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November 10, 2010

The benefit of being in control

LPL was recently invited to contribute to a training event run for community workers. Most of those in attendance were employed by local authorities.  The discussion turned to whether it made any difference as to who a community worker is employed by – the local authority or the community in which they work. LPL has argued that if communities are to become truly empowered they have to be able to employ their own staff.  A project in Easterhouse which has just celebrated its 21st anniversary puts its longevity, in part, down to this

Bob Holman, The Guardian

The community group we set up 21 years ago to tackle violence and poverty has endured because of its local input and paid staff, writes Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare), has just celebrated 21 years in operation with a move into a new building. With small, local community groups prone to collapse, how has this Glasgow-based one – which is attributed with changing Iain Duncan Smith’s understanding of poverty and community when he visited as leader of the Conservative party in 2002 – survived?

In 1987, a few residents in Easterhouse, a postwar suburb six miles east of the Glasgow that had become synonymous with deprivation, took over an abandoned shop as a club for unemployed youngsters. When I moved into the neighbourhood, with my Glaswegian wife, I went along. Being English, I felt threatened – but I gained street cred by beating the teenagers at table tennis.

About 18 months later we were kicked out of the shop, and 30 of us formed Fare as a charity in a tiny room in the tenants’ association. I was appointed part-time leader. We ran youth clubs in the nearby school, and I also helped some families to claim benefits and others that were having difficulties with their children.

Within a year, the funds from Barrow Cadbury Trust were exhausted and I worked for nothing, supporting myself as a part-time academic researcher. I sometimes wrote for the Guardian and readers sent money. Through this we set up the Friends of Fare, and these donations (which continue) were vital to our survival in the early years.


In 1996, the council offered Fare a tenement block of six flats, which had become “hard-to-lets” following three drug-related deaths. Having premises made it easier to obtain grants. I became a volunteer, and the new leader, Rosemary Dickson, oversaw expansion. A breakfast club provided meals for children before school. An annual mini-olympics attracted more than 600 Easterhouse children. Fare worked with the fire brigade to reduce attacks on firefighters.

The biggest challenge was gang warfare. Staff went into schools to discuss the pros and cons of gang membership. Then clubs were started in other neighbourhoods. After three years, Strathclyde police reported a 58% drop in violence, vandalism and youth disorder.

In winter, young people delivered 500 Christmas hampers to pensioners, who were delighted with the goods and at having contact with a younger person.

By 2008, Fare had outgrown its tenement building. Running costs were around £680,000 a year, with donors ranging from Comic Relief to the local Balmore Trust, which has backed Fare for 15 years. We went for a new building, costing more than £2m.

At this time, New Philanthropy Capital, which describes itself as a thinktank dedicated to helping funders and charities achieve a greater impact, recommended that funders back Fare because it found that our “grassroots approach strengthens local communities“. Fare then approached the funding body Inspiring Scotland, with which it entered into a 10-year relationship. Together with the support of the Glasgow-born Dragons’ Den entrepreneur and philanthropist Duncan Bannatyne, who has contributed money and staff to Fare, the new building became a reality.

It is difficult to explain the reasons for Fare’s endurance, but in a nutshell it is because of its local involvement and the alternatives it has provided.

A year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had long visited other people, now I became one of the visited. Two young men called. One was in the army, the other a residential social worker. Years before they had been regulars in our clubs, football team and camps. They told me that these activities had diverted them from gangs and drugs. This ties with what others have said. Fare made available alternative activities and friendship groups.

Annual camp

I recovered from cancer just in time to go to our annual camp. One Easterhouse man has served the camp as a cook for 15 years. He is a security guard who earns just the minimum wage, and this is his only holiday. His sons also help. One was once in a violent gang and went to prison. He was nearly sent down again but Fare gave him a job as a youth worker, where he has flourished. It is not all roses. A younger relative at camp was sent home for aggressive behaviour. But Fare will maintain contact with him over the coming years.

David Cameron speaks about the “big society” in which voluntary bodies and volunteers have greater control over services. His intention to train 5,000 community workers to be parachuted into deprived areas conflicts with the basic approach of local community groups, which believe residents, not outsiders, are best placed to initiate projects.

Fare has 30 “workers”, made up of full-time staff, sessional workers and volunteers. Most are from Glasgow’s east end. They have experienced Fare’s services as children and can relate to the families they work with because they come from similar backgrounds. Dealing with so many users, Fare could not cope without its full-time staff. They provide expertise in leadership, youth work, community organising and sports coaching. But they are appointed by a local committee that sets the policies.

Following the spending review, difficulties will intensify. Easterhouse’s MP, Margaret Curran, reports that the area will suffer more than any other in the UK. Reductions in social benefits and changes in incapacity benefit mean that, on average, residents will lose £108 per year (compared with £17 in London’s wealthy Kensington). Many of the victims will turn to Fare. Its survival may become even harder.