Information Stage, The Downs Festival


The subject matter is and always will remain challenging. Homelessness: The Reality on the Ground is the type of issue that can generate fear and ignorance in equal proportions. Those who may have believed they were at little risk of the housing crisis are increasingly being sucked into the vortex of a perfect storm. Inaccessible market values, extreme rent levels, a lack of supply, the return of poor landlords and the paralysed inability of government has placed the fundamental human need of shelter into the hands of the speculators and spivs. As we discovered during the panel presentations and discussion (Downs Festival 2017) homelessness once considered the blight of those on the fringes of our society is now showing its ugly face amongst paid workers, especially the working young. There is a broken promise in any social contract between individual and state when homelessness rears its ugly head. The crisis we now face sits at the feet of those who have governed for the past 40 years and willingly encouraged the breakdown of decency towards humanity. Homelessness on the scale we witness has not happened by accident. It is a deliberate policy designed and orchestrated by the government.

So what is to be done as we sit in self-imposed ignorant bliss, knowing the causes, but claiming to be ‘powerless’ to do anything? Being powerless can, of course, be a convenient excuse and one that in its worst condition seeks self-reflected pity on oneself. The cold reality is that some people vote to be powerless. The first step in demanding change is the realisation that you are not powerless and by actually doing something, no matter how little, you become a small, but integral part of a social movement and movements change things on a big scale. The words ‘political struggle’ in one of the wealthiest economies, had until recently,  become an almost embarrassing term to use given the abundance of riches at our disposal.  It is clearly back on the agenda for a younger generation who are quite rightly increasingly restless and angry at the inheritance being offered to them by a tired and self-imposed ‘powerless’ older generation. While government (nationally and locally) is blindfolded in a downward spiral of spin, apportion blaming and rebranding their diminishing resources as new. Informal networks of self-motivated people armed with nothing more than compassion and love are seeking solutions. On one hand, a growing number of people are not prepared to ‘walk on by’ and ignore the injustice staring them in the face and on the other hand young people are increasingly motivated to get involved in direct-action and structured politics. It’s too early to say if this is a fad and it may suffer the relentlessly grind wheels that have often warm many a good person down, but positive seeds have been sown.

It was an absolute honour to have co-hosted the panel on Homelessness at the Information Stage, Bristol Downs Festival with friend and film director Anthony Tombling. The panel brought together people and groups who did not fall for the self-indulgent notion of ‘powerlessness’ and did the right thing. They got engaged and became part of the solution rather than the problem. Ordinary people from a variety of backgrounds, faiths, genders and cultures. My deepest respect goes out to Bristol Reconnect, Brixton Soup Kitchen, Homeless Heroes (Birmingham) Feed the Homeless, St. Mungo’s, Help Bristol’s Homeless who are doing some amazing work often off the radar. If you would like to find out more about these groups and get engaged with what they are doing then just click here.

There will always be armchair cynics in life who can’t, don’t want to be won over, or are only comfortable with the status quo. My advice is equally simple. Following the words from one generation to another…. “come, councillors, MPs and Government please heed the call don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall……come mothers and fathers throughout the land and don’t criticise what you can’t understand your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.”








The Downs Festival, Bristol 2nd September 2017

If you are heading to The Downs Festival on 2nd September 2017 myself and good friend film director Anthony Tombling will be hosting a panel discussion on homelessness in the UK. The purpose of the panel discussion is to encourage a greater understanding of community-led action aimed at tackling the stigma and negative attitudes towards those who find themselves homeless in the UK. The panel will explore the impact of national and local government policies by asking if they are helping or hindering a sustainable solution and what are the alternatives. We will be hearing about the reality on the ground from some truly inspirational people.

Panelists include representatives from The Brixton Soup Kitchen, St. Mungo’s, Homeless Heroes – Birmingham, Feed The Homeless – Bristol, Bristol ReConnect and Jasper Thompson from Help Bristol’s Homeless. The panel will be giving us their take on the current situation on the ground. Do we have a crisis? and if we do, what can we do about it? So if you are around please come along, say hello, Join the discussion, offer support and hear from the people working at the sharp end trying to help those most vulnerable in our communities. The panel is due to start at 3:15pm. For more information on the community groups involved click here: I AM HUNGER







Plan one small step at a time

A small project I have been developing with volunteers at Bristol Reconnect, the ACE Project (St. Paul’s) and the Northern Slopes Initiative has today taken a small, but significant step.  The printing and publishing of our first workbooks, which are expressly designed to help small volunteer-led (and often unfunded) groups to plan more efficiently. The books are intended to help these types of groups to deal with the challenge of austerity, especially when the local government comes knocking on their door asking them to get more involved in the delivery of services and facilities. There will be more to share in the never future for those who might be interested in these rather mundane, but important matters as we develop the next 6 workbooks and the overall support programme.  In the meantime, my gratitude and respect goes out to the volunteers in these projects who are working with some of the most vulnerable people or defending essential community facilities in the city.


Time to Plan: Helping small volunteer-led groups with their future

Over the past few months, I have been helping three small volunteer-led community groups in Bristol working on issues as diverse as enhancing public spaces, homelessness and inner city youth services. All three groups have little or no funding, which is not the immediate problem. They are all asking me to assist them with the development of a plan that will help guide their work into the future within the resources they currently hold, which I am happy to do. The back drop is they are all being increasingly asked to do more as local government does less. I am setting the rights and wrongs of this aside for the moment.

Here is the snag. Most if not all the examples of plans are seriously over the top and seem to have been designed by megalomaniacs, or consultants who have tried to be far far too smart (and expensive). I guess what I am talking about here is something that is practical, proportionate and designed around the needs of the groups. I have started to develop some ideas with the groups but was wondering if anybody out there knew of some good practice examples? I would like to produce something that is self-administrative, open source and free for any small ‘grass roots’ volunteer group with little or no funding wanting to develop a practical plan.

