From dream to reality

Yesterday the Governors of the Archer Academy held our last meeting of the academic year at our new premises in Stanley Road. It was a poignant moment to tour the fantastic new site and see the wonderful teaching spaces and the sports facilities that have replaced the disused playing fields and warehouse stores that were there before.

It was amazing to remember that this time three years ago the Department for Education had just given us approval to proceed to opening. We had no staff, no site and no students – just a vision and a firm belief that a local school for local children would benefit the entire community.

Now we have close to 100 staff, not one but two fabulous sites and an Ofsted report that recognised the excellent progress we have made and the solid foundations we have for the future.

We’ve been open less than two years but it feels, from my point of view at least, that the school has already become firmly established in the fabric of the local community. And when our Stanley Road site opens its doors in September to our students and to the local community I have no doubt that it will embed the Archer further still into the heart of East Finchley.

Given that one of tenets of our founding vision is based on engaging with our community – contributing to creating and sustaining an inclusive, thriving local area – this is extremely important to me and the other governors. Stanley Road is a wonderful example of how the school can add to the local area through the provision of new sports and leisure facilities. A derelict piece of land – what had once been a playing field but frequented solely by dog walkers in recent years – was transformed into an all-weather sports pitch, a sports hall with an climbing wall (fully accessible to enable disabled people to use it), rehearsal space, recording studio and a range of other community facilities. These will be available to the local community outside of school hours. Judging by the interest from local sports clubs and community groups there should be no shortage of local use.

The site is protected for community use in perpetuity – and this is something we have written into the agreements with the council and Sport England (as part of the site was – at least in theory – designated playing fields).

Looking at the architect’s impressions and ‘fly-through’ of the building which were produced around two years ago…

…it’s incredible to now be able to work around the building and the grounds and see it finished.

The dream has become a reality.


Steps along the same path – Participatory Budgeting and Cooperative Council

Lambeth recently hosted the visit of two Participatory Budgeting experts from the US, as part of a study tour organised by Church Action on Poverty, as the culmination of their People’s Budget campaign. Josh Lerner, from the North American PB Project and Alderman Joe Moore, from Chicago met with elected members and senior officers at a roundtable event hosted by Leader Cllr. Lib Peck. 

The event provided an opportunity to hear first hand how PB is developing in the US and Canada and how it related to Lambeth’s ambitions to become a cooperative council. What I found particularly fascinating was to hear from an elected representative about their experience of ‘handing over power’ to citizens to determine how funding should be allocated to support local activity. The concept of citizens having far greater power in decision making is central to the vision of Coop Council and, like PB, is based on the underlying belief that the more people are involved in decision making the better the outcomes will be.

Alderman Moore described how after many years of determining how the discretionary capital improvement fund allocated to his Ward should be spent, 4 years ago he decided to adopt a PB approach and hand back $1m to local people to decide how to spend it. It was, in his own words ‘a leap of faith’. The first step was to introduce the idea of PB and also to tell people that there was this discretionary budget available (which many people were unaware of). An initial event, attended by around 70 people, brought together community leaders from the Ward – residents groups, school governors, faith leaders, ethnic community leaders and community groups. 

From this initial meeting around 40 people expressed interest in getting involved in helping to shape the process for allocating the money through PB. Over the next 7 months this group, working with Josh (and drawing on learning from PB in other areas) began to develop their approach. 

Meetings were held throughout the Ward where the idea for PB was set out and the parameters explained – the budget is specifically for capital improvement: no to more police officers (however good an idea that was) and yes to street improvement.

Towards the end of these meetings small groups began to brainstorm ideas that they would like to see happening and these were fed back to the rest of the group. Participants were asked if they were interested in becoming volunteers for the project – acting as community reps to further develop ideas – exploring costings, feasibility, scope etc. The ideas were then placed on a ballot paper and people voted for them. 

Two key modifications were made to the usual rules for voting in local elections; firstly the voting age was reduced from 18 to 16 to allow young people to participate. Secondly, there was no requirement to be registered to vote, people were simply required to prove that they lived in the area.

Over 1,500 people voted in the inaugural voting assembly. The results were markedly different from how the budget had been allocated the previous year, as the chart below illustrate. The significant difference between how Alderman Moore had perceived community needs and aspirations and what the community actually wanted was immediately obvious. 


Whilst street resurfacing had received 61% of the budget prior to the introduction of PB, when it was introduced, the community voted to allocate just 7% of the budget. The street resurfacing figure did increase in subsequent years to near pre-PB levels, as ideas for community projects started to receive funding; Alderman Moore has never looked back. It was also clear that the PB process generated ideas for projects that had never been done (or thought of) before.

Handing over decision making power over discretionary funding to citizens may feel quite different to giving citizens greater control over every aspect of the council’s activity. However it is important to recognise the journey that we are on in realising the Coop Council ambition. Lambeth’s residents and the council both need to gain confidence in a new way of working that establishes a more equal approach to coproducing improved outcomes for the whole community. PB may not be a panacea and it cannot be the total of our ambition, but it does offer a way of engaging residents in a more honest, transparent and knowledgeable debate about the difficult challenges faced. It offers a tangible step towards coop and one that will demonstrate our intention in a very practical way.

