Taking power – the inspiring story of Tony Gibson

Taking power – the inspiring story of Tony Gibson
Ed Mayo
29.04.14

We have lost one of our great community activists and innovators in participation this week. Tony Gibson, who developed the participatory toolkit, Planning for Real, and helped tough neighbourhoods across the country to turn around, died just short of his 95th birthday. He was a passionate, co-operative Quaker and a determined force of nature.

Tony made his name on the Meadow Well Estate, Tyneside, hit by riots – as Nancy Peters, who started the local credit union with Tony’s support, said at the time “at one time, you could leave the door open, people wouldn’t venture in and steal but now whether your door’s open or shut, they need the money to survive and its the same with children. The shoplifting, the aggression, the anger. I have never seen anything like it.” Starting with a talent survey of random houses in 1991, residents came together to respond, with the idea of ‘a new heart for Meadow Well’ in the form of a development centre built on a discredited youth centre. The response, though, was inertia. Despite the efforts of one sympathetic local employee from the Council, a senior officer was heard to say “those fuckers couldn’t plan a pram shed.” A decision was taken, instead, simply to close the youth centre.

As this dragged on over five hot Summer months, the residents started to drop out and then… a group of young people locally burned down the youth centre. What followed was two days and nights of riots, with fires, a burned out corner shop, pot shots at a police helicopter cruising above. The riots forced everyone to think again. The working party held estate-wide elections to form a group that could negotiate with outsiders. They used Tony’s Planning for Real approach, which creates a mock-up of the neighbourhood, from trash on the ground to buildings up high, on a table that people can then walk around, explore and together discuss options for improvement. This led to the development of a new community building, launched with a fun day. The first of many community-led improvements, it was the first building scheme in the borough that had taken shape from day one to completion without a single case of vandalism or theft.

I worked with Tony in support of a similar pilot on the Teviot Estate in East London and with colleagues such as Pat Conaty, we developed an early training course on community economic development. It was called Nutshell – one of Tony’s acronyms, which stood for ‘neighbourhood use of time, space, homes and environment for livelihood and leisure’. Rather than start with money (the conventional economic or philanthropic route), Tony guided us to start by matching local resources to local needs. Nutshell was the potential for great oaks in every tiny acorn.

Planning for Real become an exemplar for the new participatory practice of community planning and open decision-making. This and other tools are now mainstream – for example with planning for real championed by the mutual housing group, Accord (a member of Co-operatives UK) and the UK participation charity, Involve, which I am proud to be trustee and chair of, recently completing work on open government and designing a new participative accountability frame for the NHS in England. But the tools were always designed to be one part of a wider culture change and here, Tony’s work is still unfinished.

Together with Toby Gibson and regeneration academic Stephen Thake, I wrote an impassioned strategy in early 1997, arguing for a new model of local economic renewal in the UK – Taking Power, published by the New Economics Foundation, with support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. In memory of Tony, whom I can’t think of without smiling, I repeat below the introduction and conclusion of that (now probably lost, online) paper.

Introduction: New imagination

As a society, the changes being forced on us are mind-blowing. There is not much we can take for granted any longer. This is neither a minus nor a plus: it is a fact of social and economic evolution which happens to be breathtakingly sudden. How we react to it, whether we feel helpless or exhilarated, depends on how we choose to think.

There are a hundred and one starting points for local community action, but all have one thing in common. It is the day you or a neighbour step over a broken pavement or rubbish dumped in a corner and say, not ‘someone’ should do something, but ‘we’ should do something.

Many more steps will have to follow. Everyone has a role to play. Communities are full of unused energy, talent, skills and knowledge. Once this is unlocked, great changes can take place.

But for every starting point, there are many premature end points, marked by the failure of those with power outside to let go. The change in mindset also has to work for the people who are, in Tolstoy’s words, sitting on the backs of the poor, decrying their condition, and willing to do anything but get off their back. This includes letting people make mistakes and giving the time needed for a participative local democracy to develop great deeds by small steps.

We have a choice of mindsets as a country.

The first is a continuation of the current paradigm of laissez-faire. This is the mindset of those who promise growth and a better tomorrow, but connive at cutting communities adrift through the rationing of welfare and resources.

The second is a commitment to a new paradigm in which communities can become agents rather than victims, with programmes that enable them to attack the structures of dependency and retake control of their destiny.

Conclusion: Power and poverty

Taking power means seeing what Vaclav Havel called ‘the power of powerlessness’. Typically, we identify power with ‘the powers that be’, those with money, political or police authority. But in its origin, power simply means the ‘ability to do or effect something or anything or act upon a person or thing’. This is not ‘power over’ but ‘power to do’. Taking power is not a revolution intended to establish a new hierarchy, but the subversive act of simply recalling how much we can do with those around us to change our own situation.

Tackling poverty means that we all have to see that this is for us: poverty is not something that happens to someone else (and no-one likes to think they are poor, however many research reports say they are). Poverty means relationships breaking up, bring fearful on the streets, not knowing your neighbours, losing your job, your child having asthma.

Perhaps the closest metaphors historically for what is implied are the 19th century campaigns for public health, or the 20th century creation of the National Health Service. It will require an all party commitment stretching over a generation, to implement. It will require public support and an understanding that community action can work.

We hope that this will fill a void in current thinking and offers a radical alternative to the rise of alienation in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. But it will require real change and devolution, and not the usual incorporation into other people’s agendas to serve other ends. That is the challenge.”