Necessity is the mother of invention said Plato. There is no finer place on Earth and no better people to represent as a councillor than Blakelaw. But our community is struggling. Government cuts to Newcastle Council’s budget have decimated our public services and communities like Blakelaw, and the people who live here, are some of the hardest hit.
In Blakelaw we have taken matters into our own hands. Three years ago it was announced that our much loved local Library would close as a direct result of Coalition Government cuts. Our community came together and decided to do something about it. Local residents like Ron Clarke and Nick Brown working with myself and my ward colleagues, Sue Pearson and Ben Riley, set about with many others to do things in a very different way. The Blakelaw Ward Community Partnership was formed as a charity with a very simple purpose: to work with partners to build and support strong and sustainable public services, social enterprise, new jobs and resilient communities. We were lucky to employ Glenn Pendleton, who had worked in the Community team at Newcastle Council for 30 years, to lead the Partnership, and since our launch in 2013 things have gone from strength to strength.
We took on the running of our local community centre and we negotiated with the Council to keep our Library open while we worked on plans to fund it. Bu that was just the beginning of our social revolution. With the support of the Blakelaw and North Fenham Community Council, our local primary schools Hilton and Thomas Walling, our social housing provider Your Homes Newcastle and many other partners, we have been able to work together to deliver some remarkable results.
It started with a resident-led redesign of the 165 housing estate in Blakelaw, an estate long blighted with anti-social behaviour problems and low level crime. We worked together as a community to address the problems that were designed into the estate when it was built in the 60’s and we persuaded the Council to spend £2m to implement our plan. Our fabulous youth worker Leanne Chaytor has developed a universal offer for our young residents and is rolling it out across into our community. We have Code Club teaching computer programming to our next generation. We have activities for older residents, a local crèche, environmental services to support the Council, apprenticeships and community allotments. We have gardening schemes, a community café and a project led by local resident Emma Benjamin and local charity, Hearts with Goals, to install defibrillators into every public building in the ward. The list goes on… and all of these amazing things are delivered as public services for public benefit. This is not David Cameron’s Big Society which demands that people do something for nothing, this is about building sustainable public services that meet local need.
And things are about to get even more exciting… Two years ago our local Post Office was under threat of closure. The current Postmaster wanted to retire and the Post Office planned to move the Blakelaw branch well out of reach of residents in Blakelaw for whom the Post Office is a lifeline. We campaigned as a community to keep our Post Office local and with the support of our MP Chi Onwurah the community led campaign was a success.
Our idea was to relocate the Post Office into our Community Centre and Library and rather than the profits flowing into the pockets of an owner, we developed a plan to bring the Blakelaw Post Office into public ownership and plough the profits into public services for our community. After two years of hard work our plan was approved and in January we will move the Post Office into the Blakelaw Community Centre and Library. Every single penny of profit will go into local public services like our Library, our Community Centre and youth work. And we aren’t finished yet…
We are exploring other social enterprises and opportunities to protect Blakelaw Ward residents from the savage cuts being imposed on local Council budgets. Our community has engaged in a peaceful revolution by embracing the awesome power of just doing stuff.
Our socialist Post Office is a model we hope will inspire other communities to act in peaceful defiance of a Government obsessed with austerity. There is another way, and it’s called Socialism. The basic idea that together we can achieve more as a community than we ever could alone.