History, Community and the Future

Head and shoulders shot of Ju Gosling AKA ju90, with short red hair and black glasses13 DECEMBER 2016 JU GOSLING AKA ju90 WRITES: 
Today was the annual Local Disability History Day, organised by the Newham Disabled Reps Forum who meet on the second Tuesday of each month year-round. Over the last few years, the Local History Day has enabled us all to find out about the history of different communities in the borough through personal storytelling, as well as more about each year’s Disability History Month theme (Disability and Language in 2016). This has also enabled us to become closer as a local disabled people’s movement.

The diversity of the disabled people and carers who attend Local Disability History Day is a direct challenge to the recent Casey Review into opportunities and segregation. The Casey Review pointed to Green Street — London’s ‘India Town’ — as an increasingly divided area. In reality, Green Street with its Queen’s Market is one of the most popular shopping streets for the whole community, as well as for visitors from across London and beyond. Until recently, large numbers of mainly white football supporters were made welcome on a weekly basis too. And despite statistics claiming to show ‘white flight’, our Chair Julie Newman – of white English/Irish/Italian extraction – only moved to Green Street 10 years ago, while her neighbours come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

It may be true that disabled people (and their carers) are more integrated than non-disabled people. We all use the same services, and face similar barriers, so we have plenty in common to talk about. Since only 16% of the borough identify as ‘White English’, most local disabled people face intersectional discrimination too, including those of us who are both White English and LBGT. But of course we don’t just talk about our problems together. We also create art, poetry, music, films….. And each year the Disabled Reps Forum organises a festive lunch alongside Local Disability History Day, celebrating Christmas even though many of those present including the main organisers are not Christian.

What is of great concern to all of us working locally for the promised Paralympic Legacy is the fact that community facilities are being removed even as the number of homes in the borough is increasing rapidly. Community centres are being closed and rented out for office space, or sites being re-used for housing. Current local planning policy seems to state that before an empty community facility can even be considered for a new service, it has to be rejected for use for housing. Planners appear to believe that in the future residents can access cultural and other facilities in central London – or ultimately, literally across the tracks in North Stratford – turning the bulk of Newham into a dormitory zone.

Community centre closures hurt disabled people the most, but damage cohesion across the community. Disabled people are, statistically, much less likely to be mobile and affluent enough to travel to access facilities, and are the most likely to need facilities and services on their doorstep. However, without places to meet locally, no community of any sort can flourish. Bars and pubs are not only unattractive to the sizeable number of Muslims living in Newham, but increasingly to younger people from all backgrounds. We believe that planners should be demanding new community facilities alongside new housing developments. Simply asking developers to contribute to library and schools refurbishment, as is happening now, is totally inadequate, particularly considering that the new residents will also need access to healthcare, social care and a wide range of other services too, putting additional pressure on services that are already struggling to cope.

Community centres host services and activities for vulnerable adults; nursery and after-school services and youth activities; fitness and wellbeing activities; and provide spaces for the whole community to come together as well as hosting wedding receptions, birthday parties and other celebrations. Community centres also, of course provide places for people to engage in arts activities, including classes, rehearsals and performances. Both Vicarage Lane Community Centre, where our year-round programme is based, and the Old Town Hall, provide space for the whole community to meet, united by common interests as well as having room for individual groups to thrive and gain pride. Yet a significant number of community centres have already been closed, while there is talk of selling the Old Town Hall, which has been the focal point of our community in the west of the borough for more than a century.

The Social Value Act and the Community Rights Act enable local authorities to transfer community centre ownership; in conjunction with building more community centres, we would like to see these powers used so that the community can run our own facilities. Organisations such as Together! 2012 CIC are able to access a wide range of trust and grant funds to subsidise running costs that are unavailable to the public sector, while many community centre services are already delivered by volunteers. Community centres provide critical services and activities for residents of every age; increasing segregation is just one consequence of closures. If central and local government are unable to meet their promises to disabled people and local residents about the benefits that would arise from the London 2012 Paralympic Games, then let local people – as with Together! 2012 CIC – do it for ourselves.

Many thanks to Sarifa Patel, Christine Dolyak and all of the Disabled Reps team for their festive hospitality.