Holding those in power accountable through community actionWhat does it mean to make a place ‘fairer’ for the people who live there? Here in Renfrewshire, we see the day to day impact of ongoing austerity politics and the cost of living crisis taking its toll on the people who live, work, and play here. The gap between rich and poor is constantly widening and impacts on quality of life, opportunities and chances for those who call Renfrewshire home. In August 2022, Renfrewshire Council formed a Fairer Renfrewshire Sub-committee to tackle inequality and other issues facing local communities because of the Covid pandemic and in light of the cost-of-living crisis, by bringing together the council’s Tackling Poverty, Social Renewal and Alcohol and Drug Change programmes. In acknowledgement that citizens with lived-experience are the experts on their lives, they requested proposals for a community group to recruit and support a Panel. STAR Project’s proposal was successful and we were confident the people we recruited would rise to the challenge - making it clear that local policy was directly contributing to the unfair situation on the ground, and that listening to lived-experience and ideas would be the only way to change things.
We began contacting community members who might be interested in the opportunity. We were keen to have a panel that was as diverse as possible, so we reached out to partner organisations to nominate individuals who might be interested. Those we spoke to jumped at the chance to be involved in the panel and influence Renfrewshire Council’s policies. To ensure that the Panel was as accessible as possible, we added a creative element into the workshops by linking in with local artist Davidt Dunlop. We asked him to help translate the group’s sessions into a piece of work everyone could contribute to. When we pulled everyone together for the first meeting, the sense of anger and frustration at the unjust system was clear. The group began getting to know one another, sharing stories and experiences on a pattern of topics - housing, mental health, benefits, addiction, young people’s provision - the list went on and on.
Over the course of several weeks, the panel began working through their own agenda for what a fairer Renfrewshire should look like. This came with questions which the Council, often sitting in on meetings themselves, were happy to answer; how was housing allocation decided? Who was directly responsible for mental health provision in the area? What were the plans for summer holiday activities and opportunities for young people? Through listening to and sharing with one another, a clear feeling of solidarity and determination seemed to grow within the group, and as the Council listened and began to talk about potential solutions, there was hope that these discussions could affect material change. Alongside the panel’s weekly meetings, Davidt led creative workshops that were part debrief from the council’s session and part reflection on poverty related issues. This led to the Panel developing brilliant and affecting artwork based on the topics covered and producing a zine to demonstrate their work. Being involved in the panel by taking notes at each session was genuinely inspiring. The group supported one another straight away, and were not only incredibly compassionate with one another but consistently ambitious and creative about how problems could be solved. The respect they commanded from local policymakers demonstrated how effective they had been at working together, taking the project seriously on the behalf of their communities. It has been fantastic to see how the panel has progressed, and I truly think it could be an excellent blueprint for other areas and local governments to follow. It’s the right way to make policy, and it gets results.
Every individual who started with Fairer Renfrewshire has consistently shown up and committed to the success of the project, from the very first meeting. When the panel began, there were 12 members from around the Renfrewshire council area. In June we were so sad to learn that John Green had suddenly passed away. John was a loved member of STAR Project and a passionate activist who made a big impact on everyone who met him. He is greatly missed by the panel and his dedication to making change happen in this community will be carried and continued by every member.
The Fairer Renfrewshire Panel continues to be supported by STAR Project but remains independent and self-directed. The first phase of the project was co-facilitated by the Poverty Alliance as they had previous experience in developing citizen-led panels. Throughout the 12 weeks of phase 1, the partnership working between Renfrewshire Council, the Poverty Alliance, STAR Project and the Panel resulted in meaningful work that was led by the people it impacted as opposed to being led by policy. The Panel have meaningful and supportive relationships with one another, and they are keen for change. After hosting a successful showcase event attended by 35 Council members, there are now a number of priorities being worked on collaboratively with the Council and STAR Project, including welcoming New Scots, supporting mental health, supporting young people with life skills, housing and transport. The Panel are dedicated in their drive to see fairer policies being adopted across Renfrewshire. Watch this space.
Drop in to STAR Project to collect a copy of RenFairShire, the panel’s first zine summarising their initial 12 weeks of work, or view it here RenFairShire Zine.
By Daisy Crump
Updated: August 8, 2023