Colin's Cornucopia

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The Forum

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Chapter 18

The Forum

The community organisations in Spon End evolved from two residents’ associations that grew in response to different issues. The Steeple Green Residents’ Association was formed to turn a derelict area in Dover Street into a pleasant little park. The Northumberland Road Residents’ Association grew up firstly around the fight to save the Moat Building that was part of the Spon Gate School and had been declared surplus to requirements by the local education authority. The school was suffering falling rolls due to the changing nature of the area. Later the association planted several hundred trees, shrubs and bulbs in Northumberland Green that had been formed as a greenspace when the Spon End Waterworks had been closed and developed for housing.

The huge circular settlement tank had been filled in but could not be built upon due to potential subsidence so it was designated as greenspace. The trees and planting scheme were provided by Groundwork and the first community event in which I participated was the layout of the area that we did one Sunday afternoon in the Malt Shovel. The design included laying a complete hedge along Doe Bank Lane to replace an ancient hedge that had disappeared in the various developments of the school.

In 1996 Coventry City Council had formed Area Co-ordination, a department with six divisions that corresponded to the priority areas that had been designated by reference to the deprivation index calculated for each of dozens of areas of the city. The Spon End Estate made the Spon End area a high priority area. The Estate had been built in the early 1960’s when the early 19th century housing had been demolished. Some of it was cleared for building the ring road and some as slum clearance but many quite useful houses were demolished as a matter of policy.

The estate had been the most desirable council housing in Coventry for twenty five years when it was in the centre of a host of major factories producing the motor and machine tool goods which made Coventry rich and famous through much of the twentieth century. There were 20,000 well-paid industrial jobs within ten minutes walk of the estate so the majority of its inhabitants were well paid artisans. Its proximity to the city centre shopping made it desirable and there were a plethora of services available to its citizens.

By 1990 all the jobs had gone as globalisation destroyed the old Coventry companies and the workers went with them. Anybody who had a job could now afford to buy a house and the estate now had a huge number of unemployed people, single mothers and pensioners. The problems of bad behaviour, deprivation, dysfunctional families, crime, arson and drugs plagued the estate. Some of these problems spread into the nearby Victorian “Redbrick” area. The estate was perceived as a key problem for the whole area for its viability was key to the viability of the whole area.

The Forum and Area Co-ordination worked with local residents to form the Spon End Estate Residents’ Association and many activities were encouraged and much good work done.
The Residents’ Associations covered the Estate, three Redbrick areas, a new housing infil project, medieval Spon End, a new housing estate, the old Watch-making area and had associations with a development of high quality flats and the lower part of Earlsdon which had more affinity with us than with the main part of Earlsdon. Other associate members included four churches, five schools, local police officers and several small businesses.

We also established close links with the City Council through direct and permanent links with Area-Coordination and regular links with numerous officers in City Development working on various projects of concern to Forum members.

In particular we established a joint group to tackle the specific problem of the degradation of the housing stock. This was known as the Area of Local Character that later had its name changed to Area of Local Distinctiveness at the demand of the local councillors. This group set out to make a charter for care and control of the housing stock by regulatory means and by educating house owners to the importance of the Victorian character of their homes. This was largely undermined by the rapid growth of multiple tenancies caused by the burgeoning student and single population.

The ALD concept was intended to lead to the creation of a Conservation Area but the local authority had no teeth to stop developers and housing associations ripping the heart out of the housing stock. The enormous pressure for single housing opposed the efforts of the conservationists and unpleasant reality won.

I helped to relocate the local Co-operative Development Association into the Spon End Area. Their proximity made funding applications much easier and they provided a source of excellent advice and practical help for all manner of community activities. They also provided a very critical use for the old and redundant school buildings at Spon Gate.

They employed a full time worker for over twelve months and he and I together developed a lot of ideas for the use of the other redundant school building next door and a lot of good work was done with architects, planners, the local community and the education authority and the Head of the school.

Other residents prepared plans for the resurrection of the local Wakes Festival but walked out on it in a huff when Area Co-ordination would not run the event. I took up the challenge with only six months to go. I eventually had the excellent support of a worker at Area Co-ordination for one day a week for the last six weeks of preparation. Otherwise I did all the planning myself although I was greatly aided in this by Lizzy who worked for the Council Arts department and by Coventry Artspace whose efforts were invaluable. Several members of the community turned out on the day as marshals but did little else to help. The day of the Festival dawned bright and sunny and hot and the event was a roaring success. There have been five festivals since but none has quite matched that first one.

I prepared a comprehensive Greenspace Report on local parks and unused land in the area with a view of creating an extensive park which would bring the countryside right into the heart of the city. The key feature was that most of it existed. It just needed some definition, tidying up and designations for land to ensure that key corridors would not get developed.

I had extensive links with Area Co-ordination and was asked, as chair of the Forum to entertain a visitor from the Cabinet Office who came to check on the effectiveness, or not, of the policies on social inclusion that were being directly applied from the deputy prime minister’s office. A member of the Spon End Resident’s Association and I showed him the Estate and some of the work we were attempting together with a few successes.

A year later he paid a return visit when I was no longer chair of the Forum. The acting chair could not attend so I was asked by Area Co-ordination to fill in. This I did but the acting chair and his girlfriend were quite obviously furious with me. That was the start of the rot in the relationship between me and he.

In October 2001 I resigned as chair of the Forum because I had become stale. I had done all the things I wanted to do and could think of no new directions in which to take the Forum. In May 2002 I left the area in which I had lived most of my life because I no longer enjoyed it. Typical of the problems were the tenant family that moved in next door for nine months. Within six months I had suffered numerous attacks against my property and self and had obtained two Anti Social Behaviour Orders against them and the 14 year old daughter had taken to exposing herself to me from her bedroom window when I was trying to work in my garden.
I left and sold my house to a developer and caused anger and hatred amongst other members of the community. One of the other leading members of a community group married and brought his new bride from a rural area. One day she went out delivering leaflets and came back and said “I didn’t realise we lived in a slum”. They had extensive property and business interests in the area but they started preparing to leave soon after that.

Another leader quit through disillusionment and put her efforts into her new job and the remaining leader became obsessed with his power base and gathered around him a sad coterie of “yes people” who bolstered his sad ego for a few more months.

I moved to a neighbouring area where I had property interests and put my effort into rejuvenating the property. I became a member of the local Residents’ Association that was a member of the Forum and became embroiled in a very nasty and personal vendetta against me: But that story must wait.

As far as I was concerned that was the end of the Forum. Few could be bothered and the only person who wanted to bother was a megalomaniac.

All in all I had taken the Forum from an embryo organisation and turned it into one of the most respected non-aligned political bodies in Coventry. Another man had been my guide throughout this and I made no secret of the fact that I considered my regard for him to border on love. There were a few others who played important parts but we two were the key players. All that was to change drastically in a quite short time.


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