Wednesday, 30 September 2009

AGM with fox and sparrows

Our allotments association AGM this weekend was attended by a tree-climbing fox, about 40 sparrows, and a dozen or so of the twenty odd human plotholders. The last counts as a good turn-out -- allotments are for gardening, getting away from the pressures of paperwork, leavened by a spot of gently desultory chat or gossip with whoever else is around. However, for a bunch of people who really aren't into meetings, we managed to string it out --2-5pm, a whole three hours. No wonder the two squirrels who dashed through the meeting area didn't stop and join in. The fox is a half-grown cub, doesn't look healthy -- we think the rest of his family may have succumbed to the mange that has been going around, leaving him (or her) to fend for themself at an early age, and before teaching him to be wary of humans. He came trotting along, took a look at the meeting and disappeared into the tangled vegetation of the boundary hedge; there was rustling and his head poked out through a mass of white-flowering Russian vine at about top of fence level. A score or so sparrows flew up from the cherry tree next door. The fox's head popped back -- then popped out again through the bridal veil up near the top of the cherry tree, and another score of sparrows flew up and away.

The tricky discussions were around who is entitled to plots -- what counts as 'not in active use'; were there mitigating factors or had the leeway been used up? The issue gets complicated when the official tenants, with their names on the council agreement, have brought in 'sharers' who in effect take over -- but aren't on, or near the top of the waiting list. We have two plots that are being neglected: one is a single mum who lives over the fence and has been active in organising social events etc, but is doing hardly any actual gardening on her small (5 pole) plot. The other is a chap who was one of the original plot-holders when this stretch of the old Palace Gates railway was saved from being built on and opened up as allotments; he used to have one of the best-kept and most productive plots on the site -- but then his mother died, he became depressed, he has a condition that requires him to avoid direct sunlight, and for many years now he's left most of his plot run to weeds and cluttered with rubbish that is potentially dangerous to toddlers and small kids. He's refused to split or share his plot, but simply can't look after or use what is now one of just a couple of large (10 pole) plots on the site. Then there was the chap who, a year or so after finally getting to the top of the waiting list and getting his plot, went and got married, and moved off to south London to his wife's place -- hoping to get here to move back here to his. 'Get a sharer in to keep it in active use,' I advised him -- but it stayed untouched, until the Council came to inspect and sent him a 'Notice to Quit' (unless within 1 month he'd brought the plot back into active use). At that point, he got someone in to share, who duly dug and planted... That was the tricky one: a woman who herself had got her plot in almost exactly the same circumstances -- brought in by an absent tenant about to be kicked off -- was, ironically, the most vociferous that this should not be permitted. But this was the line in the sand: with a waiting list of 60 (just recently weeded down from 140) for about 20 plots, plots have to be handed on fairly to those who've signed up to the waiting list, in waiting list order, not on to friends and neighbours and people we know.

It can be seen as an exercise in how a community manages its boundaries, negotiating informal shared norms alongside the blunt instrument of official bureaucratic rules. The first factor is that the association chair, who liaises with the Council, feels the need to secure agreement from other plot-holders about whether plots are 'not in good order' and their holders are generally felt to have used up reasonable leeway. The second factor is the balance between personalised discussion -- that plot, that person -- and seeking to agree criteria or principles that should be generally applied to justify the judgement on individual cases. Are we saying that at least 50% of a plot should be cultivated to qualify as reasonable use? Yes, we may allowances for people who've taken on a new plot and may need time to bring it into use; we make allowances for people who let the association know they have been ill, have a bereavement, a change of job or other circumstance, or have a new baby. But how long a period of grace? Cases differ, no simple formula is fair to all -- so it will come back again to the peer group gossip circle or community consensus. That is, the community can agree to offer up mitigation arguing that someone should not be kicked off their plot -- but hasn't the power to get someone kicked off if their plot satisfies the inspecting Council officer.

