Volume 14 Number 1
Nottingham Tackles 'Hinge Issue' for Britain
01 February 2001

'Honest conversation' at Nottingham's Partnership Council is a key to urban renewal, Michael Smith discovers:

Nottingham citizens enjoyed the symbolism recently in inviting Haven Roosevelt, grandson of former American President Franklin D Roosevelt, to open a converted textile factory in the innercity area of Radford. It will be used for new businesses and development services to the community.

FD's New Deal programme of public works helped to lift America out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Britain, the government's New Deal for Communities 'laser targets' rundown neighbourhoods. The investment in Nottingham's Radford and Hyson Green districts is £55 million--a huge sum for an area of 4,000 households, and some think it should be spread wider.

They compare it with the £5.4 million of European Community URBAN funding, which is being channelled into four of Nottingham's deprived innercity neighbourhoods--Forest Field, New Basford, Radford and Hyson Green--through the area's Partnership Council (PC).

Ironically, this smaller regeneration sum, which has to be 'match funded' by the same amount from local sources, seems to be creating the greater excitement because of the way the PC involves local citizens in decision-making.

On the surface, Nottingham is a great place to live. It claims to be one of Britain's five most prosperous cities, with enough job vacancies to cater for all the unemployed. The lace industry, on which Nottingham built its wealth during the industrial revolution, has long since been superseded as the primary employer. The Boots pharmacy and Paul Smith fashion chains are based here; there are Carlton Television studios and leading quality printing companies.

But like all major cities, there are also pockets of acute deprivation. In rundown neighbourhoods unemployment among the ethnic minorities is nearly 25 per cent. Burglary and car crime--often drug related--run at twice the national average. And the city has some of the nation's worst performing schools.

How to engage the alienated and socially excluded in a programme of urban renewal? 'The one-size-fits-all and the we-know-best approach of the local government authority was not working,' says city councillor John Taylor, who is Chairman of Nottingham Health Authority. 'We were doing it all the wrong way. Everything was top down, imposed and property focussed, rather than home grown. We had to look at regeneration differently.' There was a need, says Taylor, for a level of devolved local decision-making below local government--'you might call it an urban parallel council'.

To fill this need, the Partnership Council came to birth four years ago as an independent limited company, after consultation with some 900 households. The emphasis is on 'honest conversation in order to improve service delivery', says printing company director and PC chairman Richard Hawthorne. At the heart of the PC are seven forums: three for residents and one each for the business, voluntary, public and local government sectors. Three representatives from each make joint decisions at the PC's monthly board meetings.

Their action plans are beginning to be felt in the community. Build, a mentoring programme for black teenagers, occupies the top floor of the renovated building which Roosevelt opened. Half a dozen state-of-the-art computers, with video editing, give the teenagers a chance to learn IT skills. A staff of 14, supported by some 80 volunteer mentors, helped 300 kids last year and the numbers are rising. Build's Chief Executive, Michael Henry, says that this has helped several to go on to higher education.

Build's successful delivery of the PC's Cross Cultural Networks project persuaded the Home Office to award Build with a £182,000 'Converting Communities' grant, to extend the project throughout the city. Henry says, 'There is huge potential in bringing together groups as diverse as Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Vietnamese, Asian and Black communities, to talk about their good or bad experiences and thus be empowered to suggest what is right for their communities.' Henry himself is so committed to the task that he turned down a private sector job, which would have doubled his salary.

But his relationship with the PC hasn't always been plain sailing. At one point in discussions, frustration boiled over and Henry began to walk out. At that moment Hawthorne spoke about the need for 'honest conversation'. Henry found the phrase so rivetting it stopped him in his tracks and he stayed.

The emphasis on grassroots empowerment is at the heart of the PC and its greatest success is in 'delivering a local agenda', says PC Coordinator Christina Ashworth. She singles out action to tackle street crime. Residents wanted to go beyond 'more bars, more locks, more lights, to diversionary activities for young people'. Youth clubs run in forbidding old school buildings were not attracting teenagers off the streets. But asking them what they wanted led to a summer sports programme in their neighbourhoods, with plenty of equipment provided.

