Hope in the Inner City
12 March 2001

Printing company director Richard Hawthorne chairs a Nottingham partnership which engages citizens in urban renewal through 'honest conversation'.

Richard Hawthorne remembers vividly the moment in his life that lead to a profound change in his thinking. At the time he was a 36-year-old company director in his family's long-established printing business in Nottingham. He had travelled to London, on that day in 1967, to meet a group from India staging a theatre production, India Arise. 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 man of faith, Hawthorne felt he was being urged to 'the biggest task that God was asking of me and not restrict myself to things I felt I could undertake without making a fool of myself.'

As a result, he has been a member, since 1968, of what is now Nottingham's Racial Equality Council. He is also Chairman of a Partnership Council for four inner-city neighbourhoods, which The Guardian describes as 'a radical Nottingham project to involve local people' in urban regeneration.

Nottingham in many ways would seem 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 The lace industry, on which the city built its wealth during the industrial revolution, has long since been superseded as the primary employer.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 big cities, there are also pockets of acute deprivation. In run down 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? It was a question on the forefront of ministers' minds when Tony Blair launched a 'national strategy for neighbourhood renewal' in London in January 2001. But it's one that Nottingham civic leaders have long been wrestling with.

Nottingham Council spends £45 million on inner city neighbourhoods each year. Yet throwing money at the problem is not enough, says John Taylor, a councillor who also chairs Nottingham Health Authority. 'The one-size-fits-all and the we-know-best approach of the local government authority was not working.' The Radford and Hyson Green districts have been the focus of repeated regeneration programmes for 25 years. 'Yet they are still the most deprived areas of the city,' Taylor says. 'We were doing it all the wrong way. Everything was top down, imposed and property focused, rather than home grown. We had to look at regeneration differently. There was a need 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 was launched in 1996 as an independent limited company, after consultation with some 900 households. It has proved to be an effective vehicle for channelling European grants worth £5.4 million, which have to be matched to the same amount from local sources.

At the heart of the PC are seven forums: three for residents as well as for the business, voluntary, public and local government sectors. Three representatives from each make joint decisions at the PC's monthly board meetings. Richard Hawthorne, with his years of business experience and community involvement, was the natural choice as PC chairman. And he and his wife, Meili, often entertain people from all sections of the community in their home.

Hawthorne says that what makes the PC effective is its emphasis on 'honest conversation' in order to improve service delivery. The phrase is stock-in-trade in the USA, particularly in reference to inter-racial dialogue. Hawthorne is an activist with Hope in the Cities (HIC), a coalition initiated in Richmond, Virginia, which aims to promote 'honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility'. In 1999, HIC was called in by the White House to advise the President's Initiative on Race, towards inter-racial understanding.

HIC in Britain has offices in London and Liverpool and emphasises 'creating trust-based relationships where all are valued and everyone is empowered to fulfil their potential', according to HIC co-ordinator Lawrence Fearon. His colleague, Gerald Henderson, says that HIC 'acts as a support network for others who are taking initiatives'.

In Nottingham, the PC's working groups provide a natural vehicle for 'honest conversation'. Hawthorne says: 'There is much that goes on in our cities that is not honest and there is so much griping. Honest conversation is not just a question of venting hurts but being honest about one's own situation, feelings and mistakes. This needs to be done with a sensitivity to where the other person is coming from--and being aware of historic hurts.' He warns against 'the drive to control which so often undermines inclusion'.

Honest conversation has worked at Build, a mentoring programme for black teenagers, which occupies the top floor of the converted textile factory in Radford. 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 people in the year 2000, and the numbers are rising. Build's Chief Executive, Michael Henry, says that this has helped several to go on to higher education.

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

Build successfully delivered the PC's Cross Cultural Networks project. This persuaded the Home Office to award Build with a £182,000 'Connecting Communities' grant in order to extend the networks 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 be empowered to suggest what is right for their communities.'

The emphasis on grass roots empowerment is at the heart of the PC and its greatest success is in 'delivering a local agenda', says its co-ordinator Christina Ashworth. She singles out action to tackle street crime. Honest conversation revealed that 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.'

According to Adrian Dewhurst, who co-ordinates of the PC's Business Forum involving some 200 local enterprises, tackling social exclusion is 'the hinge issue for Britain'. Businesses are attracted initially by the benefits they see accruing to them, such as Retail Renaissance, a £2.3 million programme of redeveloping retail properties. '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.'

Hawthornes Printers, which has a turn-over of over £8 million, and another Nottingham business, Skills Motor Coaches, are cited by Britain's Institute of Public Policy Research as good examples of 'corporate social engagement'*, the government's catch phrase for business commitment to social inclusion. 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.

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 to take a close look at Nottingham's experience. She thinks it might 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 'Game plan', The Guardian, Society section, 17 January 2001; 'Nottingham tackles hinge issue for Britain', For A Change magazine, Feb-March 2001; and 'Where industry is a partner in tackling social exclusion', The Industrial Pioneer, Feb-March 2001.

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