Then there was the discussion of principles for bringing a sharer in: the official plot-holder must remain involved -- at least being seen visiting from time to time, all sharers must go on the official waiting list if they aren't already, and all sharers must be told that the plot cannot just pass on to them if the official tenant drops out but will have to be passed on to the top of the waiting list.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

10:10 challenge

Cut your personal carbon footprint by 10% in 2010 says the Guardian's 10:10 challenge. The trouble with being early adopters is that we've been doing all the obvious and easy green footprint-shrinking stuff for years. Should we have delayed, so we could claim the brownie points now its just become trendy?

It comes as a shock to see cabinet ministers pledging now to change their light bulbs to low-energy -- we've had the low energy bulbs longer than we can remember. Is this country really run by people so dozy that they haven't even managed that kindergarten-level step in environmental responsibility? At least the Tory front bench managed rather more ambitious pledges that suggest they've moved beyond the basics. Signing up last year with the London Green Concierge service to get the house insulation sorted out means we can't use that as our 10:10 pledge. We've never run a car so can't give that up. We grow-our-own fruit and veg in back garden and allotment, with surplus veg going into Tottenham Food Co-op (last Fri and Sat each month at Broadwater Farm) and spare plants supplying the Wards Corner Campaign fundraising plant stall at local events. On non-Food Co-op weekends, our regular shop is at the Stoke Newington organic farmers market (run by Growing Communities) and at the Fresh & Wild ethical supermarket across the road from it.

Four things we've identified to still further shrink our carbon-prints:

1) Replace old fridge-freezer with new A-rated fridge-freezer. Trying to find a replacement that gives us plenty of freezer space for storing seasonal gluts from the allotment (especially the luxury of our own raspberries, strawberries and blackberries with winter muesli) shows up just how uninformative is the internet info on fridge-freezer models available -- almost none actually show just what the internal storage space looks like. We spotted a Beko 11.2 cu ft model with five freezer drawers at Currys on our first casual recce -- which had vanished next trip, and neither it nor any other five-freezer drawers model has showed up on internet searches...

2) JN to stop falling asleep in front of computer, TV etc leaving lights and AV appliances blazing away all night long. This would also require cutting his booze-miles intake...

3) Switch to a 100% renewable energy supplier like Good Energy or Eco-tricity -- we are already on the 'green tariff' of our mainstream provider, but that's just a halfway measure.

4) Cut holiday travel: we've already switched to taking Eurostar to explore France, rather than signing up for trips that involve a flight. But in 2010, we will be committing air travel to Australia, combining catch up with my family and a world SF convention. We will of course offset against the emissions -- by donating to an international development organisation like Practical Action, Tree Aid or Water Aid that work directly with African communities on self-reliance that helps deal with the damage that climate instability is already inflicting. Committing air travel at all is a mortal sin, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...

Monday, 14 September 2009

Tottenham Show and 'Revive the Rec'

Broadwater Farm's high-rise blocks sit alongside Lordship Rec park. They're about 10-20 mins walk north of our house, depending whether you take the direct or scenic route. This Saturday was 'Revive the Rec' festival in the park, incorporating the 3rd Annual Tottenham Food and Produce Show. I started the day early registering entries for the Show, and when released, headed for the Save Wards Corner campaign's area -- setting out the bookstall, then helping run the plant stall. The sun shone, so good turn-out of people, kids, dogs...

The Festival was started up by the Friends of Lordship Rec group, working with 'Back to Earth', a small local environmental project/consultancy. They ran community consultation exercises and drew up a plan that includes an eco-centre building by the lake, a city farm in an area fenced off for (now largely unused) playing fields), restoring the 'model traffic area' where kids on bikes and trikes can practice the rules of the road, and de-culverting and landscaping the river Moselle which runs through the Rec and continues under the Estate's housing blocks before it re-emerges in Tottenham cemetery. The first Festival aimed to show the strength of local support for the bid to Revive the Rec -- and duly helped secure HLF funding for the project. Ahead of work on the Rec starting, once the funds are in the bank, Back to Earth and the Sustainable Haringey Food Group (or Growing in Haringey) started up a Community Cafe and Food Co-op that runs in Broadwater Farm Community Centre the last Friday and Saturday each month. The Cafe is run by Farm residents, and links to catering NVQ training and accreditation; the Food Co-op is run by SH volunteers.