Residents also called for 'restorative justice', which takes young offenders to meet their victims and make reparations--a salutary experience when they see the harm they have done, and a strong disincentive against future crime. Residents were not just looking for a change in infrastructure, Ashworth points out. 'They were saying these are our kids or our neighbours' kids. It is a different view when you live in a place than living outside and providing services to it.'

Sociology graduate Sarah Smith, a PC projects worker, says that the 'most significant' initiative is an employment link for ex-offenders. This has had over 100 referrals from the Probation Service and NACRO (National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders). Young people with criminal records are linked with employers willing to take them on. So far 60 have found jobs. 'The numbers of people involved don't tell you what you have achieved,' Smith says. 'It is how people in the community feel that matters.'

Tackling social exclusion is 'the hinge issue for Britain', says Adrian Dewhurst, who coordinates the PC's Business Forum involving some 200 local businesses. Business people, he urges, have a crucial role to play. They are attracted initially to the Business Forum by the benefits they see accruing to them, such as Retail Renaissance, a £2.3 million programme of redeveloping retail properties through the EU's URBAN fund. 'But then you get them to think of the wider community, how to make the place safer to live in,' Dewhurst says. 'You start to touch on their conscience--not just what you get out of it but what you put into the wider community.'

Nigel Skill, for instance, runs a family motor coach business with a fleet of 50 coaches. He was concerned to find that his 250 employees did not reflect the cultural diversity of Radford, where the company is based. Only five per cent lived within a five mile radius of the company's headquarters. This has increased to 10 per cent since Skill began to recruit from the unemployed and the 'third age'. But now his company has expanded and plans to leave Radford and this will create a hole, says Dewhurst. Its site will be turned into much needed urban housing.

Hawthornes Printers and Skills are both cited by Britain's Institute of Public Policy Research as a good examples of 'corporate social engagement'*, the government's new catch-phrase for business commitment to social inclusion. As part of its social engagement, Hawthornes donates pallets of paper to local schools, welcomes classes to visit the plant and provides work experience for eight schools and colleges. Even so, Richard Hawthorne admits that too few of the firm's 90 employees come from the inner city.

A formative moment in his life came in London in the late 1960s when he met a travelling group from India with its theatre production, India Arise, produced by Moral Re-Armament. One particular song, Will we have rice tomorrow, Dad?, made a deep impression on him.

Sitting in his car on the Thames Embankment the next morning, he felt an inner call, to 'open my heart to people whom I had kept at arms length and to newcomers to Britain who were treated as second-class citizens'. As a Christian, he felt he was being urged to 'the biggest task that God was asking of me and not to restrict myself to things I felt I could undertake without making a fool of myself.' As a result, he has been a member, since 1970, of what is now Nottingham's Racial Equality Council.

'I have been struck by the need to heal the hurts of history and to think for those who have become socially excluded,' Hawthorne says. 'Our Creator has a plan for our cities. The challenge is to live so that we discover it individually and implement it together. This is the answer to the control and fear which stifles so much teamwork and creative regeneration.' He urges that the 'honest conversation' must continue between the Partnership Council and local residents, especially where there are continuing feelings of exclusion.

For Christina Ashworth, the bottom line is not 'the outputs, bar charts, buildings and services' so much as doing things 'in a way that enhances people's dignity and makes them feel included and respected'. She would like the government, which published its National strategy for neighbourhood renewal last year, to take a close look at Nottingham's experience. She thinks they would have a thing or two to learn.

*'A welcome engagement' by Ella Joseph, published by the Institute of Public Policy Research, £8.95, ISBN 1 86030 108 8.

See also: Hope in the Cities (www.hopeinthecities.org/) and Nottingham Partnership Council (www.life-at-the-heart.co.uk/)
Michael Smith