Joe Wills, Centre for London interviews Casey Howard of the People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH).
Casey Howard is a local resident of Custom House in the London Borough of Newham, and works part-time as a community organiser for PEACH, the People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House. PEACH was founded in 2013 as part of Big Local, a funding programme that awarded £1 million to Custom House “on the basis that it can be spent over 10-15 years at the community’s own chosen pace, and on their own plans and priorities.”
The experience of PEACH is a case study in what can happen if communities are trusted with resources to deliver change as they see fit. One of their key priorities was for local people to have a greater influence on the regeneration of their neighbourhood, in tandem with the local authority. The idea behind this was a genuine transfer of power to the neighbourhood level. We spoke with Casey to find out how this played out.
Joe: Tell me about what PEACH does and how you worked with the local community to determine the organisation’s priorities around regeneration.
Casey: PEACH carried out a listening campaign at the outset – a group of residents got together to find out what mattered to the community. This listening campaign involved door knocking in the area and holding open public meetings, information workshops and one-to-one meetings between organisers and residents in their homes. A big priority from that exercise was housing and regeneration. Custom House is sandwiched between the A13 and the DLR: on the other side of the tracks is the ExCeL and the new developments going up next to the river. There is a massive contrast between the poverty on this side and the hugely expensive flats and hotels on the other side.
Custom House had been proposed as a regeneration area for over 15 years, with a masterplan drawn up in 2004 and revised in 2007 but since left unchanged. The regeneration area comprises 550 homes, a GP surgery and a high street of 15 commercial units. The council’s plan proposed quadrupling the density to up to 2000 homes. In the meantime, there was no information given to residents, and a lot of uncertainty and worry. Residents had witnessed other nearby regeneration schemes take place which the community had no control over and didn’t want to let the same thing happen to them. Because the area was proposed for regeneration, it was pretty much left to decay. Residents were left in limbo, with no investment in the meantime. Local shops were in bad repair, with a lot of vacant units on the high street, meaning crime was a problem.
PEACH decided early on that coming up with an alternative plan for the regeneration of our area would be the best use of our time. As the stalled regeneration was having an impact on the area, we wanted take some control over our own future, rather than sitting there and waiting for something to happen to us. So we set out to develop an alternative plan to present to the council.
Joe: Can you explain to me how the process of engaging the community and developing the alternative regen plan with them worked?
Casey: Some of the Big Local money was used to employ 10 community organisers – five of whom were local residents, and four professional advisers (individual architects who were then also trained in organising). The first stage was to meet the community. Over one year, this involved knocking on thousands of doors and meeting hundreds of local residents face to face. The process of designing the plan collaboratively with the community was about constant learning. We ran workshops to deal with every aspect of the alternative plan, but they weren’t just to pass on information; they were to teach people about the nuts and bolts of development. For example, we spoke about the pros and cons of the traditional development model – where you don’t need the money up front, as the developer can provide it, so there’s a lower risk for the council. What are the negatives? Amongst other things, the developer needs their 20 per cent profit, so there might be more market housing to make it up.
We focused on teaching these ideas so that residents understood what the real ins and outs of the politics of regeneration are, and how it would affect them. To a certain extent, it helped us understand that on some things we’ll have to compromise. For example, we played an interactive “priority bingo” where people had to stand on a square which represents a particular priority from a range of provided potential outcomes. Then the exercise was about choosing between priorities – so for example if you wanted to have your preferred option selected, you would have to persuade a certain number of other people to join you from their preferred option. The convincing, compromise and consensus building was a central part of the process.
During the organising process there was a big skills exchange between the resident organisers and the architects, as we all participated in the engagement activities. We taught them about how to engage with the residents, and they taught us about architecture and planning. When we ran workshops with the community on how the regen could bring jobs, or how houses and public spaces could be designed, they were designed collaboratively with both the architects and the resident organisers. This included jargon busting (we’d stand up and shout out “jargon!” any time they used it!) so people could understand the language, and presenting plans with materials and tools people could understand (e.g. cardboard boxes and models rather than architectural drawing). What came out of that was really great, detailed plans, which achieved the same level of density that the council were proposing.. The community – who had previously been not considered an equal partner – had been able to say “Look what we’ve done! We have detailed drawings and a viability assessment done by the same people who worked on the London Plan, while in 15 years you’ve done nothing here!” I think it became hard to ignore the work we’d done by that point.
