this precious open space that we had enjoyed in carefree times. I pleaded with the council to stop and listen. Developers and council couldn't agree except to stick with the architect's sterile idea of a play space, with a huge wooden pallisade putting a permanent end to our ideas. Bright yellow metal gates that easily trap fingers and are completely pointless as gates because of the foot wide gaps where the fence wasn't completed, a high single swing that takes up the space where three or four could go and a roundabout replaced our kick-about pitch.
Around the same time, two of the organisations we know well started looking into Asset Based Community Development, with the stark hypocrisy that is now being replicated by Bromford, one of our social housing providers. I believe that there are good people in even the darkest organisations and have met some, but time and again, if it comes down to a straightforward stand-off between community and bureaucracy, it's always the red tape that wins.
These are the strategies that are helping to nail the lid on this community's coffin.
1. Tell lies. Lie about what you want to do and about those you claim to help. Tell lies about what you have done and what you haven't. Tell more lies to cover the lies until you believe the original ones yourself. Work with other people who sometimes lie to you and get them to lie for you because you all want to cover up a lie. After all, if you have a pay cheque or kudos or both at the end of the day, that's what matters isn't it?
2. Set up a whole office full of PR gurus to spin about what you do to a few individuals and then loudly proclaim their disabilities (and those of their children), their social deficits, their absolute cringing need of you for their survival on your website, thus rendering them social outcasts. Would you employ someone who'd been featured as a 'helped' person on a Bromford website or let your children go round for tea at their house when Bromford have just said publicly that their child is dangerous and police had to be called to protect its own parent? I wonder if the child gave their permission for that story or if anyone thought about the consequences of publishing it that reach into adulthood.
3. Try to wear down any opposition or protest by doing nothing. For months if not years. Is this in the hope that those opposing or protesting will die while they are waiting? I know of one person who is on the transplant register and who is still waiting for justice. Many times since moving here, I've thought about death as being the only ticket out of here. The thing is, we can't just move. We put everything we had into buying our home here. We invested in our new community as much, or more, as in our house and we are trapped here for better or worse. There is nowhere to go. However I'm not dead yet and I hope that this community has the strength and the will to knock back the nails as fast as they are hammered in over our heads.
Extract from the Bromford website:
Helping vulnerable people through whatever challenges they may face, Bromford draws on years of experience to offer innovative support solutions that cover the whole spectrum of needs that are present in local communities.
As well as being established as the largest provider of specialist accommodation and support services to teenage parents, Bromford also offers innovative solutions to older people and those with learning disabilities through our Community Hubs.
But we’re not a niche provider; people (and budgets) don’t fit into neat little boxes and we understand the problems faced when looking to commission solutions to the many issues that vulnerable people face.
Often the problems faced cannot be solved by a single minded approach. For example if somebody has poor mental health, there is a chance that they may also be struggling with drug or alcohol issues. These problems can lead onto budgeting and debt issues that could potentially end up with the person becoming homeless.
Experienced in working in all areas of the community where support is vital, Bromford is proud to offer services that can support people through every stage of their life. To discover more about our current support services, use our Service Search
What is wrong with this? Maybe, in the spirit of ABCD, we should start with what is right and work on your assets, not your deficits. But I haven’t got time as I’m not getting paid to do this, so:
1. Second word in and you are mentioning a deficit. Who defines ‘vulnerable’? In my experience, those defined as ‘vulnerable’ are some of the toughest cookies on the planet. I wrote a blog about how I knew so many women who appeared as fragile as a spider’s web, but how the material that they were made from was of the highest tensile strength of any in the world.
2. First sentence. A sweeping generalisation. (a) How can you possibly know all the challenges someone faces and (b) are you God now?
3. ‘Bromford draws on years of experience’ thus defining yourselves as experts. Experts on what? What is your experience? It surely isn’t as valid as the experience of those ‘vulnerable’ people or as deeply personal. Unless you are one of them. Are you vulnerable? Do your children ever have problems? Do you ever feel like you can’t cope? Are you, in fact, all that different? The news is that being from the same species, you share the same DNA (or most of it). Your offer to us is of ‘innovative support schemes’. In our experience, the opposite has happened. People have been made truly vulnerable by being removed from their community and by barriers being set up. Walls made of judgements, class, tenure etc are not easily knocked down. The best we can sometimes do is to Banksy them up. They are still walls but you might feel better about them and a bit radical. If you ‘cover the whole spectrum of needs’ then you are all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful. What is this presumption based on? Anything at all? A belief in your own omnipotence is a route to psychiatric services if you are on the other side of that wall.
