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Gentle Action in Middlesborough: A Pari Center Success Story

Claire and Gordon Shippey, a young couple from Middlesbrough visited the Pari Center in October 2001 to take part in David Peat’s course New Science, New Paradigms. Middlesbrough, situated in the northeast, was the first town in England to owe its existence to a railway. In 1830 the world’s first railroad, the Stockton to Darlington line, was extended to the head of the River Tees estuary and the site became the coal-exporting port of Middlesbrough. With the discovery of iron ore nearby, ironworks were built, followed by steelworks. The town boasts the world’s largest working transporter bridge of its kind, 850 ft long, built in 1911. Its other claim to fame is that the explorer Captain James Cook was born in Marton-in-Cleveland now part of Middlesbrough and the town houses the Captain Cook museum.

Like so many of the towns and cities in northern England it was home to the type of traditional heavy industries (chiefly engineering and steel) that all but disappeared during the tumultuous Thatcher era. The town, which has grown rapidly over the last ten years to a population of around 200,000, has had to face chronic problems of unemployment, crime, drugs, and the disintegration of community. Some parts of the town have become garbage-strewn areas of abandoned and burned-out cars, places no longer safe for children to play. It is one example of the deterioration that has become the fate of so many cities all over the industrialized world. In many cases inner-city areas are allowed to decay to the point where property prices drop to such a level that developers can buy up entire neighborhoods forcing out the existing population in order to create trendy shopping centers or enclaves for the affluent. And so the cycle of community destruction continues as the original inhabitants are forced to move further and further out to the periphery of cities.

The area of Middlesbrough in which Claire and Gordon live is five minutes from the town center – a traditional working class area of row housing with back alleyways separating the rows of houses. The houses are family owned and the residents are employed by the town council or work in shops or factories or at the local mosque. Gordon is a Support Worker (working with people who are physically disabled or have sensory loss) and Claire works as a Production Operator in a factory. Over the past two years there has been a large influx of immigrants and asylum seekers, chiefly from Iraq and Libya, into an area that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK – a situation primed for racial conflict. The Shippeys and their neighbours are not people with a great deal of formal education, have had no previous experience in political activism and certainly do not have friends in high places and yet, by bonding together, were able to bring about important changes in their community.

In the year 2000 there had been prolonged heavy rainfall in many parts of England leading to widespread flooding. The area in which Claire and Gordon live was twice hit by flooding. Gordon described a sound like an explosion (it was the manhole covers being blown out of the drains by the force of rapidly rising water) and then a few minutes later water gushing through both his front and back doors. When the local council seemed slow to take action – in terms of clean-up, testing for contamination in the drinking water, prevention of further flooding – a few neighbors got together and demanded that their elected representatives listen to them. Gordon and Claire were amongst the first activists. A series of “flood meetings” were called at which the council dismissed the flooding as a freak happening, a one-off, even though the residents produced evidence from the environment agency that showed the houses had been built on a flood plain and had had problems for over forty years. The problem was exacerbated by inadequate drains, the lack of drainage in a nearby park and new houses being built in the area putting even more stress on an already over-burdened and outdated drainage system. “Our problem was,” said Gordon, “that at these meetings we were not a cohesive group just a few individuals who were easy to ignore.”

Then in October 2001 Gordon decided that he wanted to take David Peat’s course New Science/New Paradigms in the village of Pari in Italy. Gordon and Claire were struck by the order and cleanliness of the village. In Middlesbrough they lived in a row of houses located between two main roads. As Gordon said, “While Pari is an island surrounded by green, we are in a sea of roads.” The couple noticed that house keys were left in the doors and people gathered in the square to talk. Pari was a place where everyone knew each other. “I felt ashamed,” said Gordon, “when I think our block is only half the size of Pari yet we didn’t even know each other’s names. What hit me most and changed the way I felt about my hometown was when David showed us a video of Pari’s Sagra (the annual autumn festival). We could see the way that people had worked together. Little did I know but my wife was having thoughts about how to get our flood message across and also tackle other problems. Claire just said, ‘Let’s get to know others in our block and start a formal group of some kind. This way we can get around councilor apathy and other issues.’ We talked till late into the night. One thing that struck us was that we had made social connections with others at the course within the short period of a week. So we thought perhaps the same thing could be done in our own area at home – that perhaps within a short time we could band together and form a group. Looking back to 2000 (before Pari) I think it was implicit in all of us to bond together after Mother Nature had paid us an unwelcome visit! However Pari helped to unfold that thought in Claire’s mind.”

