We need the People’s Powerhouse now more than ever

By Tracy Fishwick | 08 November 2019

Later this month (19 November) the People’s Powerhouse will be heading to Sunderland for our third annual Convention.

When former SOLACE Chair and Doncaster Chief Executive Jo Miller and I set up the People’s Powerhouse in 2017 it was supposed to be a one off event – an answer to a Northern Powerhouse conference which didn’t include women’s voices and which we knew didn’t reflect the real issues people and communities across the North are grappling with each day; and that wasn’t really talking about much beyond economic growth.

The need for the People’s Powerhouse and an alternative, optimistic vision for the North where more people from a diverse range of backgrounds get to influence the decisions that are made about their lives is only increasing. As is the need for a positive message for change that resonates with ordinary people.

We welcomed the launch last week of the Manifesto for the North. At our event we want to now bring into the discussion the voices and views of people and communities from right across the North. The People’s Powerhouse Convention will include community groups, social enterprises, politics, think thanks, housing, the public sector and arts organisations because that’s the way we will come up with better solutions that truly reflect the priorities of people in the North.

It’s important to recognise that many people across the North are struggling – in large part because local authority budgets have been cut to the bone. Earlier this month IPPR North - who are on the People’s Powerhouse steering group along with other organisations including CLES, RSA North and JRF - pointed out that five years on from the launch of the Northern Powerhouse 200,000 more children are living in poverty in the North. The Manchester Evening News has recently highlighted the fact that in Greater Manchester six families a day are being placed in temporary accommodation. In Liverpool, where I head up a social enterprise called Transform Lives Company, we support people into work.  Like many areas, there’s a disconnect.  The City Region policy focus is higher skills, digital and innovation, yet the people we meet every day, whose talents are impressive but hidden, are often stuck.  The system sees people as benefit claimants, economically inactive, unskilled problem people.  We see people who are artists, carers, garden lovers, musicians, athletes, mentors, pet-owners, parents; they are funny, clever, experienced, determined, diverse, passionate, compassionate.  They’re coming to Sunderland with me! 

Sunderland City Council Chief Executive Patrick Melia will be at our event. He started his local government career in what today we’d call an apprenticeship. His focus is on opportunities for local people, their health and opportunities for families.  He knows the area can improve and I hope some of the ideas we’re bringing can get some traction.

There are such a huge number of community organisations working locally that it can be hard for local authorities to know where to start. In the North East there’s a thriving voluntary sector organisation VONNE which has over 1,000 members. But it’s important to be open to new approaches, new partnerships, new ways of testing things locally to see if they work. And it’s important for anyone working for a local authority to hear from people that are not from that world.

There’s no shortage of ideas being discussed include a People’s Plan for the North, universal basic income, a community bank for the North East and the role of citizens’ assemblies. There will be a much bigger focus on arts and culture than in previous years. For example, the day will be hosted by the poet Kate Fox who’s a big supporter of what we’re trying to achieve. Heather Peak Morrison from Studio Morison is hosting one of our expert sessions. Her practice, established over the past 15 years, blurs art, architecture and theatre. Heather and Studio Morison are working to bring the arts back into civic life. Heather is leading on a major project called Bliss Park in St Helen’s, Merseyside which will help create a new public art policy for the town. It’s creating that kind of connection and collaboration across traditional work boundaries that we are trying to encourage.  I hope you’ll consider joining us in Sunderland in a fortnight’s time.

The People’s Powerhouse Convention takes place on 19 November 2019 from 10am- 4.30pm at the Beacon of Light, Sunderland. For more information on the event and to book visit: www.peoplespowerhouse.org.uk

Tracy Fishwick is the director, People’s Powerhouse

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