Social Value & Procurement

Geek that I am, I today attended a webinar on “Levelling Up”, hosted by Locality in partnership with Social Value UK, to hear some [English] perspectives about how procurement can be leveraged for greater social, environmental and economic value for the benefit of communities and regions across the UK.

The Levelling Up agenda is getting a lot of attention at the moment, and is a popular idea among the public, as the Conservative government seeks to be seen to be addressing the obvious inequalities that are rife across Britain, especially in the wake of Brexit. As Isabelle Parasram, CEO of Social Value UK, pointed out today, the UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world.  It seems that the strategic power of procurement has now been recognised much more widely, vis a vis its economic, environmental and social impacts.  About time, too.

England’s Social Value Act (now 10 years old) is key to the so-called “Levelling Up” agenda.  The Act was designed to be innovative and creative, but in the context of austerity the legislation was intentionally light touch – and the overarching goal was always about reducing cost.  

The Social Value agenda, on the other hand, is about promoting social, environmental and economic well being for everyone.

Darren Knowd, a procurement professional at Durham Council and Chair of the National Social Value Taskforce, rightly says that if you can describe social value, and if you can measure social value, you can include it in your decision making.  There is a learning journey needed both within procurement teams and on the supplier side, to embed social value metrics into procurement decision making – and scoring.  Increasingly, apparently, across England, public organisations are allocating 10%-20% scoring to social value within their tenders.

Former MP Chris White pointed out that public sector commercial teams DO NOT any longer have to select the lowest bid.  In principle this is a fundamental change that could allow public organisations to work much more in favour of the SME sector (and communities) than they have ever done before.  But I think it will take a significant culture shift to move buyers away from the focus on cost and the idea of the “most economically advantageous tender” (MEAT).

It’s clear there’s a gap between what people want to do, and the skills and competencies that exist among procurement professionals within public bodies.  In the context of austerity, there has been a hollowing out of expertise and experience within local authorities, for example, and this is often cited as one of the key obstacles to doing things differently.  An important consideration relates to risk in public procurement – most organisations operate some form of risk assessment methodology and risk registers for procurement exercises – and the fear of increased risk often inhibits innovation.

But what is more risky, and what is more economically advantageous, really?  The collapse of Carillion is instructive: buying from a bigger entity offers no guarantees.  Social Value prompts us to develop a more holistic approach – and hopefully a more place-based one – to defining “economic advantage” – not just financial resilience but also cultural, social, and environmental benefit.

“Not everything that counts can be measured, not everything that can be measured, counts.”

Panelists at today’s event agreed that there is a huge role for local government in the levelling up – as opposed to central government.  The Levelling Up agenda relates both to the devolution agenda and the localisation agenda.  One of the key themes that emerged from today’s discussion, was that each locality should be addressed uniquely.  

From a Wales perspective, I am really interested to note that Wales now has our own set of Social Value TOMs (Themes, Outcomes and Measures) that map directly across to the seven wellbeing goals of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.  It’s something that many of us have been calling for for some time – that we need to embed the WBFGA goals properly into procurement, and we need a way to hold local authorities accountable to delivering on them.  It seems that the Wales Social Value Taskforce, in partnership with Social Value UK, have made a good start with the Wales TOMs, but I also hope there is scope to develop this framework with more community co-production over the next few months and years.

Community needs analysis is key to understanding the differences between localities, and taking an outcome based approach to procurement.

I would take that a step further, to say that the “needs analysis” exercise should be carried out by communities themselves, and should be a community led process based on what local people and organisations think are their own local priorities.  This, I think, is the key culture shift that is needed, at all levels of local and national government: let people play a role in shaping the future of their own local economies.  It’s not easy to convene and facilitate truly co-creative community conversations, but there are plenty of organisations that are developing expertise in this – not least ourselves at 4theRegion, and others, like the Coproduction Network.  Working directly with community organisations and groups already operating within communities would be an important start.

It is certainly positive to see that both national and local governments are becoming bolder in their approach to social value in procurement, and becoming more strategic in their thinking, especially now, post Brexit and post Covid.  There are undoubtedly some examples of good practice emerging.  But there is so much more that needs to be done, to tackle the damage wrought by decades of outsourcing to major corporations and the hollowing out of local supply chains in places like South West Wales.  

Swansea Council carried out an important pilot with funding from the Foundational Economy Challenge Fund in 2020/21, to explore how to involve more SMEs in the tender process – but they perhaps still lack the resources to leverage all the learnings from this trial.   How long will it take to see real progress, to see significant contract wins for more local, regional, SMEs and social enterprises, and to see genuine social value being created? 