“When we got back Claire’s work prevented her from getting the group together (she works the night shift) so I took it on with the help of two others, Nassian Hussian and Jason Stead. I had thought that we were being too naive and most people would tell us where to go. We went round from door to door talking to people and lo and behold I was surprised to find that everyone agreed that action must be taken. We got in touch with the councilor for our ward and got the use of a local center for meetings. We already had a specific area mapped out and a name for the group – TAMS (Talbot Street/Alleys/Marton Rd/Southfield Rd – the immediate streets most badly in need of community action). We felt the flood issue was the best way to get a group together – the flood strengthened the bond. After that we could start sorting out all the other problems.”

One of these problems was the shared back alleys between the rows of houses. Not only did they house the garbage cans but were also strewn with trash – including burnt-out cars – that residents from other streets had dumped. The alleys were also a haven for drug dealers. Gordon describes how things began and progressed.

“After we formed TAMS — which unlike most the community councils and resident groups is not a property of the local authority and therefore is free to be spontaneous and creative, we are in affect a free Association of people — we began to talk to each other and children started to play outside. An older lady (89) said that the last time she saw this kind of thing round here was 35 years ago. We have met with local government officials and police and, as a collective, we have managed to push forward our idea of turning our burnt-out alleys into places where we can live and have parties We also got help from groups of local disabled people who helped set out a garden project.We have put forward other proposals, such as hanging baskets of flowers and blocking off the main road. We are now at the point of changing the area into a kind of village within a town. We had a good response from the shops in the area and the University of Teesside are willing to work with us as a number of houses are rented by students. Also the Member of Parliament for the area was impressed with the number of people who turned out to our meeting.”

Below highlights the problem with having an imposing a authority dressed up as if it was community lead

For years Linthorpe ward had a community council ably and voluntarily run by George Melville [Local resident] for the benefit of constituents. Then in 2004 objections were raised to:

 An alleged irregularity at the AGM, namely failure to give 21 days notice; When that AGM was again held, to the non-acceptance and signing up to a new constitution that allows councillors to stand as officers on the committee. Further knowledge emerged that these community councils are, in fact, run by the council, owned by the council, funded by the council – and the council will brook no criticism of their services.

So it was alleged against George that he allowed criticisms to be voiced. The upshot was that it was ordered that another community council be set up in the ward. It is this community council and chairman who now stand accused of: Alleged irregularities, namely failing to give 21 days notice for an AGM that was cancelled, and two weeks notice of a new date given only on the day the original one should have been held;  Failure to inform residents about planning applications and town-wide developments, as well as scrutiny panel recommendations likely to affect community councils, ward and area structures; In my opinion both councils should be treated the same.

Jackie Elder, Councillor for Linthorpe Ward

The larger and more costly issue was the ongoing problem of flooding. As TAMS began to get coverage in the local newspapers and on the radio stations the council finally admitted that there was indeed a problem, that the flood system didn’t work, that people in the area had suffered and now lived in fear of health problems from contaminated water. In fact the residents, led by TAMS, had been left to clean up after the flooding – a job that took six months to decontaminate the area.

Gordon says that there is still a great deal of work to be done. He and his fellow members of TAMS recognize that flooding won’t always be preventable but feel that the least the council could is to have defensive measures in place – global warming isn’t going to go away and flooding is certainly going to recur. TAMS approached the council with an action plan that included asking for grants to fortify their homes against flooding only to be told that privately owned homes are not eligible for grants (untrue). In coming up with this action plan TAMS contacted two inventors about flood defense – one who had invented a type of plastic board that vacuum seals doors and windows and the other who had developed a fabric that sticks to air bricks.

Gordon feels that, as chairperson of TAMS, he being given the run around at the Town Hall meetings. For example, he took a day off work after being invited to meet the town council. When he arrived for the meeting he was asked to return as the council first needed to consult its lawyer. On his return he was asked to leave immediately without being given the chance to speak. He complains also that members of TAMS are not being given sufficient notice of meetings nor allowed enough time to make their point at council meetings or are told to “shut up” when topics are raised that the council have no wish to address. A more serious charge of harassment directed at the Vice Chair of TAMS (that resulted in his resignation) has been leveled against one of the councilors.