Hilary Cottam > Blog > Uncategorized > Hasty Notes

Hasty Notes

I spent last week working in East Ayrshire.  It was inspiring.  What is happening in East Ayrshire, often against some pretty difficult odds, is something most places in Britain could learn from.  Here I share some rough and ready thoughts from my notebook.

All you need is love?

A 21st century health system is much talked about and far from happening.  This is because most efforts at change start in the system with institutional reform programmes.  It’s the wrong place.  Change needs to start with people, in their communities – where health is made.  And this sort of change requires a different sort of leadership.  Showing a deep understanding of the challenge Brigid Russell and her colleagues at Project Lift, in collaboration with the Scottish government have designed an experiential programme they call leadership3 (leadership cubed). I have been lucky enough to be a small part of the work over the last 12 months and I was able to join the team again in East Ayrshire.

Last week love was the theme of the meeting. This was in part a homage to the publication of the Scottish Care Review – an outstanding example of participatory policy making – which places relationships and children’s need for love front and centre of its recommendations.   It is clear that to make change in our lives we need to talk about love in the radical way embodied in the Care Review.  And – as everything I saw later in the week in East Ayrshire demonstrates – cultivating a culture of kindness allows for real system change.

And yet, I don’t actually think that ‘all you need is love’.  At a personal level, many of us have grappled with challenges of addiction or depression and we know that love for someone close to us is fundamental but not enough.  And at the system level change is about understanding power dynamics and being able to invert and sometimes confront the status quo.  I talk a lot in my work about relationships but I have been careful to ground my thinking and advocacy for relationships within the capability framework of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum in recognition of the critical inter-play between emotions, material realities and power.

The theme did provoke a brilliant discussion – participants commented that we had gone deep – and what a gathering. It was a treat to be in conversation with Donna Hall, Katie Kelly, Fiona Lees and Maureen Swannie, so warmly facilitated by Grecy Bell.  All these women leaders had powerful insights but more than that they have done/are doing this work in practice: handing power to communities, embracing capabilities and their full human qualities in their style of leadership.

Home Link

Family life is hard in modern Britain.  I have written about this at length – about the ways that families need light touch, timely support but instead find themselves faced with a centralised, scrutiny based social work system where the emphasis is not on family development or kindness but rather social workers are forced to emphasise managing risk.

Home Link in East Ayrshire is family led, light touch and the antidote to the dominant system.  This Scotland wide initiative sits within education and is meant to grapple with challenges of low school attendance and attainment.  In the communities of East Ayrshire this brief has been deftly interpreted.  A small team work within communities and see themselves as at the service of all families.  If things are tough they arrive to make a cup of tea bringing the milk and the bread for toast (it is a shocking reality that hunger is a constant issue for so many of the families I met last week).

Home Link workers might spend time playing on the carpet with children or taking a walk round the block with an angry teenager.  They are building relationships and trust; they are ironing out the wrinkles that might mean a child is not in school or might be a warning of deeper troubles beneath. Because they are allowed to work without an agenda and because they are linked in the communities’ minds to the primary schools rather than the much-feared social work systems that threaten child removal, they are welcomed into homes and the results are tangible.

Community Organising in the 21st Century

There’s a curious double talk pervasive in our country right now.  Number 10 – and therefore the national press – are full of the stories of ‘Levelling Up’, the investment that has been promised to the communities of Northern England and beyond.  But the present reality for local government is still one of making budget cuts.  Most councils have got to find further savings this year on top of the deep, cruel cuts already made.  East Ayrshire is no exception.   They have decided to invest in people not fixed assets: their social infrastructure.  (If you are not a public servant it might be hard to understand just how hard and brave a decision this is right now).

The communities I visited last week – Netherthird, Rankinston, Ochiltree – can all draw on a community organiser to help them do whatever it is they want to do.  They have been handed back the assets – community halls, community gardens – and then with the support of the community organisers they have found new ways to do things.  Rankinston is a former deep mining village which was covered in snow and whipped by sharp winds the day I visited.  The warmth within the village hall could not have been more of a contrast.  Rankinston has shrunk in size and suffered very hard times.  Yet the warmth in the village hall was not just down to the heating, but the hubbub of mothers meeting and talking, the energy of the women who run the project and children of all ages playing during their half term.  This hall, once derelict was full, busy and once again at the heart of community life – run and owned now by the community.  The changes have been possible because of deep community engagement allowing for abandoned houses to be removed in return for investment in the village hall and playground – all facilitated by community workers and their peers in Home Link and Housing.

In Netherthird I saw the same thing.  A hall once run down and defended by razor wire is now open and thriving supported by a café, a gym and a vintage clothing shop.  Once slated for demolition this hall will now be expanded by the community who are raising funds to add more rooms for children’s play and for health and wellbeing services.  In Netherthird as in Rankinston this work is helped by a community worker who is clearly at the service of the community.  This is a power shift in action: it was clear that the plans and the vision belong to the formidable community organisations in these places.  They do not look to the Council for money but they do value the convening power, connections, skills and deep commitment of the community workers.


