SE1 Stories. Lessons from the History of Community Organising in one Neighbourhood

A recent exhibition about community led planning in North Southwark and North Lambeth gives us food for thought about what lessons we can draw from  past  experiences of participatory planning and the importance of not letting these histories get hidden. Our Spaces of Hope principal-investigator, Sue Brownill spoke to Steve Barran and Jane Matheson who were part of the group who organised the exhibition to find out more about how and why they brought it together and what tips they would pass on to others thinking of doing a similar project.

In November 2021, I went along to Morley College to see an exhibition called SE1 Stories which was put together by people who had been involved in community planning and community action in  North Southwark and North Lambeth in the 70s and 80s. The exhibition had photos, copies of the community-produced SE1 newspaper, maps, plans, posters, booklets and personal accounts documenting the community campaigns around poor housing, planning battles and other issues in the area. You can see some of the elements of the exhibition here and the group are planning to put it on at other venues over this year ( see below), but in the meantime I spoke to a few of the people involved to get a sense of what  lessons can be learnt for today from this history and their top tips for other groups who might be thinking of doing a similar project.

What Does the Exhibition cover?

The exhibition covers the story of community organising largely in the 1970s and 1980s in North Southwark and North Lambeth. It documents campaigns and actions including the setting up of tenants associations, struggles against  rogue private landlords and direct action events demanding decent housing in the area.  It looks at the work of community planning groups like the North Southwark Community Development Group, Waterloo Action Group and Coin Street Action Group around major development proposals and the alternative ideas they put forward. And it covers the SE1 community newspaper which provided information on what was going on and how groups could organise around these issues, and the Blackfriars Photography Project, a community darkroom resource that supported the visual communications and documentary needs of many of these organisations. Speaking at the opening at the Morley  College event Andy Benson said ‘Basically, this is really all about opposition and resistance. You know, people who were fed up with being disrespected and ignored and local leaders who, with intelligence and commitment, were able to inspire’. It charts the coming together of local residents, activists, some local politicians and trades unionists and the efforts and resources that were used to try and get what local people wanted to see in the area.

The exhibition was put together by a group of 10 or so people who had been involved in those groups and campaigns and toured a number of venues in the area in the autumn of 2021.  A comments book enabled those who live in the area now and those who remember these events to record their reactions and a website has been set up which sets out some of the story and includes some of the exhibition panels.

Why Did You Do It?

The project was sparked by one of the photographers who had worked for the photography project putting together her own archive and contacting the others as she had tracked down photos and negatives to the Lambeth and Southwark archives. Many of these were just contact sheets and most were unlabelled. So gradually a group of about 10 people who had worked in the area in the past, many of whom had stayed in touch even though they may have moved out of the area, met ( pre-covid) at Southwark library to try and sort out what to do with the photos. ‘And we realized that that group of us could soon be dead or demented and nobody would know what these photographs were about’ said Steve. Initially the group got together to identify and label the photographs but they also felt there was a wider story to be told about community organising at that time, helped by other archives such as the SE1 community newspaper. The group acknowledge that their work was not unique in itself,  ‘at the time in the seventies there were loads of people around the country’ engaged in similar activities which is why they thought it was even more important that these histories are in a way celebrated,  captured and shared to bring others into the debate about their legacies and continuing resonance.  Also important for members like Steve was the desire to document how things were done, for example the role of the SE1 newspaper in spreading information, initiating debate in the area and passing on organisational and campaigning skills and the alliances built between activists, politicians, trade unions and others. 

How did you put the exhibition together?

The group managed to get a small amount of funding from Southwark council linked to a project centred around the Blackfriars area. This was crucial but limited the area they could cover to a few blocks either side of Blackfriars Road, meaning the North Lambeth (Coin St) stories could not be included in the same depth. With the help of a knowledgeable archivist  they  began at Southwark Archives trying to label the myriad of photos, moving on to zoom during lockdown. They also drew on other material kept in people’s lofts and lock-ups which included minutes of meetings and copies of the SE1 newspaper.  They decided to put on an exhibition which could tour locally to tell the story to a wider audience  getting help from an architectural practice run by the son of one of the original group who designed the exhibition panels and the stands. The exhibition toured four venues in the SE1 area in Autumn 2021 with launch meetings and a comment book to capture reactions and further memories. Short booklets on particular campaigns and issues were also produced ‘because we wanted some of the words not to get to completely lost themselves.  Even though we know how powerful images can be’. And those words tell the context of what was happening in the area and the responses to it as well as the personal experiences of the people involved. Finally, they set up a website which summarises the history of the area and includes some of the information from the exhibition. More about how it was done is included in the top tips section below.

What lessons can we draw from it?

For Steve some of the key lessons are about campaigning and methods. how it’s no good just saying we don’t want it. Both in North Southwark and North Lambeth success was achieved, where it was achieved, by being positive rather than negative.’ The gaining of planning permission for a community-led scheme at one of the Coin Street inquiries is an example of one such positive alternative.

Another is about the role of community newspapers and informing and engaging people through them.   Also important was the ‘insiders/outsiders’ tactics used in campaigns which combined campaigning with working with like-minded councillors and politicians to achieve their objectives. The GLC policies at the time, such as the Community Areas policy, not only supported groups but diverted resources towards them ‘and not just into ephemeral things like groups of people but into community capital investment in community halls; physical facilities that got a chance of lasting longer than people’s energy sometimes’.