Find out more about the PB tour, including presentations from Josh Lerner and Joe Moore and videos of PB in action in Chicago and New York.


The Work Shop – from pop up council to coop council

Lambeth has set out its stall to become a cooperative council by 2014 and to transform the way it works in order to achieve this. One of the most important distinguishing features of this vision is to establish a fundamentally different relationship between citizens and the local authority – one based on collaboration, reciprocity and cooperation.


Changing things is tough, anyone working in large organisations or in the business of social change knows this all too well….of course it’s possible, but it can be a slog. One of things that helps creative thinking is to disrupt normal patterns of behaviour or thinking – causing us to question ‘normal’ ways of working and shakes us out of our pre-conceptions about business as usual.

We started to think about how we could begin to disrupt our normal approach to engaging residents in discussions, to develop a different, more ‘cooperative’, conversation.

The result is the Work Shop.


Lambeth Council has taken a short term let on a vacant shop on West Norwood High Street to set up the Work Shop. Over the next few weeks we will be trying to reach out to the people who live, work and visit the area and inviting them to join us for a cup of tea, a conversation and more as we explore the possibilities to work better together.

Three days a week – including some evenings and weekends, so as many people as possible are able to pop in – we will be running a programme of talks, hosted conversations and workshops on a wide range of topics. Some will be led by council officers, some by public sector partners and others by local voluntary and community groups. You can find out more about what’s going on here. But in addition to these more ‘formal’ elements, there will be plenty of more informal opportunities to engage.

We don’t expect everyone to want to come to a workshop, at least not at first….the Work Shop has installations of things going on in the area, inspirational examples of what can be achieved through collaboration, and space to capture people’s ideas of how things might be changed for the better. We’ll also be doing some asset mapping – gathering community perspectives on the services, buildings, people, talents, ambitions and passions that the local community has and values. This will be crucial in helping to inform what happens in the future and is part of a much wider shift in how Lambeth, as a Cooperative Council, views its citizens and communities.


A shop on the high street in one part of the borough for a few weeks is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a panacea for the myriad challenges we need to overcome in order to realise the vision of the Cooperative Council. Rather, it is an experiment in the art of the possible…an attempt to test out a new way of working with citizens, which we can learn from and apply to other parts of the organisation in the future.

We are not content to sit in the Town Hall and pump out laudable policy documents about how things will be different in the future. The Work Shop takes the conversation out into the community, changes the rules of engagement and, we hope, provides an opportunity for a more creative and meaningful conversation about what the Cooperative Council could be.

If you’re in the area, pop in for a cup of tea and a chat. If not, then we’ll be posting regular updates as we go along…and of course, we’d love to hear what you think!

You can find the Work Shop on twitter and flickr.

10 Tips for Effective Participation

I wrote this some years ago, but in the last few weeks i’ve had reason to dig it out and share it with people, so i figured it was worth posting here too….


It probably doesnt tell you anything you don’t know already…but hopefully serves as a useful reminder when thinking about involving people in a meaningful way.

I’d be interested to hear your own tips and hints on engagement and participation too, as well as any comments on mine.



Toby’s 10 Top Tips for Effective Participation   

1.   Built in not bolted on

Effective community engagement means thinking about it at the outset. Involving people at every stage of the process can greatly improve the quality and the sense of ownership with what’s happening.


2.   Kill apathy as a concept

Despite a widespread belief that people aren’t interested, the reality is that they do care about the issues that affect them. Start where people are at, not where you want them to be.


3.   Be clear about the constraints

Don’t promise the world if you can’t deliver it! It’s better to offer something small you can deliver than to offer something big that you can’t. Try to be clear where the boundaries are, who makes the final decisions and what resources are available.


4.   It’s a marathon not a sprint

Delivering change and regenerating communities takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul; everyone gets disheartened if things take forever to happen, but try be realistic about how long things take too.


5.   Communication x10

Show what has been achieved – it’s not just about doing it’s about letting people know how things are going. Make sure you let people know what is going on—information is always the first stage! Two-way dialogue is critical to any change process.


6.   Have a champion

The most successful strategies have someone – or often lots of people at different levels – pushing them forward who really believes in the cause. If community engagement is important, make sure it’s included as part of people’s roles.


7.   Make it meaningful

Remember that any plans you make should lead to action. Everyone gets bored of participating when nothing is actually happening. As people see things happening, confidence in the process will follow and soon there’ll be no holding them back!


8.   Assess your goals at every stage

Keep asking yourself—is what we are trying to do realistic? Targets should be clear and achievable (SMART) and have milestones along the way. But don’t be afraid to change direction as you go along if that makes more sense.


9.   Be prepared to be unprepared

If you think you know exactly what’s going to happen, it’s probably not engagement. Don’t try to stifle or control the process too much. Be flexible and prepared to respond to what’s happening around you.


10.       Have fun!

Anything new can be scary but remember to have fun! Fun is not the F-word and if you want people to get involved it’s got to appeal. After all, well-being is important to us all.