‘Camden has a proud, rebellious spirit.’ The opening lines of Camden 2025, the London borough’s vision for the future, describe the personality of the place. But as the leader and chief executive of Camden meet The MJ, it couldn’t be more apt.
For the first time in 20 years, the council sent a team to London’s Pride March and is just about to hold a LGBT+ themed council meeting. It is literally putting Pride at the heart of the authority.
Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden, explains: ‘We have always been really proud of our diversity and social mix. But we were really conscious that even when we had funding we weren’t challenging inequality. We wanted to find a way of working differently with our communities.’
The answer was a lot of ‘deep community work’, working with the people of the borough to write a plan to tackle the challenges they thought were most important. That became Camden 2025. ‘What really came out was how much Camden as a place meant to people… but also a real fear that some of that was under threat.’ Again, the answer was to work with communities even more. ‘We are trying to genuinely share power, to mobilise this resource we have in our place.’
There has been an influx of big tech firms and multinationals into Camden as it pushed forward growth – the council’s own offices sit aside Google – the council didn’t want the economic opportunities it afforded the place to be at the expense of the residents.
But without all the answers and the levers to solve the social issues arising in the council, Cllr Gould suggests it meant they had to become a ‘convenor’ and community ‘anchor’ as well as a service provider. ‘We don’t have all the levers to solve these problems so we have to work differently with our communities. That’s where the 2025 vision was set out. We want to create an alternative to the austerity and division and fragmentation we are seeing at a national level, somewhere that still has hope and community and connectedness.’
Camden’s chief executive, Jenny Rowlands, joined the authority three years ago as director of communities under former chief Mike Cooke before she took on the top job in January this year. Her role was to ‘go deeper into our communities’. When she came into post, she launched a ‘listening exercise’ alongside the leader, which saw diversity issues coming strongly to the forefront. Women, BAME staff, the LGBT+ community, disability groups – they all came forward to talk about glass ceilings and how the lack of role models left them in a position where they were almost self-selecting not to go for promotions. Out of that came the decision to go to Pride.
Now, they have talked so much about inclusion that it is almost not talked about anymore. ‘You move to what we call relational activism. What happens when you really are working as equals with your community, your businesses, to keep a place where everyone has an opportunity,’ Ms Rowlands says.
She says the former chief executive left her with an ‘amazing opportunity’ that just needs to be unleashed. ‘The question now is, how do we create something at pace and scale that challenges the [social] problems. Young people say to us “we see the glass buildings but we don’t have a bit of the action”.’
Despite sitting in the council’s impressive new office, which sits at the heart of the King’s Cross regeneration project, there has been no major shift in unemployment in the borough, and 58% of residents in poverty are working.
Ms Rowlands says: ‘We had a session where someone said “we are all working harder and we are not getting richer”. We are the fourth most expensive part of London. Without us helping you stay in housing, no one can afford to stay here.’
‘Camden residents want to work together to keep what they think is Camden as a special place. We are custodians of that.’
For the leader, who grew up and went to school locally, it is particularly difficult. The council has built 1,100 new homes, and is putting £5m into employment, including ‘looking at’ basic universal income.
It’s not the only experiments to try to work in new ways that take the council closer to the community. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of how Camden operates comes when you look at the council meetings. Cllr Gould explains that, historically, the council meeting was ‘not the most enjoyable of experiences’. In an attempt to harness civil participation and share power with the community, Camden wanted to look at how to open up democratic services. ‘We wanted to start having debates that were meaningful,’ Cllr Gould explains.
Instead of traditional meetings, Camden’s council meetings are based around themes – youth safety, social isolation, homelessness and of course LGBT+ issues – and they use guest speakers from around the borough.
‘We changed the way we did things,’ Cllr Gould says. ’We have a much more dynamic questioning section. We have reduced some of the stuff that we didn’t think was working. They have been incredibly powerful.’
There are citizen’s assemblies too, that inform the council on what their residents actually want.
Ms Rowlands says she has been asked by other authorities what the council would do if the assembly comes back with extreme ideas. ‘The whole point is, if you have that discussion you are less likely to have extreme ideas.’
‘A lot of councils are doing a neighbourhood approach but in Camden it feels really natural.’
The leader adds: ‘I really believe in this as a model for this moment, because I think the division we are seeing in politics, the breakdown in trust, means there aren’t any spaces where we come together and negotiate our differences and discuss ideas.
‘Sometimes the social media debate is incredibly divisive. No one just says “I disagree” on Twitter, it is “a plague on all your families”. You get really deep dialogue.’
Again, it comes back to cohesion, to bringing diverse groups together – to those moments of big civic and social celebration that had been cut under austerity before the council’s decision to return to Pride.
The borough has been plagued with incidents of hate crime, from LGBT attacks, to Muslim constituents being spat at and harassed, to disability hate crime. ‘All of that is going on in one of the most diverse parts of London so we have a responsibility to knit our community together and build relationships. But we also need to model that as an organisation,’ Cllr Gould says.
But the two women focus on the more positive side of Camden, with its vibrant social activism. Ms Rowlands explains: ‘Camden has had a big radical history, with the start of so many massive social movements. We have fought for LGBT rights, for race equality, we have had big tenants’ movements.
‘We are a place where people speak out, where they are active and we are incredibly proud of that. We want that, we want people to be challenging and push us. It is the sort of place where people can shout at you and give you a big hug afterwards.
We are trying to keep our assets, keep our history so we can be as challenging in 100 years’ time.’