For reasons I find hard to fathom, I found myself meandering through a department store at the weekend, and I was gobsmacked by the way you can hardly sell anything without a celebrity’s recommendation.
So the kitchenware section was stacked high with crockery endorsed by Gordon Ramsay, possibly because it’s good for hurling across the room. There were frying pans with Jamie Oliver’s cheeky chops across the packaging, doubtless in the hope of winning bulk orders from school caterers.
We do the same thing in regeneration. The other day I was called up by a breathless PR executive, all of a flutter because there’s a report out about Staiths South Bank in Gateshead, where fashion guru Wayne Hemingway has been working with developers George Wimpey. I’ve got nothing against gurus, but isn’t it strange how it’s the rich and successful who are listened to, even in a sector that depends absolutely on hearing the voices of the excluded and powerless?
Oddly, while we can’t resist fawning at the feet of celebs, we have a clever mechanism that stops us celebrating ordinary people’s achievements. It consists of damning community activists as ‘the usual suspects’.
On the face of it, this is an attempt to extend engagement with local people beyond existing networks. In reality, it can sideline people who have already worked their socks off for the benefit of their communities.
Now I know enough community activists to understand that they aren’t the easiest people to work with. They insist on being treated as equals, for a start, which is most uncomfortable if you value people according to their place in the bureaucratic pecking order. What’s more, they make demands: they expect politicians and chief officers to keep their promises.
But they can bring about change, and their right to sit at the table is validated by the work they do. These ‘usual suspects’ have been as instrumental as any statutory agency in achieving the improvements in some of our worst estates noted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week.
Indeed, many of these usual suspects are local heroes who have shown more courage, vision and resilience than any of the officials who so casually dismiss their efforts. We need to praise them, not bury them.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine