Transcript: Imagining the Future: public debate part three

Sir Harry Burns, keynote listener offers his thoughts and reflections on the full debate. This is followed by a discussion on key priorities and challenges for change in social services over the coming years.

Podcast Episode: Imagining the Future: public debate part three

Category: Social work (general) 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

HB - Harry Burns
LR - Lesley Riddoch

As part of the Iriss, Imagining The Future of Social Services project, led by Robert Rae, a series of creative events were held in Govan over May 2014, to explore aspirations for the future from a locality perspective and to think about the changes that need to be made now and in the coming years. One of the events was a public debate on the subject of Social Justice, Chaired by the Journalist, Lesley Riddoch. This is the final episode of three covering the debate. Sir Harry Burns, keynote listener, offers his thoughts and reflections on the full debate. This is followed by a discussion on key priorities and challenges for change in social services over the coming years.

HB I didn’t want to say anything - I wanted to just come here and listen, because I have spoken enough over the past few years about all of this. But a number of themes came out to me, and it might be helpful to you if I try and crystallise some of it. There are lots of … to begin with, there were lots of interesting themes that really resonated with the work I have been doing over the past few years. The idea of memory and the idea of connection to place and connection to people is a very powerful thing in society. When you look across the world at groups of people who have been displaced from traditional ways of living, from traditional placed particularly, they all develop great inequalities in wellbeing - alcohol, drugs, violence - in traditional communities that have just been uprooted and moved away - it’s a common theme. And the things that have happened over the past 20, 30, 40 years in West Central Scotland, have certainly been a great upheaval - the loss of jobs, the loss of iconic jobs like in the shipyards and so on, the loss of tenements. Now, you know, in public health terms, the tenements were a nightmare - the stairhead toilets … I remember when I started in medicine in the last 60’s, there were 6,000 cases of shigella dysentery in Glasgow tenements. Dysentery doesn’t exist anymore - but the shared, the communal toilets, and so on - the tenements needed to be dealt with. But in dealing with the tenements, community was destroyed. As we heard, the way in which the women particularly in the closes were great … were the glue, the social glue that held things together - it was very powerful. And people were decanted all over the city, they were put 20 storeys up, they lost all their friends and the people who they had spent many years learning to trust. And that question “trust” went through my mind. The story we heard about the colleague here in the front who was burgled and his neighbour’s immediate response was “it wisnae me” - Glaswegians don’t trust their neighbours. I have scientific evidence for that. We looked closely at 3 cities in the United Kingdom that all have the same levels of income disparity, the same gap between rich and poor - Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. And we asked 1,000 people in each city a whole series of questions about their lives and so on. And a couple of the questions we asked - first of all “do you trust your neighbour” - Glaswegians had a far lower “yes” answer than the other 2 cities, particularly Liverpool. We also asked them “if you lost your wallet or your purse, do you think your neighbour would hand it into the police?” Glaswegians were far less likely to say “yes”. Glaswegians are far less likely to volunteer than citizens of these other cities, far less likely to belong to an organisation like a church or something like that.

We are a society that has become slightly separated from our neighbours. Although we think of ourselves as friendly and so on, actually the evidence is, when you go out and survey 1,000 people, we are not as good as we think we are at that. So the question here about … if community is the answer, we are not starting from a particularly easy standpoint. And I would take it here, you know, you are the exception because you are here - you are here because you want to do something, you are here because you care. My style of … I always finish a lecture, whenever I give a lecture on this, particularly if it’s south of the border, because I talk about people being in control of their own lives and people making decisions for themselves, and the function of society is to help support them do that. And some smart Alec down south will always say “oh, so you are a fan of Mr Cameron’s big society then?” And that’s the point at which I put up the picture of Jimmy Reid, who in 1971 in his rectorial address at Glasgow University, talked about alienation - the cry of men who are the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control - the feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification they have no say in shaping or determining their own destinies. Jimmy Reid nailed it - he understood what was beginning to happen in our community. And for the past 40 years we have failed to act on it - we have failed to realise what the remedies are. And we keep talking in the Health Service about health inequalities - we don’t mean health inequalities - we mean disease inequalities. Health - the positive sense of wellbeing, the positive sense of being in control of your life is created by a completely different set of drivers. And those clear drivers are community and connectedness and care and compassion. But they are also connected by action. And I don’t … one of the reasons I left … I mean I don’t want to analyse the problem anymore - I want to do something about it.

There is stuff that needs to be done at a political level. The notion that emerged in the 70’s, 80’s of trickle down - you know, economic growth is wonderful and all the benefits of it will trickle down to the poorest in Society, is clearly bollocks, okay? And that’s not me as a non-economist. One of the things I try to do is stick to the science I know. The two people who have … maybe they haven’t used that word, I don’t know, but Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize Winning Economist - he has held chairs in every prestigious university in the world, and at the age of 80 he is now Professor of Philosophy & Economics are Harvard Univesity. Amartya Sen contrasts India, where there are huge disparities, with China, where the disparities have narrowed over the past 20, 30 years. Both societies that have seen huge economic growth - in India, trickle down has been left to happen. The poor don’t vote, you know, the middle classes get all the subsidies because they are the ones that determine who the government is going to be. China - policy is decided by 20 people - the politburo decides, and the politburo over the past 30 years has decided to make sure that the poor get facilities. Governments have to act if inequality is going to be dealt with. I mean you have to decide over the coming months which government is most likely to act - is it the one down south and what that might look like next year when goodness knows who the Tories may be in coalition with. Or is it another government that we might have up here - and I won’t say any more than that - I don’t want to get into fights. But the action, as well as dealing with things at that level - the action that we have to take starts here, and it should start now. We are all going away - we are thinking about the trials and tribulations that we have heard of colleagues who are dealing with homeless people, people who can’t get jobs because they have got a criminal record and so on - what can we do starting now? And I am thinking about the impossibility of tackling some of these things.

I mean you think “what can we do?” I was in New York a few weeks ago - I have got a son who works there and I was over visiting him - and I went to see a lady who in 2010 started an organisation called ‘The 100,000 Homes Campaign’, just on her own. She had decided that she had seen enough rough sleepers in New York. And she decided that she wasn’t just going to fix New York - she was going to try and fix America. And they calculated there were about 100,000 rough sleepers across the States. Since 2010, as of last May … no, last April, she had found homes for 85,000 people, and these were people who had been sleeping rough for an average of 7 years. And what she said was she started off by setting up a thing that she called a ‘vulnerability score’, you know, a bit of bureaucracy … you can’t do anything without bureaucracy. So this was a questionnaire that she went round, and she got all the volunteers to go round and waken up people who were sleeping under cardboard boxes and rags and in doorways and things like that, to ask them questions like - did they have any addictions - had they ever had frostbite - all this kind of thing. But the first question they asked them, the volunteers asked, was “what’s your name?” And then it became personal. She said that was the single most important question that they asked - because it wasn’t just that person in that doorway, it was Fred who had been in the army and he had become an alcoholic and he had post-traumatic stress syndrome, and he had been wandering the country for 10 years. But he had had frostbite and the winter was coming on, and if they didn’t get Fred fixed he would die this year. And it became personal. And we can’t escape this without it getting personal - this has to be about interpersonal connections - it has to be about the people we know in difficulty and the people we don’t know that are in difficulty, but who have something to offer us, and we have something to offer them.

I have got very interested in a thing recently called Asset Based Community Development, and it sounds very jargonish and so on - ABCD is probably as good an algorithm as you can get. In fact we have just created Asset Based Community Development, so it’s now even better, ABCDE. And it’s based on the theory that institutions have gone about as far as they can go - institutions have reached their limits in what they can do. Because, you know, doctors, social workers, whatever - you have got 10 minute appointments, they have got rules and regulations, they are limited in what they can do, there are all sorts of rules that stop them being human beings - although god knows, they all want to be and they try very hard and so on. But if we are really going to make a transformational change we need to be compassionate to each other, we need to care for each other. And in doing so, the first point to start on all of this is everyone has gifts, everyone has something that they can bring to the party - it doesn’t matter what troubled life they have had, what difficulties they are in, everybody has something inside them waiting to be awakened that they can bring and share with others. And the way in which those gifts are revealed to all of us is through relationships - trusting relationships - being there for folk because they are in a bit of difficulty - and because we have been there before, we know what it is like, it could be us. “You need a bit of a helping hand. So there’s my phone no. - anytime you have a problem just give me a phone and if I can help, I will”. That’s the start of it all. And in showing that to other people they learn that they have gifts - they learn that they have something to bring, and an awakening occurs, a transformation occurs. And I have seen it happen umpteen times.

The last 8 years I have gone round Scotland and I have collected stories you wouldn’t believe - the wonderful story of wee Annie who lives in the East End of Glasgow who, for 7 years, didn’t leave her house after her husband died. Now she didn’t leave her house because her self-worth was rock bottom. She couldn’t read or write, she was terrified about making her way around the East End and so on. So she just stayed in her house and her neighbours did her shopping for her. And then some folk in this project that were trying to help produce a healthier East end knocked on the door and found her - and they went back, and they went back again, and they shared cups of tea and they shared chat. And eventually Annie was given the strength to say “okay, I will come out and I will be part of this”. And when I went to see her, wee Annie was sitting in the corner and I listened to her story and so on - and then after she told me her story she said “actually I will have to go now, I have got something to do” - and she went away and the others were smiling. They said to me “do you know what Annie is away to do?” “No, I don’t know what she’s away to do”. “She’s away to take the belly-dancing class at the community centre”. She was the star belly-dancer. We have all got gifts - and relationships allow us to reveal those gifts to ourselves. People care about something - just find out what it is and let it come to the surface. Listen and ask, don’t tell. The problem with public services is we do things to people - we don’t do enough things with people. We don’t allow people to help coproduce their solutions. So if I were to try and bring what I have learned over the past 8 years going round Scotland listening to this kind of thing, it’s about create an association of citizens and welcome people in, and they will come in and they will bring fabulous gifts that they didn’t know they had - and you will just spread that … what Alistair was talking about - the welcoming, the fostership and so on - that will be what Govan is known for - and that will spread. And it will spread and Glasgow will become friendlier than Liverpool. Actually when I went to Liverpool I said “but I thought you were the same as Glasgow - Liverpool, Everton - all that kind of stuff”. They said “no, no, Liverpool and Everton fans stand together on the terracing - we don’t care who beats Manchester United”. So I’ve learned a lot tonight, but I’m really seized with the need to do things and get together, start talking, ask people what is needed, and ask who can bring some help - because gifts will appear on the table as if from nowhere. Will that do?

LR That’s great, thank you. Thanks very much to Harry. We have a sort of impossible task now of trying to sum up some key priorities for change, key challenges to change and what change would look like by 2025. Now I don’t know if anyone has got quite … it’s the end of the evening, probably the blood sugars are a bit low - but I think we can probably get at least a few key pointers in these fields. So there is a gentleman right at the back - have we still got Robert awake and handy at the microphone … away at the back.

