I’ve just returned from the first of three ‘Camden Summits’: community events in which residents, officers, councillors and representatives of businesses and voluntary sector organisations have been invited to come together and share ‘views on the public disorder in Camden’. To my chagrin, an astute member of the public named causes which in my previous blog I missed: the British Board of Film Classification and 9 o’clock watershed.
That aside, it was a fairly typical community meeting. Fronted by Cllr Nasim Ali, with additional perspectives from Borough Commander John Sutherland and CNJ news editor Richard Osley, the evening opened with a series of reflections and questions before being opened up to the floor: over one hundred sat around circular tables, with plenty offering comments, questions and opinions (many of which were not altogether relevant).
This is a brief blog, and not one intended to analyse the meeting itself. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t brilliant. It was my first encounter with the Borough Commander, and I have respect for Cllr Ali. It was nice to see Richard Osley’s opinions added to the mix, a voice problematising and questioning some of the assumptions and narratives being articulated, in that won’t-quite-go-away kind of way. But I think there’s a bigger question we have to ask.
I don’t know how other local authorities or communities have responded to the riots. I don’t know whether what Camden has done in having these conversations is beyond or short of what others are doing. But it did strike me on the journey home, that we should be very clear about one thing. These summits are not about finding solutions. They are not about seizing an opportunity presented by the seismic but all-too-temporary moment we experienced in the evenings of early August. That’s not intended as a criticism: they should be measured against what they’re intending to achieve. I’d certainly prefer they were happening than they weren’t. But, they are at best an opportunity for a collection of people to air their views, and to air views that may well be fed back into the various meetings which have been set up. This is not a bad thing. But it is not more than this.
Any sensible person who has taken the opportunity to sit back and observe the quite frankly endless cascades of analysis and comment since the riots happened will be well aware that the causes, explanations and justifications being given are a dime a dozen. Even those with a certain (sometimes party political) aversion to particular analyses and positions should be able to understand that the truth resides across a wide range of causes and symptoms. For example: Is it a poverty-related issue? Yes. Is it a values-related issue? Yes. Is it an isolated instance? Not really. Is it inexcusable criminality? Well, sort of. I mean, yes. But that sort of feels like an easy answer.
The riots give us a rare and once-in-a-generation (hopefully not more) opportunity to genuinely reflect and to fashion an ambitious, visionary and integritous response to the direction in which our society is moving. If we were serious about this response, we would for starters be taking at minimum a month to engage every demographic across the borough we could think of, through all sorts of fora: community meetings, surveys and questionnaires, innovative stakeholder consultation initiatives, going door-to-door, inviting opinion pieces, setting up online spaces. We’d be casting the net far and wide, and we’d be organising what we were learning into different categories: Questions. Opinions. Analysis. Randoms.
We’d then be looking at how we could explore these findings further. Why not group them into several major categories? Why not look at the research and reflections on these areas published elsewhere? Why not engage expert organisations in these categories around their opinions? Why not hold a lecture series or discussion panels in which these subjects were outlined and debated? Why not bring them together in a way which sought to understand the different and complex factors at play and how they have contributed, interacted and resulted in the riots?
And then, the ‘where next’. Perhaps this is the biggest sacrifice we need to accept when we can only afford to invest minimal resources in such a process. It would be extraordinary if the entire purpose of this process was to develop a manifesto for change in Camden. To explore the very holistic and wide-ranging requirements of us as a borough – individually, in our communities, in our businesses and organisations, in our council – which need to be thought about and addressed. The cuts, the Future Jobs Fund, sponsoring a young person, ensuring the Education Commission is engaged in these debates, challenging VCS organisations to and civil society to adopt deliberate approaches which support communitarianism rather than individualism. Real suggestions to real causes developed through real discussion.
Of course, this is an ambitious remit and not one which we feel is affordable given the terrible constraints on public spending we’re currently facing. There are also legitimate critiques of this back-of-an-envelope suggestion. What can be done about areas which typically are the responsibility of central rather than local government? Where does the resource for this process come from? Does our political system allow space for questioning rather than asserting? But we should be clear. Discussing, understanding, analysing and responding to this challenge cannot be done meaningfully in one, two or three Camden summits. If the riots are to become a turning point, a learning moment: then we should be bucking a trend and investing in a process which does it justice. This evening reinforced my sense that we have some very impressive people in Camden. How can we afford not to take the opportunity?