Business as usual with community benefits “on the side” is clearly not going to be enough.  Standing by for something much more fundamental and impactful!

How it started

When Zoe and I set up 4theRegion, we framed our goals with three key words, which capture our three foundational beliefs about what is needed for our region to flourish: Positivity, Collaboration & Empowerment.  

Firstly, positivity.  We love living in South West Wales and genuinely feel like it’s the best place to live in the whole of the UK, if not the world.  We were feeling incredibly optimistic about the opportunities for the region, and felt like more needed to be done to champion those opportunities and share that sense of optimism and positivity about the future.  I suppose we felt that there was a disproportionate level of negativity and complaining – especially here in Swansea, where we can certainly be our own worst enemy in talking down our prospects and criticising everything that happens.  We want people to feel more positive about where we live, and to see and appreciate all the good stuff – partly because this is better for all of our wellbeing and mental health, and partly because this would motivate us to stay, invest and contribute locally – whether as businesses or as people.  Our goal in setting up 4theRegion was to share the good stuff and to become a source of regional news and information that was empowering and positive, and which would enable people to speak and think more positively about what’s happening across South West Wales.

Secondly, collaboration.  We were frustrated by what we saw as silo-working, by which we mean we noticed how everyone works in their own bubbles, not interested in or not aware of what others are doing in the same or similar spaces.  And this felt like such a huge waste of time and resources.  That’s why our tagline has always been “working together” – because we think that is fundamentally what’s needed, and that’s how we will create better outcomes for the future than we’ve had in the past.  It’s a paradigm shift for a lot of people, the idea that the best ideas, solutions and strategies can be co-produced with others, and that we can learn from and contribute to each other’s work and ideas, or join up our projects for greater impact.  It’s particularly difficult for businesses to shift their mindset on this, if they worry that their competitive advantage might be at stake if they share what they’re planning to do or talk to others about their ideas too early on. And it’s also a big leap for political leaders and council officers, who maybe feel they are supposed to have all the answers and solutions, rather than involving others or working together or asking questions.

If we have enough humility to accept that other people might have wisdom and experience that would be beneficial, and enough trust, and if we work from a place of shared interest in the greater good of the region, or the community, or the environment or whatever – a shared sense of purpose, which is fundamental – then we can definitely achieve more than we can by working in silos.  Take food procurement, as one simple example – the idea of creating local supply chains for healthy, locally grown vegetables so that local schools and hospitals are sourcing and serving more nutritious local produce.  Well I know that there is great work being done on this topic in Carmarthenshire – so why wouldn’t Swansea Council, or Neath Port Talbot Council, want to learn from that and adopt what works, rather than starting from scratch?  Not only that, but embedded local businesses probably have ideas, wisdom and resources to share to help make this happen – but all too often the private sector is regarded as a threat, or we think we can’t collaborate because we have to protect competition, or because we’ve interpreted procurement rules in a particular way.  We think it’s a huge lost opportunity, and it means everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel, or compete with each other, or duplicate effort, rather than figuring out how we can be more effective and more efficient and align what we are doing with likeminded organisations who share our objectives.

Thirdly, empowerment.  We had this instinct that there is a lot of untapped potential in communities, in local areas, in life generally, because most people feel disempowered and disengaged – people can see problems but they don’t realise the power that lies in their own hands, to make a difference.  When we talk about people being disengaged from what’s happening, I think the common assumption is to say that people don’t care about whats happening in their local communities, but actually I don’t think that’s true.  I think we naturally do care – and some of us really care a lot.  But I think, given the state of the world, and what feels like our inability to actually have an impact because the scale of the problems is so massive – I think disengagement is a kind of defensive mechanism.  It’s too painful to care too much when you feel like there is nothing you can do, when you feel disempowered – and so we disengage and switch off from things for the sake of self preservation.  Subconsciously, we have to detach ourselves.  So empowerment and engagement are two sides of the same coin – if we feel empowered, then we engage with the challenges we face; but if we don’t feel like we can do anything to help, we have to disengage to survive.

I’ve thought a lot about where empowerment comes from, especially in the modern world where the adversaries we are facing seem so huge and outside of our control – climate change, global capitalism, war.  It’s not easy to feel powerful in the face of these massive problems, when you are just one person.  The antidote, I think, is partly to recognise that you are not just one person but actually part of a whole wave of people – a whole movement – who feel the same way you do.  We have to have enough faith in humanity to know that we are not alone, and that deep down we all basically have the same needs and aspirations.  So connecting people with each other, bringing likeminded people together, and amplifying that sense of a wider movement – this is important work if we want to create empowerment.