M Thanks, Centre for Human Ecology and a Govan resident. I would actually like to touch on a little bit about Asset Based Community Development, which I have got very mixed feelings about, and it’s something that … certainly its original form came out of work of John McKnight who was part of (… unclear) Circle, and it was very radical. But I don’t think there is anyone in the room who works in the voluntary sector who hasn’t heard of Asset Based Community Development, because it’s very much flavour of the month. And I think Nicky over there had mentioned earlier about the work we did last month with Lynn Freidley who is a major critic of Asset Based Community Development because she thinks it is a kind of smile or die attitude, and it actually doesn’t necessarily talk about human rights - and it maybe doesn’t necessarily talk about social justice. So actually it’s quite easy to fit Asset Based Community Development into a cuts agenda and into welfare reform. So part of what is also influenced by Amartya Sen who Harry Burns mentioned, and she suggests his capability based approach - so it’s looking at poverty, or going without poverty as Amartya Sen defines it, as being able to live without shame. So you can’t actually avoid talking about … what about for example a human rights based community development, or a social justice based community development? That is not so easy to be co-opted maybe by those who might say “there’s plenty of assets in this community - you have had your lot - deal with it”. In fact it’s possible to say actually it’s a bit more than that and there needs to be a little bit of actually resistance to what is going on as well as a recognition of what the assets are.

LR Okay, can I just see - I would be fair to let Harry respond, but are there other points? Let’s just sweep them all up and then we can move on. Can we have responses - is everybody here wanting to respond to the asset based ideas of Harry?

F Hi, I would just like to say that a lot of what we have been talking about is resilience - and Glasgow has been selected as one of one hundred cities globally of resilience by the Rockefellar Foundation. And what Glasgow sees … what Glasgow city sees as resilience is the resilience to climate change, to carbon capture, to global warming. And so these are things that you can count, you can link to renewable energy, you can link to recycling - and they are countable. And the problem with a lot of what we have been talking about here in the course of the evening is that it is not something that is easily quantifiable. So we are talking about wellbeing - we have had problems with the definitions of what a community is - these are really difficult things to define, much less to count. And I think that if we are going to get … someone asked me, I think the gentleman over there asked me when I was sitting up at the front what local authorities and agencies need to do to move forward, what do I think that is? And I think that we have to, whether for right or for wrong, we have to give them, at least in the short term, something that they can count. And we have to use a Trojan horse to actually perhaps push through the wellbeing and the things that we believe are ethically and morally part of social justice - but we have to do that at least in the short term, in a way that is countable in order for it to happen even remotely quickly. And then hopefully things will change.

LR Right, Harry I will let you come back again - can we just have David. I know a little of Lambhill Stable’s current predicament which speaks directly to the difficulty of trying to have sustainable assets, but anyway …

D Well I will try and condense it. First of all I have to fundamentally disagree with virtually everything you have said - particularly the statement that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist. Because unfortunately, the counting bit is at the end of the process, not at the beginning. However the practical question we were challenged to address is how are we going to act? And I would like to suggest that in the same way that Alistair mentioned GalGael, I work at Lambhill Stables - we have a constant need for resource which makes us resort to filling in funding applications. I am aware that Harry is involved in a concept known as Social Prescription, which means to say that GP’s and health and social workers can prescribe activities for people, rather than doping … well medicating them and so on and so forth. And I would like to suggest, if it is true that the institutions have gone as far as they can do in trying to … building disease palaces is a good example, just across the way there where the Southern General is - to put resources back into the communities and to provide meaningful occupational activities - that combines occupation, education, training and employment within the community. And I would say that that resource exists within the NHS and within the social work departments. So, over to you Harry.

LR Right, and Peter, and then we will hear from Harry. And then I want 3 speakers who have got an idea of what we need to see changed by 2025, and we are done. Peter …