A time to listen

29th April 2017 I was asked to facilitate a community session for the Mayor of Bristol (Marvin Rees) and Kerry McCarthy MP. The localised issues raised at community engagement sessions can often be listed beforehand housing, transport, education, fly-tipping, but nesting amongst these issues was the ongoing ramifications of Brexit. The audience while not large certainly reflected the diverse nature of opinion concerning the Brexit debate. What became clear during the session was that when politicians listen and engage with the fears and concerns of ordinary people a more considered debate takes place, which in turn helps forge a more objective understanding of the complex issues that are often presented in simplistic headlines. My lesson from facilitating this session is that we need to develop ways of breaking down the often perceived barriers between elected representatives and the general public.

It will not be easy, but social media has its limitations. There is no real substitute for eye to eye contact and exchange of opinions, which often energises and secures the principle of accountability. We have allowed the vilification of our elected representatives to cloud our wider engagement in our democracy. That is not to say some of our MPs and elected representatives have not been the cause of their own vilification. But there is a space, a void and dare I say a responsibility we need to claim back to make our democracy and accountability work.

If we are to recapture hearts and minds then it will need to be done community by community, neighbourhood by neighbourhood reconstructing the relationship and replacing it with politics that works for people.

Space the final frontier

Taken for granted until they are placed under threat open spaces near our urban centres not only increase our quality of life, but they are essential for leisure activities. The mental and physical health benefits they provide have been demonstrated, along with the proof that they actually prevent and slow down access to expensive health care costs. They are also the lungs of our community offsetting the effects of air pollution while providing a habitat for wildlife to survive. Exploring our open spaces not only improves our feeling of well-being but creates a sense of connection with our broader community. Our local councils, who act as the custodians of our open spaces, are now facing the consequences of a two-pronged assault by the government through their policies of austerity and Growth and Infrastructure. Given this hostile environment, it has become increasingly important that our local council’s do the right thing.

Growth and Infrastructure Act

The Open Spaces Society, have set out the legal risk to public open spaces by the Growth and
Infrastructure Act, “In the past, communities could register their local open space as a town or village green, securing their rights to enjoy it and protecting it from being built on. Now the Growth and Infrastructure Act decrees that, throughout England, landowners can challenge your use of the green for informal recreation and you then have only one year in which to register it. The danger is that the land could be developed before you even know it’s at risk.” 


The Local Government Association report Under Pressure, states, “Councils are currently halfway through a scheduled 40% cut in funding from central government. Having delivered £10 billion of savings in the three years from 2011/12, local authorities have to deliver the same savings again in the next two years. As a result of these cuts councils in many areas will not have enough money to meet all their statutory responsibilities.”

The term “statutory” refers to those services, which the council has to provide by law, the biggest areas of statutory expenditure for your council are social care for the elderly, those with complex needs and children at risk. The level, depth and speed of financial cuts demanded by the central government is unprecedented and will have consequences for generations to come. As your council struggles to tackle the growing demands of social care the stark choice is one of providing essential care to the most vulnerable in our community or reducing services, which are not generally considered “statutory” like public open spaces for example.

The crisis has brought about a natural reaction. Legitimate protests have/are taking place, but they have failed to ignite the mass movement required to force a change in policy and as a consequence had little impact on the policy of austerity. Calls for councils to use their “budget reserves” to plug the hole provides a good soundbite, but will not provide a sustainable answer and those calling for this approach know this full well given it will only delay the problem and ultimately hit services supporting the elderly and vulnerable much harder. The idea that any council will set an illegal budget is just daft. The debate is not one of just reductions, but some services may ultimately stop.

Doing the right thing

Here in Bristol, the funding cuts are valued at £92m during the next five years. The idea that efficiencies, wasteful expenditure on pet projects, gold plated pensions, and cutting jobs will magically fill the budget hole is utterly discourteous to anybody’s intelligence. As reported in the Bristol Post the financial strategy for the council includes a definite saving of £1.2m by 2019/20, which is predicated on a change in how parks and open spaces are managed and maintained with the council looking at alternative ways to run them such as setting up trusts or mutual societies

Northern Slopes

The Northern Slopes constitute three open green spaces between the Knowle West and Bedminster areas of Bristol, which had remained relatively undisturbed since the Second World War when they were utilised for allotments. Thursday evening, 16th March, I had the honour of spending the evening in the company of the volunteers who are the driving force behind the Northern Slopes Initiative (NSI). Like similar volunteer groups, up and down the country the volunteers of the NSI find themselves at the coal face of convincing their local community of the importance of the slopes, protecting and enhancing them while gently elbowing the council to maintain these critical facilities. It is a thankless role, which generates no financial reward, but these volunteers are increasingly becoming the backbone of our communities as the council is forced to retreat. Relatively small in number but dedicated they are prepared to sacrifice their evenings and weekends to improve conditions for their fellow residents. They may also be holding down a job or retired, but their sense of duty is second to known. It will be these very same volunteers who will be called upon to “step up” as part of the response to the financial crisis the council finds itself in.

It ain’t what you do, but the why that you do it – that’s what gets results

Bristol Council’s willingness to look at alternatives, while fraught with difficulties is to be welcomed, but it will not be what the council is seeking to do that will determine its success, far from it, it will be how the council goes about doing it. Until the how is declared the willingness of the council to explore alternative approaches will remain aspirational just like those many well-meaning strategies, which litter the history of local government in the UK.

Collective Impact

Collective Impact is a framework to tackle deeply entrenched and complex social problems. It is an innovative and structured approach to making collaboration work across government, business, philanthropy, non-profit organisations and citizens to achieve significant and lasting social change. Read more here

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