There was also the mood of the time. Some talk of the ‘hope and optimism’; a feeling that even if battles were lost there was still energy, conviviality  and inspiration gained through working with like-minded people and getting arguments and alternatives across which enabled them to undertake the huge amount of work they did. ‘It was a person to person relationship. And it was collective action.’  Jane recalls enriching relationships developing between the local community leaders and the group.

But there were also comments on how things are different now with austerity governance and cuts to voluntary groups ‘there was an enormous number of different organizations. Sadly, you know, very often they don’t exist anymore’. ‘We’ve seen power move from local to national to global, and that makes a real problem for people who want to be involved in political activism. In the 70s it was difficult but at least we were able to get to the local authority’.  The ‘dismantling’ of the 1948 planning system is a further factor;  ‘ the control that  members in Southwark had in the 70s over planning issues has been taken away and  largely has been given to developers”  And this raises questions about the types of tactics needed now and where the hope and optimism can come from. Jane also notes how most of the members of the group in the 70s were able to take part in community activism as they were either on social security or had part-time jobs such as driving shifts. They admit they were somewhat inexperienced but enthusiastic, hard working and learned on the job. Young people are not able to take this path now.

A final lesson is the way that the exhibition brought the story of community action to people who live in the area now particularly those who came after the events.  This is underlined by some of the entries to the comments book. Brilliant display. So much for my generation (20s) to learn’.  ‘A revelation to me of how wide ranging the problems were with derelict sites and appalling housing conditions. More relevant lessons now than ever.’ ‘The only sad thing is that the struggle continues, but well done to the activists of the 1970s and 80s’.Interesting glimpse of the more ‘hidden’ side of London and the struggle of ordinary people.’  ‘So! What has changed in 40 years? Not much really’.

What are your top tips for other groups?

‘The first tip I would give is don’t trust your memory’ says Steve Barran. The names of people in photos even the dates of key events fade. Having a pool of people helps here as well as having documentary evidence. The group were helped by some people who kept documents, minutes etc and also comments from those who attended  and wrote in  the comments book.  Jane recommends documenting and dating things at the time! This links with another point about widening the input ‘beyond the people who might want to put together a bit of local planning history or local community activity history, to try and reach out as far as possible to other people who are not part of the group doing it’. This is why the group focused on an exhibition and the comment book.  Even so one reflection and a point noted at the launches was that the exhibition group were mainly men. Back in the 70s the team was a mix of young women and men and decisions were made collectively at meetings. Unfortunately few women were involved in developing the exhibition, but one woman that the group had lost contact with heard of and visited the exhibition, and it turned out she lived and was active nearby.

Another tip from Jane is to use a variety of communication techniques and venues ‘The exhibition has moved around four venues so far – all of which have been very different and helped to reach different audiences. ’Starting at Blackfriars Settlement it reached many older people some of whom had lived in the area all their lives plus some younger people who recognised their friends. The Oxo Gallery was more of a chance experience with local people on their riverside stroll dropping in, those following a relevant tweet or casual passers by. Naturally social media has been essential in attracting people to see the exhibition.’ However, the group still sees a need for posters and neighbourhood leafleting (as in the past) to reach those who don’t engage in social media. The act of leafleting on estates or outside a local school also generated conversations.

Getting funding was also difficult but important. For SE1 Stories it was a grant from Southwark Council linked to the Blackfriars area which covered the material costs, but ‘there’s actually quite a lot of labour or money in kind that needs to go into making it physically happen’. This includes the designing of the exhibition, physically moving the exhibition around. A practical tip from Jane is that while working with the designers, the group tried to ensure the structures would be light enough to carry yet safe and strong enough to withstand moving between venues. They also drew up a  rota for the exhibition which proved a positive aspect leading to many exciting/exhilarating  discussions with viewers and reinforced for the group the very point of doing the exhibition. It was useful for encouraging people to contribute comments in the book or through the website. In time the group plans to link up with contacts made to enrich the narrative and with the potential to develop an oral history strand.

 Another issue is getting permissions for photos and for including images of people, particularly if these are going on the web. The group found this process time consuming. Some photos they couldn’t use because of copyright issues  others (where they couldn’t trace the originalphotographer) could only be used (legally) in the exhibition and not the website. But the difficulties were also offset by the conviviality and the shared memories.  Members commented on the realisation that in future careers and in other places many had carried on the same values and principles. There was  ‘astonishment  at the amount of energy and stamina we had at the time’ and  some self-reflection that ‘we thought we were going to change the world.’  Many hadn’t met for 45 years  ‘so it could have been a kind of mystery/disaster but actually, it was a fantastic experience’.

Where Can I see the Exhibition?

The group are are putting on the exhibition in a variety of places in London  in 2022. Details will be on their website.

Reflecting on the exhibition one participant at the Morley College event commented ‘opposition and resistance is still needed. In fact, if anything it is needed more now than it was in the past’.  As the baton passes to younger generations organising around pressing problems such as poverty and the climate emergency, exhibitions and stories like this have the potential to spark more hope and optimism along with a dialogue between past and present about how to meet those challenges. As one of the entries to the comments book said, ‘it’s a great reminder that there is hope, people working together can change things’.

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