Friday, 24 April 2009

On St. George's Day and Every Day, Together is Better!

I have not long returned home from one of the most successful, innovative and ambitious events that I have yet attended in my capacity as Lead Member for Housing & Community Safety.

For me personally, the Better Together event jointly organised by Hounslow Homes and the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA) did not get off to a particularly good start. Despite me being Lead Member not only did I have no input into the organisation of the event, but somebody also forgot to invite me. It transpired, I have to add, that this had been a genuine oversight and as it turned out every councillor had been sent a last-minute "reminder" of an event which they knew nothing about, but I would not be human if memories of the Bad Old Days in which excluding ICG councillors was turned almost into an art form did not come flickering back at least momentarily.

But any lingering doubts were quickly dispelled as soon as I walked into the Paul Robeson Theatre in Hounslow Treaty Centre, where a hugely impressive crowd that included my friends and colleagues Councillors Jon Hardy and Paul Fisher was already gathering.

The afternoon event had been masterminded jointly by the Tenant Participation Officers at Hounslow Homes and by HFTRA (chaired by Julie Brooker, pictured above). Its purpose was to bolster participation in the lives of our communities by hard-to-reach groups who, for whatever reason, often find themselves left out of the business of the established tenants' and residents' associations on our estates.

It has to be said that in almost every instance the exclusion of these hard-to-reach groups, in particular newly-arrived communities, is entirely unintentional. People new to our estates, to Hounslow and to the country may understandably feel overawed and a little reticent about joining their local tenants' group, which usually tends to comprise a relatively small number of people who know and have been working with each other for many years. For their part those established groups may desire to reach out and embrace those who are new to their communities, but are unfamiliar with the cultures concerned and sometimes do not know how. If this stalemate is not broken, the association soon becomes unrepresentative of the people it serves and seriously negative implications for Community Cohesion begin to develop.

So the purpose of Better Together was to try to break through those barriers by bringing established tenants' leaders and representatives from hard-to-reach communities together, to introduce one to the other, and to celebrate - appropriately, on St. George's Day - our common citizenship and those things that unite us as tenants and indeed as human beings (please click here for some earlier thoughts of mine on this particular concept).

As Lead Member I have long argued that a powerful tenants' movement on our estates and in our communities is singularly the best vehicle there is for improving Community Cohesion. People and groups of people who are unfamiliar with each other and possibly even a little fearful suddenly discover that the problems which concern them in their everyday lives are the same problems which concern their new neighbours. When residents are brought together to discuss these problems, barriers just disintegrate before everybody's eyes.

By some this message was never completely grasped. To others it represented a threat, because it meant that improved Community Cohesion came about only by virtue of an empowered tenants' movement, which has a propensity to ask awkward questions and to make demands that are sometimes incompatible with the path of least resistance and a quiet life, and always incompatible with the control agenda favoured by some.

What inspired, enthused and excited me about Better Together wasn't just the massive turnout (250-300 people), the excellent food or the wonderful dancing. It was the fact that here was a really radical initiative to empower tenants by aggressively promoting cohesion that had been organised by Hounslow Homes and HFTRA, not only without any pressure from me but even without my knowledge! It wasn't simply like receiving a surprise birthday present, it was the pair of socks that I'd always wanted.

I cannot describe my feeling of sheer satisfaction at having witnessed such an event being driven by Hounslow Homes and HFTRA, two groups of people who had fought me tenaciously thoughout every minute of the Hounslow Homes Management Review in 2006 as I ploughed on stubbornly with my plans to improve and democratise the process of Tenant Participation in our borough. Back then some harsh words were spoken. I hope and believe that much of the innocent mistrust that had inspired the opposition to me back then has since melted away, but in the overall scheme of things that is not really that important. What is most important that even those who would still probably like to see the back of me next year are now singing from the same democratic hymnsheet. I feel I can declare with supreme confidence at long last that it is now official - working together really is better!

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