A youth led report into the August 2011 riots

It was on my 35th birthday that I took the train home through Hackney, and found that London was, literally, burning. The August 2011 riots were an extraordinary moment – shocking and frightening to those caught up in them, inevitable and justified to those who felt let down and alienated, and a chance to loot and cause chaos to the anarchic and opportunistic. As another summer finally starts to heat up, those events of last August seem closer than they did when passions were muted by constant rain, or temporarily buried under a foot of snow – little has fundamentally changed since then

The SHM Foundation – an organisation passionate about social change – have recently published a report into the riots. Alongside hundreds of thousands of words out there on the subject, this may seem unremarkable, but this report does have the distinction of coming after a considered period of time, and, even more importantly is largely the work of a group of diverse young people, who generated the ideas, carried out interviews with their peers and produced the final report. The document states that 20-25% of the young people whose views are included were involved in the riots.

The main conclusions of the report are that many of the young people involved did not feel empowered to express themselves in other ways, and that young people need to be seen as part of the solution, and not just as the problem to be dealt with – we need to find ways to increase the political and civil engagement of these disenfranchised people, and ensure that they are involved in meaningful dialogue about the decisions that will affect their lives. And who knows – they may have better answers than those currently deciding their futures……

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Where’s our music service gone?

A bit of arts education news which doesn’t seem to have filtered through to local level yet, is that Waltham Forest Music Service is, to all intents and purposes, no more. Given some quite vocal protest when the music service was threatened during the borough council cuts, this may seem surprising. However, my opening sentence was deliberately flippant, and I, along with others working in this field am generally optimistic about the new landscape for music education.

Historically, music services have existed for most local authority areas. They have received government funding via local councils, and have provided services including local youth orchestras and ensembles, peripatetic music lessons in schools, and instrument loan services for children. London had one music service for each borough, ranging from the extraordinary to the sub standard. Waltham Forest was not among the best.

Last year the government commissioned Darren Henley, the Managing Director of Classic FM to undertake a national review of music educationof Music education. Henley consulted widely across the sector and produced a report which contained a survey of the state of music education, and a number of recommendations. He found a very diverse landscape, with pockets of good practice, and a number of serious gaps in provision. His primary recommendation was that the government produce a National Plan for music education, to set and ensure high standards of provision across the country. To their credit, after numerous delays, the National Plan for Music Education emerged last autumn, and was generally well received by the music education sector.

The Plan enshrined another of Henley’s key recommendations – that music education should be led by Hubs, each Hub serving a geographical area and being composed of a consortium of organisations working in partnership. Most hubs therefore would include music services, along with arts organisations and other service providers. It was widely envisaged that there would be many less hubs than there were music services, with organisations joining together and forming new partnerships. Generally speaking, when the hubs were announced a couple of weeks ago, that did not happen – there remains a hub, mostly led by the music service, in pretty much every London borough. Not Waltham Forest however – it was conspicuously absent from the listof organisations awarded funding.

Fortunately that does not mean there will be no music education provision for the young people of Waltham Forest – whether the existing music service put in a bid to continue existing I do not know, but in the event a new hub has been formed, led by Redbridge music service, to deliver across both boroughs. It is a shame this type of merger doesn’t seem to have happened more widely – maintaining over 30 organisations in London, all doing the same job for relatively small geographical areas must surely divert resources away from providing children with amazing musical opportunities and towards management, overheads and other running costs. It will be very interesting to see how this new North East London hub’s delivery compares to the single borough hubs going forward.

The other key change is that hubs are funded and monitored by the Arts Council of England unlike music services which received funding via local councils. This is definitely a good thing – the arts council will have an overview of the national picture, will help share good practice and make links between hubs and other arts organisations, and if it does it’s job properly will push for the highest standards and quickly challenge those which are not performing.

So, from September, Waltham Forest music service is no more, and I am looking forward to seeing how music education provision in the borough develops in this new landscape. Why is all this politics important to me? Simply because I do believe every child deserves access to quality music education and musical opportunities, that it can transform lives and impact on all areas of development and that access to, understanding of and participation in the arts makes all of us better individuals, and builds better communities. More on that later, maybe.

The big six – what next?

This weekend brings Party on The Pitch to Leyton Orient Football ground. A pop concert, featuring a former X factor winner, and other top forty acts, the event is one of Waltham Forest council’s ‘Big Six’ events celebrating Waltham Forest’s status as an Olympic Borough and giving local residents a chance to join the party.

Although there has been well documented concerns from residents about the cost of the events and controversy over the sources of funding, I have no problem with the principle of the council investing in major events such as this as a means to fostering pride in the borough and community engagement. I do believe these aims are a genuine motivation for Chris Robbins, the leader of the council, in driving these events forward. I also hope everyone lucky enough to get tickets in the unavoidable limited ballots has a great time. However, I do feel there has been something of a missed opportunity in the design of the events.

Firstly, opportunities for local artists and performers to be a part of most of the events is something which could easily have been built in at planning stage. Waltham Forest has an incredibly rich and vibrant artistic community which really does punch above its weight. Performance slots for individual local artists or performers could have been built into the schedules for concerts, perhaps with a talent competition style selection process, and could have provided an incredible showcase for local talent. Similarly, links could have been made with major events already established in the borough – the Art Trails, Festivals in Leyton, Leytonstone, or Chingford – the investment and profile of the Big Six could have given some of these events a massive boost, and bought a local flavour to them.

