I’ve been lucky enough to work in my own neighbourhood, Beeston, for most of the last thirteen years. It’s not just talking about the savings on travel I like, although it is better than the previous ten years when I had a daily commute of an hour and a quarter each way. I say I’ve been “lucky” because I think I can do a better job if I really understand the context of where I’m working.
When you move house, how long does it take you to get to know your new community, who’s who, how things work? It’s a good few years, perhaps a bit quicker if you’re a dog walker, or have school age children.
In the public services there seems to be an unofficial Three Year Rule. Apparently you must change jobs every three years and if at all possible go and work in a different place. I’ve lost count of the number of Community Police Inspectors who have come along to meetings and promised that whilst their predecessor had moved on, they were going to be here for a while. They had usually been replaced by the next meeting.
One consequence is resident fatigue. Some of us are getting tied of telling the story of our neighbourhood and producing lists of organisations and people that “you really must talk to if you want to get to know the area”.
One of the problems that Beeston and Belle Isle face is a lack of “social capital”. I’m not sure I could give you a proper definition of social capital. For me it’s about who is chatting at the school gate and what the conversation is. If you or your partner is in a high-powered job, you might be talking about the plans for a new housing estate or new road and how that’s going to impact on you. If you are struggling to get by on benefits, it’s more likely to be about which shop is selling milk cheapest this week. I suppose it’s about how high your horizons are.
The road or the housing estate could be being built in Middleton or Moortown and have just as much impact on local parents. But more people in Moortown will know about it before the diggers move in and will know who to lobby to get the plans changed.
Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of people doing lots of good things in South Leeds, but few of us have the influence that comes from having the right connections.
By the way, it’s not a conspiracy. When I interviewed Cllr Angela Gabriel recently she explained that she made officers come out of the Civic Hall to meetings in South Leeds. She said most of them live in North Leeds so they see the issues there and try to deal with them. They don’t come to places like South Leeds so they don’t pick up on our issues.
There’s a man in Glasgow called Bob Holman. He gave up his job as a Professor of Social Administration and moved his family to Easterhouse (think Belle Isle in tower blocks). He set up a local charity to help families struggling with poverty and all its consequences. If you want the sharpest analysis of government policy (this shower or the last Labour government) Bob’s your man. And the reason is that he lives it day to day rather looking at the issues from some comfortable ivory tower.
Living where you work can have its downsides. I used to work with a housing officer in Preston called Amanda. She said it was good to be on the same wavelength as her tenants, but she got a bit fed up being asked about repairs whilst she taking children swimming.
We have lots of very committed “public servants” in South Leeds. Teachers, social workers, housing officers, bin men, youth workers. The vast majority do a very good job. I just think they could do an even better job if they lived in South Leeds too.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re a glutton for punishment and use Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.