How the spatial layout of stalls at these events fits (or doesn't) the 'social geography' networks always intrigues me. Because the Lordship Rec show is purely community based and run, the organisers had a pretty good idea about the intricate network of inter-connections, but the puzzle simply can't be solved in a 2-D layout. The 'jam and jerusalem' show marquee sits up the slope, flanked this year by the organisers fundraising gream teas and activities tent, and a long 'Green zone' marquee where Sustainable haringey and its Food Group set up. But Friends of the Earth/Haringey Tree Trust and Friends of Tottenham Marshes were on the other side of the path, outside the Green Zone, alongside the sprawling Wards Corner campaign -- bookstall, plant stall, campaign info (plus raffle, and camapign-logoed mugs, t-shirts, canvas bags), and tea-and cakies cafe -- with the local Eye Practice/Tottenham Traders Association alongside. The optometrist who is also chair of Tottenham traders occupies one of the buildings threatened with demolition by the Council's plans that the campaign opposes. However, the Ibero-American Association tent was a long way off -- the market traders in Wards Corner building itself are one of London's two main Latino trading and activity centres. Meanwhile, Tottenham Civic Society (which is part of Sustainable Haringey and of the Wards Corner campaign) was way off on its own at the gate through from the lake and model traffic area. And the Food Co-op and Community Cafe were running in the Community Centre the other side of the Moselle. JN and I belong to all of those except Tottenham Traders and the Ibero-American Assoc -- he's Civic Society secretary, Friends of the Earth treasurer. We both ended the day helping pack up the Wards Corner area, along with a ward councillor who (like most of the councillors who actually represent the locality) has come out publicly opposing the Council's demolition-based plans and supporting the community campaign.

Last year, I worked on the Show right through from registration through the judging and certificate writing process -- a highly complex set of routines. This time, there were fewer entries -- but more vegetables and jams; registration deadline was set slightly earlier and there were more volunteers. Nonetheless, judging this year still ran right up to 3.30pm -- half an hour past the scheduled time for local MP David Lammy to present prize certificates. Last year, I then wandered around all the stalls. This year, I just got a couple breaks to head for the Community Centre's proper toilets (always avoid the porta-loos if you can). So I didn't get to the Civic Society, or to the Green Zone marquee, or even to the FOE and FOTM tents along our own range of stalls. I bought olive oil and a couple of plants from the Justice for Palestine stall, where one of our neighbours (who I think of affectionately as 'Furry Philip' was working), waved at the Food Co-op folk whose stock was selling out rapidly. Apart from that, I saw those who dropped by our stall.

At the start of the spring/summer community events season, we had lots of plants to sell; at this tag end of the season, a very depleted stock. The main supplier is Sue P, who has what in these parts counts as a big garden, and whose latest project is running a 'Garden Swap' scheme in her road. I'm the other major plant supplier. We ended the day with just one tray of unsold plants. But yesterday I brought a dozen small Savoy cabbage plants home from the allotment to pot up, plus a flourishing calendula that had been growing among them. The Wards campaign is planning a community consultation day, with architects, on 3 October -- we may have re-built the stock to run another stall then.

Broadwater Farm became notorious in the 1980s - the useful Wikipedia entry says it was dubbed 'worst place to live' in England, and hit the headlines with the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985 (four years before we moved to Tottenham). Residents really resent the way that every time the place gets mentioned, the history of the riots and the bad reputation get dragged up again. After the riots, regeneration money was poured in, the above-ground walkway system was demolished, the buildings renovated and each block given its own entry-control system and concierge. Community organisations were formed, training and youth projects were funded, and the place turned itself around. In 2003, apparently, there was only one crime reported on the estate, a burglar who was arrested -- it now has one of the lowest urban crime rates. Until the Food Co-op started, we had no reason to go into the estate, and would have felt intruders just to go in and wander around. Having the Co-op and Cafe to visit regularly, we and others living around the area now have the estate as part of our home territory, a place we know and go to, not seen as a separated-off enclave or ghetto. The Festival similarly aimed to draw both Farm and other local residents into visiting and using the adjacent Rec -- both so that local people who used to fear and avoid the wide open, potentially wild, space could enjoy and benefit from it, and so by having more people of all ages using it, to walk kids and dogs, to play, to sit out on sunny days, the Rec itself would feel safer and be safer and so encourage more use and social benefit...