P Well on the Asset Based Community Development, my reason for being here, the service that I use in Govan is addiction recovery - and having gone through the NHS where I was treated like a lab rat, I have to say, to be honest, and felt like the rat that Jimmy Reid talked about in terms of the rat race - when I came into community rehab and got involved with the Recovery Movement, I have to say I would pay tribute to the government’s current approach there where it is no longer about treating the people of whom they are afraid, it is about seeing people … when we talk about Asset Based Community Development we see ourselves as assets. My friends and neighbours go to GalGael - people sit and argue over who is going to get the next shot at going to GalGael - people love it - it has got a real prestige and a real status. So that I think if people see the Tory vision … I would say Asset Based Community Development is probably right, because if the Tories are taking it and turning it into Big Society, which is not Asset Based Community Development, they see the power in it. I think in Scotland, when I was going through the process … and I am very much involved now and absolutely love it, I have to say, it reminded me of my perception of the experience of the people I know like Maureen and Jim from the Independent Living Movement, which the fundamental thing that needed to happen there was for disabled people not to be perceived as a burden or as a problem, but as citizens with status and dignity and rights, and control over the resources to design their own services. It worked in disability. It is working in … Glasgow is going to get well - I can see it and feel it in the people that I know and my friends. And yes, give us the keys … take your point Lesley from the start about getting the keys to assets - if you give us the keys to premises, yes that might be handy because we would get out the rain - but the keys that we really need are the keys to the resources and the funds and the budgets. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend giving us complete control over them - well certainly not me - my bank referee would referee that statement if anyone doubts what I am saying. But the phrase that Harry used about cooperation … it’s an awful lot of terminology - do we normally get this amount of terminology in Govan - I am struggling with it a little bit. But cooperation between us and the service users - we sit down with the service providers and talk about what we are going to put on, what we are going to do as part of the process of everybody getting well and people making a contribution - working, training, volunteering, building boats. People build boats in Govan and they feel good about it - who knew, who knew? We’ve been doing it for decades - I think it’s a fantastic project. We just need to do more of that. I’ll finish with one little anecdote - so practically we need to map the things that we are already …stop beating ourselves up and give people credit - GalGael, stuff that Harry is talking about, the Recovery Movement - map those things … the Disability Movement - we should actually just go to a seminar run by Maureen and Jim and listen to their experience of battling for control over resources. But a wee anecdote - this year the trade unions in Glasgow invited recovery activists to come and front the May Day March, which was great - people were really excited about doing that - an unnamed local MP who is used to walking at the front of the march and getting their photograph taken came round the corner and said to the organisers “who are these undesirables at the front of the march?” and took his place back in the crowd. Now the question I am going to put to him next time I see him, because we fund him … aye, just as tax payers, but as a member of the trade union movement we fund him … if we are undesirable when we are clean and sober and we are undesirable when we are addicted, what you are saying is we are undesirable full stop. I know we are not, but I know he is.

HB The problem with terminology is that the system always wants to keep on doing what it has always done. So it just calls it something … it just borrows the new words and it applies that to its traditional ways of working. So I have heard a lot of talk about Asset Based Community Development in the West of Scotland - I have never seen any - I have never seen any that is properly Asset Based Community Development as I see it. The assets involved - people always think of the assets as the local public park or the sports centre - the assets are the people - that is the key thing. And it’s simply a process by which individuals learn to take control of their lives and how they are supported in doing so by a system that works with them and doesn’t do things to them - that is the fundamental thing. And I haven’t seen proper Asset Based Community Development. There is maybe a wee hint of it down in Ayrshire just now - some very interesting things happening in North Ayrshire - but you really have to work at it and it really annoys the hell out of me when I go to meetings and people, especially … okay, I am letting down my former colleagues, but civil servants have embraced it wholeheartedly and they haven’t a clue what they are talking about. So if we are going to think about that, we need to think very hard about how you do it - but it’s fundamentally about awakening in people a sense of control.

LR Could I just abuse the position of the chair here, because I stumble over excellent examples of Asset Based Development every day. Just in the last week, for example, I was in Blairgowrie where people are trying to put a community bid together to buy out one of the Co-op’s farms. That is a scary proposition - 900 acres - it would probably cost £3m - these guys have never discussed even thinking about that much money. It’s like staring down the barrel of a gun. But they are discussing trying to put forward a Right to Buy, which will effectively stop the sale of it. And we are now at a stage where we have reached the degree of legal question that nobody has ever done in Scottish history before. We don’t know if we can use a Community Right to Buy to trump something that is owned by the Co-op, bizarrely. So there is one. The next day I was back at West Whitlawburn … I think you may know that Harry - West Whitlawburn in Rutherglen, where the people bought out 900 of the crappest flats in Europe in 1989 and have since been running it as a fully mutual housing cooperative. You know, there are guys in Dunoon that are about to buy out half of their land there. I just keep coming across people who are trying to put an asset at the heart of … resurrecting their community actually, I have to say, against all the professionals locally, principally the councils actually.