Joe: What were some of the challenges you faced in setting up the alternative regen plan, and how did you overcome them?
Casey: Initially there was some wariness and suspicion, when people thought we were from the council. Once people realised that our kids probably went to the same school, that I live round the corner, and the same thing that you care about, I care about too, that helped break down the trust barrier. We were there, making a plan with them, as part of it. We were there saying “this is my community too, I feel the same as you, and I want to do something about it. Would you like to do something about it too?”
The second barrier was a lack of hope and confidence – why would the council listen to us? Why would it ever be any different? What do we know? There was a lack of recognition of their own abilities and the validity of their own experiences. I believe that this came from years of neglect, not only in the area, but in the community itself. The high transience, the sense of not knowing who your neighbours are, the high street being dead, the lack of connection and stopping to chat. It was like a scurry of people getting off the train or bus and getting home as quickly as possible, as it’s not a place you want to be hanging about. There was a
real challenge. However, the whole process of community involvement, learning and engagement has given members of the community the belief that their voice is worth listening to, confidence to say what they think and not have to apologise for that, and an understanding that they have relevant expertise.
What we did was support the community to become informed, but also create an alternative. This changed the lack of hope I mentioned into an ability to hope, plan and create a regeneration that included them. This was genuinely empowering, creating a springboard for people to have other aspirations and question their own place in society. People realised that they can have power over their environment and their own lives. The other thing it did was get people to realise that they weren’t living in isolation, and that it wasn’t just happening to them. When people are struggling day to day, they can feel like they are just fighting for survival by themselves, and that they alone are responsible for their position in society. But actually, once people turned up to meetings and started talking to each other, people realised that their neighbours were in the same position. Even where people might have looked different, or felt like they had nothing else in common, they realised that their fears were the same. Through building relationships, we were creating shared support for each other, creating shared aspirations, identifying shared interests, and actually becoming more powerful.
Joe: People often say that community organisations can be unrepresentative or made up of the “usual suspects”. How does PEACH ensure that the wider community is involved?
Casey: There is a steering group that directs PEACH, made up of residents
and local business owners. We take direction and feedback to them, and they write the yearly direction and budget. We are accountable to the steering group.
What guarantees PEACH being open is that anyone can join. And by that we don’t just mean “in theory” – we do outreach work and actively invite people. My main role is to build relationships with people, across the entire neighbourhood. I tell people about PEACH and what we do, and try and get them to attend. There is continual engagement and recruitment of new people.
As well as the initial door knocking contact, leafletting and phone calls, each week I do on average five to eight individual one-to-one sessions with people who are either existing or potential members. These are 45 minutes at a time, in people’s own homes. The aim is for at least two of these to be new people each week. The rest is keeping existing members engaged and supported.
We also knock on doors at different times to get people who don’t work typical office hours. That includes evenings and weekends. We can meet in residents’ homes or local spaces. Most of my contacts come from door knocking or just being around and living in the local area. I can go to the shop to buy some milk and hear someone talking about something they’re pissed off about – that’s a way into letting them know about PEACH. We get a lot of residents coming who are brought in by other residents, and we really push for this. It’s part of our whole approach of encouraging people to support and advocate for themselves and each other. For example, if we know a resident speaks one language, often they’ll bring along someone else who speaks the same language and translate for them.
The formal platform for taking decisions is our housing club each month. Anyone can join PEACH housing club and become a member, which costs £1 – a nominal fee to show commitment. Every single member in the housing club has a vote, but you can still attend the meeting without being a member. All the big decisions we take, such as whether to agree with different elements of the masterplan, are voted on. But importantly, they are voted on after a lot of deliberation, discussion and clarification, after holding drop-ins at different times of the day and actively contacting people to contribute.
Where we have had meetings with senior officers or politicians at the council, residents lead on that, and are supported intensively in the run-up so that they can be confident in negotiating and speaking in that kind of a setting.
Joe: What has your relationship been like with the local authority throughout the process?