The other thing that helps to reconnect us with our own sense of agency is to focus on a smaller sphere of influence – by which I mean, start where you are, act local.  I do understand that we can feel a bit hopeless about the tiny impacts that we can make locally, when we compare these interventions with the enormity of the challenges we are facing on a national or global scale.  But actually there are several more empowering ways of thinking about it, one of which is to recognise that if each of us only stepped up to the plate locally, between us all we would make a global impact.  Similarly, when we take action locally, there is a ripple effect: we inspire others, we give others permission to do the same.  And finally, our responsibility for the state of the world begins and ends with our own ability to respond (as the word suggests).  We only have the ability to respond to the world as we find it, starting with ourselves and extending outwards from our own front doors.

Speaking personally, I have found that the antidote to bleak despair is taking action to the extent that I can.  I am not talking about ignoring the bigger problems, or accepting the suffering in the wider world.  We can absolutely take action on those global issues, but we can only do so within our own sphere of influence – and for the majority of us, that is locally – whether that’s hyperlocally in our own homes and on our own streets, or more broadly in our town or our region.  We can BE the change we wish to see in the world.

It’s that old thing about who we mean when we say “they”…  Any time you catch yourself saying, “they should do this, they should do that” – who are you actually talking about?  Empowerment changes the word to We…  We should start a local farmers market; we should get kids outdoors playing in nature more; we should start up a coffee shop in that empty building – whatever it is.  There is no They – we are the people we’ve been waiting for!  Mutual self-empowerment, building our shared capacity to change our circumstances, and our environments for the better, recognising that if we can collaborate and support each other we probably have all the resources, talent, creativity we need…  I wonder if that sense of empowerment is what’s missing, the whole world over, and I wonder whether we can nurture it within communities in order to unleash the potential of people to contribute their time and talent to making things better for themselves and each other. 

I think there are a number of ways that we have been progressively disempowered, as citizens.  Generally, we have learned, as a society, that it’s not our job to solve problems in our communities and economies.  I sometimes think we’ve all got a bit confused about the role of governments and local councils.  The council doesn’t own our towns and cities, our parks and public spaces.  When we decided to organise a Swansea City Centre Conference a few years ago, we didn’t need anyone’s permission to convene that conversation, the council doesn’t own the city centre – it’s OURS, collectively, and so we need those forums to talk collectively about what we want and shape collaborative projects to promote change.  When Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, she was trying to kill that collective capacity, our sense of shared interest and the idea that we might work together for the greater good.  That’s why I try not to use the word “individual” or “consumer” when I mean people or citizens – the words we use can empower us or relegate us to disconnection and servitude.

I can get quite angry at how local people and communities have been disempowered by a paternalistic state and domination by corporate forces over which we have very little control.  When communities have tried to rise up and stand up for themselves – like if they don’t want a new out-of-town supermarket or a chain hotel, or if they don’t want one of their civic assets sold off for short term financial reasons by their local councils – all too often their campaigns and voices are ignored, the unwanted development goes ahead anyway, and people are left feeling like they have no power and no agency over their own lives and their local places.  

We hosted a meeting in Pembroke Dock recently, bringing local people together to talk about what they would love to see in the area around the train station, to improve community wellbeing and the local sense of place.  I tend to kick things off with what I hope is a motivating and empowering little speech – a call to action – about how “the future of our region is in our hands!”, and that by working together we can make things happen in our local areas to create a flourishing future for our communities.  But on this occasion, one brave woman in the group spoke up to challenge me directly on my optimistic words, and she said: “It’s not though, is it?  The future isn’t in our hands.  No-one listens to what we want, it makes no difference if we work together or not, at the end of the day the decisions are out of our hands and it’s a waste of time and energy believing we can change things.”  And the tragic thing about this, of course, is that she’s right, it’s true – and that’s what makes me angry.  How have we allowed ourselves to get into a situation where local councils have forgotten who they are supposed to represent, and where communities have been disempowered and let down for so many years, that people have lost that sense of agency and ownership even over their hyperlocal places?  

So our goal is to rekindle that sense of agency and empowerment, to the extent that we can, for our region.  Those of us with any influence must see ourselves as Enablers rather than bureaucrats trying to frustrate people and kill their ideas.  As people, working together, we have the talent, resources, ideas, commitment, energy, time and dedication to create resilience and solve our local problems – we just need to somehow tap into that potential.

