South of the River – I will survive

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I’ve been to a couple of meetings this week that have reminded me that there’s a difference between starting a project and keeping it going.

Sixteen years ago I was one of a group of people sat around a table in what was then Trinity Church on Tempest Road discussing how to spend £7 million (I think) of regeneration funding. It’s interesting to look back at decisions taken then and where the projects we started have got to today.

I was working for Leeds Fed at the time and part of my responsibility was a community safety project. It doesn’t exist today, but in many ways it was a success. We piloted a neighbourhood warden, this role got taken over and expanded by the council before being an early casualty of local government funding cuts. It’s not all bad news, it was the start of the crime and grime agenda and making the council more responsive to rubbish problems.

We also had one of the first dedicated anti-social behaviour workers. Again this is now a service provided across the city by the council. Finally I like to think we helped the Police move towards community policing, by forming a partnership – not always easy in the early years – between the statutory sector, third sector and the community.

One of the earliest conceived and last to be delivered projects was the refurbishment of the tennis courts in Cross Flatts Park. As I recall, funding came from four separate sports bodies to match our contribution. It was fraught but finally happened.

I must admit that I had a nagging doubt about this project. The courts clearly needed improvement if people were to use them for sport, but what if they got trashed after all that money was spent? I needn’t have worried, ten years on the courts are in almost constant use and nearly always for sporting activities. They need some maintenance now, but that’s after ten years that’s not bad.

One issue I’ll come back to is the knowledge held by those in at the start of a project and how it gets passed on. Someone from Youth Services mentioned to me recently that it was pity the floodlights didn’t work. “But they do” I said, “you just have to ask the Parks staff to turn them on.” I’m looking forward to more evening youth work in the park this autumn.

Perhaps the centrepiece project was the creation of the Hamara Centre and Building Blocks, by the Faith Together in Leeds 11 coalition. This well-named group brought together local Christian and Muslim organisations and other non-religious groups. The point was they all had faith in their community.

As well as the tapestry of funding required, the project included land and property swaps from the Methodist and Anglican churches. The Hamara Centre was built by refurbishing and extending the Trinity church where we met and Building Blocks was built on the site of Holy Spirit’s church hall. There was some inspired deal making as disparate groups chose to work together, but how did the projects fare?

I think it’s fair to say that both projects stumbled after their initial revenue funding ran out. This is when the going gets tough, as I discovered at Hillside some time later. Hamara forged new partnerships particularly with health and sport have gone from strength to strength.

Building Blocks moved from a focus on parents with crèche facilities to becoming a nursery. In fact it became a very good one (read the Ofsted reports) and a successful social enterprise. It’s now reached a point where it makes sense for them to own the building, which they are moving towards doing.

The only trouble is … some of those clever and bold collaborative decisions were not written down. Or at least the people now in charge of the many organisations involved don’t know where they were written down. Don’t worry, it will all get untangled and sorted out. My point is that as organisations mature over time staff and trustees leave and are replaced. New people bring new skills and strengths, but people leaving also take invaluable knowledge with them.

There’s a handy phrase for what happens when new groups start. They go through four stages – form, storm, norm, perform. For organisations I think we have to add to this list: survive; repurpose; and in the best cases get back to plan A from a position of strength. I do apologise that none of these words end in –orm, but that organisational stamina is essential.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.