In Ochiltree the community rejected the transfer of the building asking instead for land ownership.  With an audacious vision the community of Ochiltree raised over £2 million and built a gorgeous community centre with spaces to meet, dance, read and play.  Ochiltree Hub is a physical statement of the communities’ belief in themselves and their future, of worth and possibility.  A committed team of volunteers and a project worker are still learning how to make sure everyone visits and becomes part of the project. Ochiltree Hub felt to me like a modern-day Peckham Experiment in the way it understands well-being as a thing of social relationships and shared activity.  I hope they can make it work and in the meantime everyone who can should take a de-tour to the café which has one of Britain’s finest views.

The 50+ revolution

In every community it is older, retired people – and mainly, but not only women who are organising, learning to run community businesses and making the connections, confronting the economic and social troubles which remain very real.  So much talk, so many words of worry written about our ageing society – frankly where would we be without it.  The women of Rankinston and Netherthird I salute you.

Connecting is tough

In Rankinston it costs £6.50 to take the bus trip to the nearest town (this is necessary to visit the doctor, work, go to the Post Office or the super market).  This sum is almost three times the cost of a central London tube journey (£2.40) despite the fact that London incomes are almost three times the level of Rankinston incomes. Added to this, the bus runs every two hours so it also costs most of the day to take the trip.

And then there is the internet: in Rankinston many homes have no connection and for those that do the speeds are painfully slow – this is not a place you can run a modern business.

These are not original observations but it remains astounding that national governments of all political persuasions over decades have ignored the basics.  We can talk about relationships and levelling up all we like, but if we can’t connect, it is just that – talk.

Good Work

I chose East Ayrshire as the first location to explore my good work project in part because they have started their own very powerful work revolution.  The Council and the Health Service are major employers (over 12,000 workers) so Katie Kelly, Deputy Chief Executive, under her brief of building Vibrant Communities has asked how work could be re-shaped to better serve the community and individual workers.

The Community Workers and Home Link workers are part of this revolution able to define their days and priorities in response to community realities.  Housing teams too are working in a very different way.   ‘Our gas engineers can see much more than the boiler’ one local leader explained.  Changes started when a gas engineer returned to head office shocked by the poverty of one local gentleman whose house contained nothing more than a thread bare sofa.  We have to be part of a deeper change he told his colleagues, some of whom were suspicious at first: ‘we’re not social workers mate’.  But many more wanted to be part of change and innovations have included training for those with hard skills – the plumbers, electricians etc – in ‘coaching conversations’.  Housing teams have the ability to ask residents what is going on and get help in early before families are at the point they cannot pay their rent for example.  Housing Officers have also developed a text based service called ‘Our Street’ where residents can report any worries they have -anonymously if they like – which once again ensures small problems do not become bigger ones. All of this imaginative work has delivered necessary savings although this was not the driving force.

Katie Kelly has also been looking at the working lives of those who do some of the toughest but most important local jobs: clearing the grounds, digging the graves, driving Gritney Spears and the other wittily named gritting lorries that were so much in evidence last week. Work Transitions offers these critical workers the opportunity to multi task and to progress into work which is less physically demanding.  The role of a caretaker for example has been positioned as a progression rather than an either/or job choice in recognition that very few can or want to do tough physical work in their 50s but they have much to offer the community, so this can be a later life job.   A lot of pride was on show – in an organisation that has embraced the whole person and put an ethos of kindness at the centre. For Katie this is the first step in an idea that is growing around a different sort of community economy.

So much more to do

Every time I suggested to Katie, or to Fiona Lees the Chief Executive whose leadership and community commitment has led to the vision ( as in Wigan, longevity and stable local teams and leadership are a core part of the success story here) or to Joanna and Adam the Home Link workers , to Melissa a community worker, to Margaret the community leader in Netherthird or to Daniel a groundsman, that something  they were doing was rather impressive, they smiled and countered with a comment on how much more there is to do, or a story about what is not working and what they are grappling with.  A couple of years ago visiting Norway, the Mayor introduced a speech I was to give remarking, that we trust Hilary because she is always talking about the mistakes she has made.  His comments made me and everyone else laugh at the time, but I remembered them this week.  This culture of open learning, the sense that everyone has only just begun, despite the big changes already made was deeply inspiring.

Finally – are you cooking your rice right?  One person I kept bumping into last week was Chef Chris.  I got a new cooking tip every time starting in Rankinston where at a community cooking class he showed us an ingenious and new way to cook rice which works very well, particularly if like a lot of the mothers I know, you have only two pans and one hot plate/ring (see below).  Chef Chris exemplifies the East Ayrshire story.  Cooking with the mothers in Rankinston one day, later in the week he made soup and canapes for those who came to my workshops: the home link workers, the groundsmen and gravediggers and the local politicians who kindly dropped by later – we were all seated at beautifully laid tables and served delicious soup and home-made bread.  Chef Chris and his team buy everything locally,  It has taken 10 years to encourage local production to the levels necessary.  I don’t think Chef Chris can have anything as 20th century as a job description – at least I can’t imagine how it would summarise everything he does – but his way of being and working exemplifies the East Ayrshire magic.

‘Rankie Rice’: the Chef Chris Recipe

Cover your rice with water – leave for 30 minutes.  Don’t drain – just bring to the boil.  Take off the heat – leave for 45 minutes.  Perfect rice.

Kilmarnock, February 2020

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