4. ‘Often the problems faced cannot be solved by a single minded approach. Or in fact a narrow-minded approach. Thanks so much for mentioning poor mental health and drug addiction in the same sentence. It’s a bit like writing a Tweet and linking mental health with violence. No wonder you know nothing about those who successfully negotiate life with mental health issues. Why not do a mental health audit of your own workforce and then offer free drugs counselling to anyone struggling? You might be surprised at the take-up. And if you find that offensive, then please see the mirror I am holding up to you.
5. You have linked mental health, drugs, debts and homelessness. I have a scenario for you. A woman with her child is struggling with the rent because she cannot move out of her home which the bedroom tax says is too big for her and her son. There are simply none available to move into and besides, he is in school and starting to do really well after a difficult start and it would be a tragedy to move him. She asks for clemency and gets a threatening letter written by someone in an office over a hundred miles away with no connection to her and her son. Her debt spirals and someone suggested that they go to the Food Bank. You are expecting a sad end to this story, but that’s because you think you already know the whole spectrum of problems and how this is going to end. What actually happens is that she says, “No. It’s charity. I will manage somehow.” She is a member of a church so does she ask them all to gather round and help out? She does not ask them to help her. She volunteers to help them in their activities. She gathers her son and they huddle together in their house, afraid, but defiant against debt, the pursuers of debt, those that are now threatening to evict them and the clouds of depression that are gathering. And she stands up. They survive. Through the deep bonds of friendship they have made by helping people in their community, they get to know that someone wants to swap houses as they need more room. Again, she is struck by illness but because she managed to stay close to where her adult daughter lives, she is able to stay with her to recover. And then she stands up again. All this she did despite you, not because of you.
This is one story but as I go on, I realise that the strongest people are not known to you. You would not recognise them because your spotlight is focused so hard upon their problems that it’s burning a hole in the page. The premise that you, ‘Understand the problems faced when looking to commission solutions to the many issues that vulnerable people face’ says more about you than about what we see every day of our lives.
As I write, news is breaking that John Nash, the mathematician who inspired 'Beautiful Mind' has been killed in a car crash with his wife. If anyone had asked John Nash to guess how he might die, I doubt that he would have picked a car crash. We don't choose though do we? Prince Charles was also in the news shaking hands with Jerry Adams this week and choosing to quietly pay tribute to his surrogate grandfather, killed in an IRA bomb. My cousins and I could have spent our childhood and the first half of our lives without the constant love and support of our grandparents. They parked one day outside a pub in Birmingham, and decided not to go in after all but to head home. They chose to do that, not knowing that they chose life, perhaps on the toss of a coin. The pub was bombed. Random, but I'm eternally grateful that that simple decision was the right one. They were wonderful people and I got to talk to my Nan as she lay dying in her 90's on the other side of the world. I told her about walking in the spring sunshine and seeing the ducks on the lake in the Arboretum in Walsall. She always took us to see them and a simple walk to the park became an adventure when she took us - a tradition carried on by her surviving daughter. Just being with my Nan (and my aunty) was (and is) an adventure in itself. And I might never have known that. These things happen. Life and death apparently on the spin of a coin. The effect on those left is just as devastating whether death is predictable (we knew Nan could not hang on much longer in her final week) or completely out of the blue. People leave gaping holes in families when they die at whatever age. I've got friends who lost mums at primary school and have simply never recovered. It was at a critical time in their lives and there's very little anyone could to substitute for unconditional mother's love.