Friday, 4 September 2009

Broken Britain?

On all the statistical indicators, where I live is 'broken Britain': in the 5% worst 'areas of social deprivation', high in the crime league table -- a shooting at the top of our road where the 'working girls' hang out in highly impractical garb, multiple shootings and stabbings scattered along surrounding streets, where the police have raided crack houses, mugging and fly-tipping black spots. The sort of thing you tend not to mention when you phone home to Mum. But that's not what it feels like -- at least most of the time, these days. Our biggest current lament is never a weekend off from the round of community festivals in local parks, civic society walks and socials, Sustainable Haringey networking, residents association street party and 'Big Lunch', the local 'crafts and produce' village show... heaps of social capital, simply lashings of social energy. Being the most ethnically diverse local area in the UK feels like part of the vitality, not a problem -- but many, particularly newly-arriving refugees, live in dire poverty.

It wasn't always thus: the first decade or so that we lived in Tottenham, there seemed almost no 'community' to get involved in. The early post-96 years of Local Agenda 21 there seemed a very scant handful of overworked usual suspects who could be bothered, and getting any wider interest seemed a very uphill struggle. Two -- okay, three -- things I think have made the difference. The first to take effect was the rise of email and Web 2.0 -- which made it easy to send information whizzing around, and allowed people to get and keep involved when they couldn't turn up to the time or place of meetings. True, it has its downside in in-box overload (and I go through spells of being allergic to turning on The Enslaving Machine) -- but when you skim through, fast on the delete button, you catch up with all the gossip, plots, campaigns...

Second has been changes in the local council. Back in 1996, when the council talked about 'involving the community', you could almost see that they thought of it as one amorphous rather menacing black cloud that they really hadn't a clue how to tackle. And they didn't really talk about 'environment' except to dismiss it as a marginal concern of an unrepresentative bunch of middle-class weeds. Now, Haringey is aiming to be 'London's Greenest Borough'. Back in 1997, Thatcherism and Old Labour blinkers had between them broken the council -- the New Labour 'democratic renewal' emphasis on community involvement, together with loosening of budget constraints, have allowed it to rebuild its confidence. And, despite the problems that central Government targets and performance indicators bring, they have also meant that well-meaning rhetoric more often now gets put into practical action. Third has been the rising tide of alarming evidence and headlines about climate change.

Three community networks are making the biggest difference. First to come together was the Haringey Federation of Residents Associations, which focuses the scattered RA together as a fairly formidable local force. The residents associations are where the diverse ethnicities, ages, faiths and other interests tend to get together on what affects them where they live -- traffic, places for the kids to play safely and other local environment issues emerge as big concerns for all. What the middle-class greenies like and want, or dislike, turns out to be the pretty much the same as their neighbours' likes and hates: what everyone wants is to be able to open their front door and step out without feeling depressed by ugliness, or threatened -- and everyone enjoys a nice bit of greenery. Next was Sustainable Haringey, which evolved from the previous LA21 group but with far more vigour, using the Interweb to draw in a whole new generation and link up a diverse range of projects and groups: the 'food' group is one of the liveliest.

Third, is the Wards Corner Community Campaign ( which brought residents and local businesses together to fight the demolition and 'clone town' mall-and-tower-block so-called regeneration of the once-elegant Edwardian department store above the Seven Sisters tube station. The Council and local NDC have scandalously misused New Deal fo Community funds for a scheme that far from being 'community-led' is vigorously opposed by the affected community, and was pushed through with furtively token 'consultation'. The campaign is currently fund-raising to appeal against judicial review decision: more info and the alternative 'community plan' submitted for planning permission can be seen on the web-site above.

So: broken Britain? We're seeing green shoots just re-sprouting after the Thatcherite freeze. What would help here is a Keynsian 'Green New Deal' and practical recognition of non-monetary community ownership, community investment, community assets. A new monetarist clamp-down would break the fragile new grassroots renaissance that has started to grow..