This local involvement need not have been at the expense of the star acts and wouldn’t have changed the overall nature of the events, but it could have made them truly about Waltham Forest, rather than a replication of the type of event which happens in Hyde Park or at any other pop festival. It is not too late to change this – my first plea to the council and big six organisers is to find ways to engage local talent in the remaining events. This Autumn’s film festival should be exceptional – lets use it to showcase the work of local filmmakers, and use some of the available budget to enable young people and other communities to make new short films to be shown in the festival.

My second concern is about the legacy of the events. If one of the drivers is to make local residents feel good about the borough, and another to foster community cohesion, I am not convinced this will work. Imagine a 13 year old boy, living in challenging circumstances on one of the estates in Leyton. He is perhaps truly excited to hear that Dappy from N dubz will be playing on his doorstep, and if he is lucky and has access to the booking process, might get a ticket to go to this summer’s Urban Classic concert. He will have a great time – the show blew the roof off the Barbican in March. He may even be intrigued by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performances in the gig and want to know more. But, a week, or a month, after the show, I am not convinced his life will have changed. There won’t be another Big Six in the borough- and central London’s concert venues might as well be on the moon. My next plea is that some thought is given to what happens next….let’s find ways to engage with those people who come to events – the Barbican, The BBC, Serious and Bigga Fish are all partners in Urban Classic and all have a variety of projects and programmes which our newly inspired audience could get involved in. Let’s make sure they are pointed towards them, and that they look back on getting a ticket for a big six event as a moment that changed their life, and not as something good that happened five years ago.

Finally a note on two recent events which for me are an indicator of what could happen in Waltham Forest the next time we find ourselves with money to spend on major events to increase community cohesion. Last years National Theatre of Wales production of the passion of port talbot, drew national admiration – both as a work of art, but also as a pivotal moment for an entire community. People were truly engaged as part of something extraordinary which really did bring people together. A few years before this, the Margate Exodus had a similar impact on the Kent Coast, with local communities producing new art, music and drama, alongside some of the countries most inspirational artists.

We could still make something like this happen in our borough- what better themes to explore than the aftermath and legacy of London 2012.

A tale of two boroughs

I’ll start From The Edge with a bit of scene setting about Waltham Forest, its surrounding area, and its relationship to the rest of London. None of this will be news to anyone who has lived here for any time, and there are many local residents who have far more knowledge of the history and politics surrounding many of the issues I’ll write about here. However, there are a few key themes which I know will recur throughout this blog – things which certainly inform the way I think about this part of London, things which I believe make this such an interesting place to live in and write about, and things which present a special set of challenges.

On The Edge

Like most London Boroughs Waltham Forest is, or at least once was, a collection of many small towns and villages. Each of them – Walthamstow, Leyton, Leytonstone, Chingford – still has their own distinct centre, community and personality, but are undeniably a part of something much bigger. However, it is not far enough away to have one genuine centre with a strong gravitational pull (unlike for example Richmond, or Croydon) but unlike Boroughs closer to the centre of London, it often feels genuinely disconnected from the capital, especially in the North of the borough. Which brings me nicely onto….

The Question of Essex

Many residents of Chingford will claim they do not see themselves as living in London at all – they are Essex boys and girls through and through. Until 1965 Chingford was a municipal borough in Essex, when it was consumed by London, and became part what is now the London Borough of Waltham Forest. There are those who feel this is an unnatural and unhappy marriage, and it is at times a difficult one, at least in part due to….

The Dividing Line

The A406, or North Circular, cuts through Waltham Forest – on an (infrequent) good traffic day many hundreds of cars must pass through the borough in no more than 10 minutes. Though it is always dangerous to generalise, there are clear social, ethnic, and political divides in the borough, and crossing the A406 can feel like entering new territory. At times, the residents of this collection of very disparate wards and constituencies – from Duncan Smith’s Chingford to Stella Creasy’s Awesomestow are only genuinely united by their disatisfaction with an oft criticised borough council which struggles to achieve genuine consensus or nurture strong leadership. From 2002 to 2010 the political pendulum swung from left to right as you moved north through the borough, with no party having overall control. Although currently labour, the Socialist Worker leafleters in Walthamstow town square excite little sympathy from Chingford residents popping across the north circ to top up on cheap essentials from Wilkinsons.

2 million trees

Finally, a quick word on Epping Forest, an escape for Chingford villagers and Walthamstow workers alike and, for me, one of the main attractions of living on the edge. A five minute walk from Chingford station can take you deep into forest from where you can walk for a day without ever crossing a major road. A popular day trip since Victorian times, and inspiration to artists from William Morris to the inhabitants of the vibrant cluster of studios on Walthamstows Blackhorse Lane, the forest has a magical quality which, in the mist of an autumn morning can transport you back to a time before London swallowed up the hamlets of Woodford and the country manors of Walthamstow.

From The Edge

From The Edge is written from the fringes of London, where, depending on your direction of travel, a 20 minute journey can lead deep into ancient forest, to the heartland of TOWIE, to the birthplace of the 2012 riots, to the Olympic Park, or to one of the worlds leading financial sectors. I’ll explore these themes through writing about Waltham Forest’s people and places, history and happenings.

I’ll also be using the site to document and develop my thoughts on the arts, education and other areas I come across through my professional life and personal passions. I like to think my cultural leanings are at least close to the edge, the truth is I’m just not that hip, but, based on my diary for the next few months you can expect musings on everything from Wagner to Glass, Shakespeare to Complicite, Dickens to Neal Stephenson, and William Morris to Jeremy Hunt.