So here we are on an estate, a new one, full of young families. Almost all of us work. I know people who work 12 hour shifts, who work nights. I know a mum who delivers parcels in and around caring for a baby, several older kids, her own cat and two that she took in. Finances for so many, are on a knife edge and are often tipped over the edge of what it's possible to live on. There are no second chances. My Nan knew about this kind of living. She was the only daughter of John Pemberton, whose family lived and worked in Dallam Forge in Warrington. The girls in the family were cotton mill workers. Nan's dad was black-listed because he was a trade union representative. For two years, he could not work and her mum took in sewing. She passed on her skills to her daughter, who taught me, her grand-daughter, so I was able to make blinds for our house and can mend things almost invisibly. She always encouraged me in music too, setting the example of learning the guitar with arthritic fingers when she was in her 70's and going on to teach it, with a Diploma to match her longstanding teaching qualifications in piano. I still have sheet music that she gave me - Beethoven, Chopin, Spanish composers, carefully covered in brown paper to make it last, with her beautiful handwriting. But how was she able to do that? I can only imagine that John Pemberton and his wife had a vision of how life could be for their beloved daughter and put money aside out of the little they earned for piano lessons so that in three generations, his family would eventually go to university. She and my other grandparents always encouraged but never pushed. We knew how much they loved us over and above anything we could do to make them proud of us. Today, my son picked out his favourite worship song on the piano by ear for the very first time on his own and was overcome with the depth of feeling he experienced at suddenly 'getting' music.
What if I'd never met her? What if her three children had been orphaned in the Birmingham Pub Bombings? What if I drive out of my estate tomorrow and one of the many near misses we have with drivers flying down the A48 too fast to give way takes my life?
What difference does it make?
We might get a lower speed limit. We might even get a speed camera. I won't know though and my son will be too little and too distressed to care. So, why not get those things now? Because until someone is killed, me or somebody else, there is no incentive for that to happen. Why? Because the total cost, in terms of family, community, hospitals, ambulances, loss of earnings, cumulative effect on children as they grow up, taxes that won't be paid, volunteering that won't get done, the total cost is simply incalculable. And until someone looks at the whole picture and does the sums, nothing will change for us or any other community.
A right to life? A right to a safe place to live? At least, I can assert my right to freedom of speech, even if it does, as it did for my great-grandfather, come at a cost. He knew it was worth it.
Hats off to Bromford for managing to get all the Stakeholders in the Oakdale Community and some of the actual community all together in one place this week. It can't have been easy and we do appreciate the effort. Outcomes will tell the success of the venture. I hope that these do not include accident statistics on our streets or on our only main road junction. We are all quite taken with MMC's (or Asda's?) idea for something in the middle of the roundabout to make it more visible. It's not (I think) a new one, but not a bad one either.
Here in Lydney, we have local connections twice over to the fellow in the photo above at Wellington airport. It was created by a team led by some very talented and fun-loving members of my family at Weta Workshops and installed as the centre piece to the Middle of Middle Earth, Auckland Airport of course now being the Gateway to Middle Earth. Here however, I have to differ with my family (they won't mind and are used to it). Surely Oakdale is the true Gateway to Middle Earth? For one, we are named (apparently) after Lydney Park as the official name enscribed on the gateway to Oakdale (which got vandalised last night by the way) is 'Higher Lydney Park'. Secondly, Roman remains have been found on Oakdale, prompting calls from the County Archaeologist for proper investigations to be made prior to Phase 2. Thirdly, the original inspiration for the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings is one found and lost at the first Lydney Park. Fourthly, two members of the NZ branch of our family have local connections just like 99% of the people living here. (Alas, I don't think any are eligible to vote otherwise we could engage the services of Gandalf to get us to the polling station en masse.) So, what better? Our own Smaug on the Oakdale Roundabout. Rebrand Oakdale as Oakendell and Norm's your uncle.
In keeping with the artistic and creative sides married (in our family at least) to its engineering other halves, why not link the Oakendell Smaug with a speed camera? Then whenever it looks likely that someone else is having a go at merrily ploughing into us on the way round the roundabout, smoke could pour from Smaug's nostrils with facial expressions graded from stern look to glowering eyes and a firepit in front from which the aroma of slightly charred wild boar could add atmostpheric effect on Oakendell Community Days. (Served with Oakendell Apple Sauce made from the fruit of T3 of course.) That should sufficient to quell anyone too keen to get to the Land of the Long Red Dragon quickly and divert those in a partying frame of mind.
Job's a good 'un.
Hello! I am the editor of this website. I moved to Lydney in November 2011 with my husband and son and we have been living on Oakdale for two years now. It's an interesting time to move here, so I set up this website to encourage community links between and within the old and the new in Lydney and to try and help create a stable and happy community.