Young mothers in the labyrinth of power: When a nursery was threatened, Nicola Jones and others put local democracy to the test

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WITH a group of local people, mainly young mothers, I have spent the last year fighting the closure of an under-fives project in Peckham, south London, called the Hummingbird, which I had used when my children were small.

The project, in an inner-city area that has one of the highest percentages of children under five in the country, was funded by a national children's charity and Southwark council. The charity decided to withdraw its funding from May 1991, since it felt its priorities lay elsewhere. The council felt it could not meet the shortfall. The nursery, which took 30 children, 20 of whom had been referred by social services as being in need of day-care provision, would be closed. The creche and drop-in would also disappear.

Most people pay their community charge, have an occasional grumble about the litter in the streets or the state of the pavements and leave it at that. We tend to be fatalistic about cuts in services and accept them as a fact of life. Occasionally, however, something happens that is unacceptable and compels us to complain. Then begins a frustrating and confusing journey through the tortuous corridors of local government. Unless you have a great deal of spare time, an endless supply of patience, money to pay your increased phone bill and an innate ability to detect delaying tactics, you will fail.

The first problem we faced was our lack of knowledge about who to tackle. The next was how to speak to those we were fighting. Council officers spoke to us as though everything was a fait accompli. The future was decided in committees with confusing names, and decisions had to go through two or three committees before they were made. Yet councillors are just ordinary people elected to serve us. They are public servants. Why, then, is so much of what they do hidden from the people they serve?

We began to unravel the tangled web. This took countless phone calls and hundreds of letters. Very few of them were answered. People we phoned were often sick, or on leave, or in a meeting. Once, when we were unable to speak to an officer for three days about something we needed to know, we went to the office and refused to leave until he saw us. We were dealt with more carefully afterwards.

The Local Government Act of 1985 entitles citizens to know what is happening inside town halls, and allows access to many reports and council documents. But these are often couched in very diifficult language. There are numerous bits of paper, which often refer to other bits of paper to which you do not have access.

Councils do not go out of their way to tell the public about access to such information. Southwark and the neighbouring Lambeth council have no leaflets available to explain council procedure in simple terms. The only organisation I have found that clearly sets out the way citizens can influence council decisions is the Community Rights project, based in Islington, north London. This is a voluntary organisation, set up in response to concern over the level of secrecy in the community, which sponsored the 1985 Local Government Act.

We have a right to attend meetings of council committees and subcommittees. But finding out which meeting you need to attend is not easy. Once you have overcome this obstacle, you might want to speak to someone from the council. But whom? Few people know the difference between a council officer and a councillor. Although a salaried officer makes the day- to-day recommendations about what should be done, councillors - who are elected - take the ultimate decisions.

You have a right to make a deputation to a committee meeting, where you will have 10 minutes to have your say on an item on the agenda. Most people find public speaking difficult. In our campaign, young mothers who had never spoken in public before had to stand up in front of 20 people, in formal surroundings, to put their case. They were never introduced to the councillors and often did not know the difference between the clerk and the chair, or which political party each councillor belonged to.

There were frequently not enough seats, and events during the meeting were not explained. Decisions were often wrapped up in procedures that seemed to us almost designed to cause confusion.

We decided that it was the system that was wrong, not us. We took our children to council meetings, as much out of necessity as a desire to cause disruption, spilling out building bricks and drawing paper on the council chamber carpet to keep the children amused and to illustrate tangibly how hard it was to organise ourselves with toddlers constantly demanding attention.

We asked to be introduced before a session and requested copies of agendas when we were not given them. We politely drew attention to the fact that falling asleep or knitting during our deputations was not what we had elected councillors for. We gently reminded officers that our money paid their wages, and told local MPs if we were dissatisfied with our treatment.

Early on, we realised that things rarely happened as people said they would, so we wrote everything down and reminded people of what they had promised to do and had not done. It was hard work for a group of mothers who had precious little spare time or energy.

Some improvements have been made. Town halls have set up information desks and it is possible to obtain lists of councillors and meet them at surgeries. However, procedures need to be monitored and changes made to the law to help to make proceedings more understandable to the public. We should never forget that public money pays for council salaries and expenses and the very seats that officers and councillors are sitting on.

Although we lost the fight against the closure of a nursery for 30 children, the creche and drop-in remain, run by the parents who fought its closure and who are now a lot wiser and stronger as a result of their campaign. Local democracy still works, it seems. The question is, should it be such hard work?

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