9/07/2015

How David Cameron's 'Big Society' began in Birmingham's Balsall Heath

A Birmingham community has become the inspiration behind David Cameron’s vision of a Big Society. Edward Chadwick discovers how Balsall Heath residents have transformed their suburb.
Baskets bursting with colour hang from rows of inner-city terraced houses.
Volunteers sip cold drinks delivered by neighbours while they help to clear a rubbish-strewn garden. Residents on every street have a say how money should be spent locally.
It sounds like urban utopia but in fact it’s an everyday scene played out at the heart of Birmingham’s blueprint for the Government’s Big Society initiative.
Balsall Heath Forum
And what makes the example set by Balsall Heath all the more remarkable is the fact that it was once crawling with prostitutes, crack dealers and pimps, an area where residents were too terrified to walk their own streets.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Prime Minister David Cameron should use the neighbourhood to paint a picture of his vision to cure the country’s ailments.
His flagship policy will, he promises, hand power to every man and woman as communities take over the role of the state. They will get the right to run local recycling services and amenities free from the shackles of town hall bureaucracy.
Funded by a Big Society Bank, communities will be able to flourish in a move which Mr Cameron has vowed will stop them becoming “soulless clones of one another”.
And the reality in Balsall Heath isn’t far removed from the picture painted by Tory leader in his announcement last month.
Dick Atkinson, the chief executive of Balsall Heath Forum and architect of this unique social enterprise, is happy the success has been recognised, but tempers that with a warning.
Victory has taken nearly two decades since a group of residents who grew sick of the sight of vice girls took to street corners with placards and shamed them in to taking the sex trade elsewhere.
Balsall Heath Forum
Campaigners worked eight-hour night shifts patrolling the streets on top of their full-time jobs and some were attacked as they fought tooth and nail to wrestle their neighbourhood out of the clutches of the criminals.
But, hard-fought as it was, the triumph came slowly but surely. The forum now employs 15 people and can rely on an army of 120 volunteers at any time.
One of the biggest battles remains the struggle to raise the £400,000 annual budget and projects have been slowed by council suspicion.
But Dr Atkinson hopes the Government’s new commitment will help to make funding more accessible and clear some of the red tape the forum finds itself having to negotiate.
He has also dashed suggestions that many neighbourhoods lack the will or ability to make changes.
He discovered people like 56-year-old father of five Abdul Hamid in Balsall Heath. Mr Hamid was one of those men who patrolled the streets, claiming them back inch by inch, and is now a street warden for the forum.
“It took us four years to get rid of the prostitutes and the kerb crawlers,” said the former market trader. “I was out every night on top of my other job and so were other people.
“People ask me why I did it and it’s simple – I didn’t want to see prostitutes sitting on my wall any more or go to the shop for bread and milk and come back with a black eye and no money.”
“Every neighbourhood has people like Abdul,” Dr Atkinson adds. “But it’s only once they realise that they can make difference by coming together that they become empowered.
“There needs to be a sheepdog to guide them, especially when funding is so hard to come by. What I would say to the Government is that you can’t start at the stage we are at now. Of course it would have been easier if the money had been there and it would have made it easier for others to follow us.”
Dr Atkinson has every right to feel aggrieved about the lack of funding.
He says that a fraction of the forum’s annual budget comes from police and Birmingham City Council, he estimates he has saved the police as much as £1 million a year by tackling crime.
On top of that, the retired college lecturer believes a total of £90 million has been added to the value of the area’s city-owned housing stock.
Balsall Heath Forum
It all paints a healthy picture of a suburb where residents say they are the most satisfied in the city, according to a survey.
While it would be easy to assume that satisfaction is born out of falling crime levels and the sight of hundreds of planters and hanging baskets which have replaced the prostitutes on street corners, a report by the right-wing think tank Demos suggests it stems from street level democracy.
The work of the forum has been underpinned by about 20 residents’ associations, some covering only a few streets but wielding genuine influence and powers of persuasion.
That is a fact recognised by Demos author Max Wind-Cowie who says such grass roots democracy is one of the “bedrock components” for Big Society.
His paper, Civic Streets, was launched in Balsall Heath and focuses not only on the forum, but also the example of Castle Vale, where the resident-led Castle Vale Community Housing Association has achieved similar successes.
“Communities that come together, establish a plan of action, and consult the wider community have already demonstrated collective efficacy and commitment to improving their neighbourhoods,” states the report.
“This is a vital first step, and should be a pre-requisite for the kind of radical devolution of funding and power that this report promotes.”
The man who has helped to promote democracy in Balsall Heath is Abdullah Rehman, who quit his job as a shopkeeper to become a “capacity builder” responsible for setting up new groups and ensuring attendance stays healthy.
“It’s down to nothing more than getting people to develop the confidence that things can change,” he said. “They don’t have to see a huge victory, it can be the small things that get the ball rolling and then you go from there.
“But we can’t tell people how to do it because every neighbourhood is different.
‘‘They have to learn for themselves but I think the Government can help them to do that.”
Mr Rehman and his family played host to Mr Cameron when he came to witness first hand the mechanics of Big Society in action in 2007.
The Tory leader still writes to Mr Rehman’s young daughters and if Big Society takes root elsewhere, he might owe a few more letters of thanks to that corner of Birmingham.