Casey: The current Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, was actually the ward councillor for Custom House originally, so we knew her well. She supported a lot of the campaign work we were doing around conditions for temporary tenants in the area. When she got elected, things were very promising. The stalled Custom House regeneration was going to be restarted, by creating a new masterplan. Although our alternative masterplan wouldn’t be adopted, it was agreed that residents would be involved at every stage of the process of creating a new one. It would be done as a genuine “co-production” process.
This started with the involvement of residents in procuring the architects to do the masterplan. The key thing was the involvement of a few key council officers who were keen to build on the work we had done in engaging local residents, and get us genuinely involved. We worked out, with the officers, an election process so those residents who would sit on the procurement panel would be elected by the community. These residents would have equal say on the scoring of tenders, they would be paid for their time, and they would input into the tender brief, which would be informed by the alternative regen plan. This was a massive validation of the work we had done, and was key in helping to develop a positive relationship.
It was challenging, and there were a few points where we needed extra support for the community representatives on some technical points, but it actually worked really well. We did have to argue for some of this extra support, and it probably wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t. The council had never done it before, so didn’t know how, or what was necessary. For example, residents were initially prevented from seeing the cost elements of the tenders, but we made the argument that you couldn’t make an informed decision without it. We also managed to change the balance of the cost/quality weighting in the process. It was amazing what we were able to do.
We’ve ended up with some architects (Adam Khan) who really bought into the whole co-production idea. They are really engaged, holding open drop-ins and doing workshops where they educate the residents about technical decisions on light, height, density and so on. They even coming door knocking with us! We’re pushing them now to include financial/viability concerns because design is only half of the picture.
It hasn’t been completely problem-free. The regeneration officer working on the new masterplan and leading on the co-production had been seconded to the council from Public Practice (a social enterprise which places built environment professionals in different public bodies to improve the quality of public planning), but had gone on maternity leave. Prior to this officer leaving, PEACH and Newham officers were writing the terms of reference for a steering group which was proposed to co-produce the first phase of the regeneration, as it was felt that the architect procurement process had worked so well. The new master plan was to be done in “co-production”. The steering group would be comprised of elected community (not just PEACH) representatives, as well as senior officers from Newham Council. The steering group would have two chairs, one nominated by the community reps, and one from the council. There would be equal numerical representation from community representatives and councillors on each side. The idea was to use the PEACH networks and relationships, and the work done in creating the alternative regeneration plan in the past, to provide some of the evidence base and the genuine community input for the new masterplan.
However, after the old lead officer left, the new lead took the terms of reference to the legal department, at which point the whole thing froze, and all the shutters came down. Even though the steering group was only intended to give recommendations for the Director to approve and send to the politicians, and was made up of Council officers as well, there was this panic about only the council being able to be a “decision-making body”. Obviously, we understand that only the council cabinet can actually approve things, so we were confused about the whole situation. The work paused for several months while the council started to back away from the initial promises made about community input. Rather than genuine
co-production, officers were insisting that we could have no “decisionmaking” power, and this was effectively a normal consultative process. The introduction of uncertainty really tested the relationship between us and the council, and things got a bit uncomfortable.
I think what happened was a mixture of inexperience and fear of the unknown. Nobody had done this before, nobody was really sure what we could actually do, none of the officers were actually sure of what their legal responsibility was or wasn’t, and how much power they could actually give away. If there had been some guidance on the practical implications of co-production, and how to go about it, that would have made a massive difference. What happened is they just went into default mode – we “consult” with the community and that’s it. The whole momentum behind co-production halted because of this fear of giving power away, or doing something they shouldn’t and being held accountable for it.
In the end, after a lot of tension, the co-production process is still ongoing, and we are continuing to work through issues as they arise. On this occasion, the Mayor actually stepped in and took a much more handson role than you would normally expect. I think there was a massive obstacle in terms of officers not feeling empowered to act or being unsure what they could do. We overcame this particular hurdle, because there was an intention to do something well on the part of the Mayor, and this was ultimately communicated to the rest of the organisation. But to make it happen you need a clear indication of rights and responsibilities from the top down. At the same time, the work we had done as PEACH gave the Mayor confidence to act, because we’d shown that given the right support, we were just as capable of doing the work as anyone else and could add value that nobody else could.