HB But that is not Asset Based Community Development as John McKnight described it.

LR Okay, in that case, does it matter?

HB The asset … it’s about the people - is it being done to awaken in people a sense of control? It starts off with the people - it doesn’t start with the building, it doesn’t start with the farm or anything like that.

LR Okay, perhaps I’m … I can only answer a wholehearted “Yes” - there are only people that have decided to do this - they are all sitting out there, in time that they don’t have, you know like all of you are tonight - none of us have the time to be here. We are here for a reason, which is this seminar that has been put on by Robert. Without Robert’s seminar, we wouldn’t be here. But are we here simply … are we the seminar or are we the people? It strikes me all the community buy outs I’m coming across have a prism - the prism is the asset they are trying to take over - it’s the reason they have come together, and at that moment … I see you shaking your head, but it would be great to continue for a second, Harry … at that moment there is catch-up - there is very often things that have never been discussed for decades. Very often people haven’t even spoken to each other properly, ever. You know, all these things come together through the prism of one question - do we want to buy this 900 acres or not? And of course, you are right, it’s people - in the end they may decide not to do that. But actually, what’s happened is Blairgowrie has had a huge big discussion about how okay it is to have massive bits of farmland in their midst, which they have had for centuries, that no one even knows who owns it. So the beginnings of actually trying to even do a map of who owns what in Blairgowrie - someone had to have the nerve to walk up to the people who work on that farm currently and discovered most of them are from Europe - most of them don’t speak English - nobody even knew who worked on that farm until the moment came that they needed to have a decision. So I think … I wouldn’t worry too much myself about whether this fits that specific definition - I just see people power bubbling up all over the place, where there is an opportunity to fix a problem the professionals will not fix. And that’s the bit that seems, to me, to be kind of fairly consistent. Right, I am now resuming being the chair - yes?

F Could I just say a few gentle words in defence of community work? Because there is a long and very proud tradition of community work in Scotland - asset based work, community development, call it what you will. But the starting point for that is to work with people on the things that they want to work on - whether it’s buying a physical asset, whether it’s developing themselves in order to be able for them to address other issues that they have got in the community. And I think we do ourselves a bit of a disservice if we get tied up on whether asset based work is the right terminology, or community development is the right terminology. It seems to me that everything that we have been talking about tonight is about putting people at the centre of what we are doing and developing a relationship with folk - not service users, not clients, not people we have to fill in forms about, but people who want to do things in their own community, supported by folk like me who work for the council, who believe in public service. And public service is a very noble thing to do. And I think we should not beat ourselves up about that. If there is 2 or 3 things that we need to do - I think it’s train people together … there is far too much fragmentation - people not understanding what a social worker does, what a health visitor does, what a community worker does. Let’s get back to a bit of joint training so that we all understand each other better, and let’s actually understand what helps people make a change and get those relationships going locally that help that to happen.

LR Right, we’re over time. That’s a good place to stop, I think, because that’s actually a constructive comment there. So can I just say - it’s been an amazing night actually, and I think this way that the debate has been framed has managed to cut through so many levels of sages on stages, because most people have managed to have a response. And there has been such a quickness of moving through issues. And the stories as well, I think are great. The one thing that really sticks out for me, just at the end, was something I think Alison said at the beginning, when she said “if you strip out stories, you strip out the ability to care”. And as somebody who is a journalist, who often relies … I was speaking to someone earlier about trying to write the book - it was so important to be able to write the stories of people, very specific people, because you care about people in the end. And I guess that is true of the whole of society - we have got to be able to put so much of the colour that comes from personal contact, back into every relationship - be it professional, neighbourly, personal, intimate or meeting tonight. So thank you very much everybody.

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