I also wonder if this sense of agency and self-empowerment is the thing that makes someone an  “entrepreneur” – something different about the way that entrepreneurs think about the world, with the mindset that they can empower themselves to change things, to go after things, to see opportunities to make a difference and seize them.   I know for myself that I have a can-do attitude in most situations – you would have to work quite hard to convince me that I couldn’t do something, if I kept trying and didn’t give up.  I live by the mantra that you don’t fail unless you quit, and while I don’t expect things to happen easily, I do believe that I can make a difference.

I recently found out the origins of the word “entrepreneur”, and actually the root of the word isn’t what I have always thought it was.  But I like my translation better, so I’m going to share that with you anyway!  It’s a French word, as you know, and I’ve always translated it in my head to mean an “opportunity-taker” – because I know that “entrer” is to enter, like an opening – and “prendre” is to take – so in my mind I always think of entrepreneurs as being those who see an opening, and take it. And this makes a lot of sense to me, because the way my mind works is to see opportunities everywhere I look – so many things I could do, and my problem is that I can’t possibly take all those opportunities!  I think the actual translation of the French verb, entreprendre is “to undertake” – to be an undertaker, someone who undertakes things.  So, it’s similar, but not quite as good!

House

All the houses in our street had steps up to the front doors, and basements half buried. A smart Georgian terrace of seven identical 4-storey houses – ours the seventh. Our house was the only one with an ornate iron balcony at first floor level. It was kind of a romantic structure but we were never allowed out onto it. I wonder now whether that’s because the structure was unsafe (as I always believed) or whether in fact it was because we were unsafe, as children – not to be trusted. Either way.

So, this terrace of seven identical (ish) Georgian townhouses faced onto an old factory on the other side of the short street. I always thought of it as a marmalade factory, but of course that can’t have been right. I just think maybe once I saw something that made me think of marmalade in an upstairs window, and the idea stuck and became like a fact. In reality I have no idea what kind of factory it might have been in Georgian England. But it was a smart and solid brick building with large windows – arched on the top floor – which became desirable loft-style apartments in the 1990s.

My parents would have been able to tell you the names of the people in each of the seven houses, but I recall only some of them.  At number one was my friend Neelam, a girl my age, and we’d knock for each other and play in the big garden out the back. We called it that, the big garden – a shared patch of grass beyond our back gates.  At number four (I think) was Lucia and her mum, Lucia was our babysitter. I think they were from the island of Saint Lucia, but it’s possible I made that up…  And at number six, next door to us, was Bob. In the early days he had a wife and kids – my favourite doll (Rebecca) was a hand-me-down from his daughter, whose name I can’t remember. But in later years his wife and kids must have moved away, and Bob became a sad old drunk. I guess that happens to people.

Our house, number seven, was the last in the terrace of seven identical townhouses, but we were attached on the other side to number eight, which was quite a different style of house. Older? Newer? I’m sorry to say I don’t really know, but number eight is where Clare and Neil lived – still live – and they were a family of musicians. How lovely to hear them playing the piano through the walls. I guess some people would find that a bit annoying, but we appreciated it as something beautiful and kind of Victorian.

I could try and describe the inside of our house, which I should know intimately. You enter through a solid wooden front door painted a kind of pleasant mossy green – probably a sage green. Our doorbell was always a remarkable feature – by which I mean that people would always remark on it. A brass handle on the outside, which you pulled sharply out, connected to a wire, that ran inside, up the walls along the ceiling of the hall, to a real brass bell of quite a decent size, which jangled loudly like a proper bell to announce someone at the door. A ding-a-ling ding ding ding ding ding – I can hear it now. Joyful and bold and ‘an original feature’ – or at least it seemed to be. Restored? or reinstated? Hard to know. 

My parents bought the house in, let’s say 1977? A couple of years before I was born, anyway. And it had no electricity, no central heating, and only an ‘outdoor too’ in the back lean-to. I think they bought it from two sisters who had lived there all their lives, and legend had it their beloved brother had gone off to fight in World War two and never had returned. And so apparently his room, which would become our bathroom, was left untouched by these bereaved spinster sisters, his pipe still on his mantlepiece when my parents bought the house.

My dad always said our house was the luckiest on the street because of the way it looked out over a row of gardens at the front – a gap between the old factory and the row of houses down the side of the square opposite. And because we were lucky enough to look out across the gardens, we had a clear line of sight to the church tower of St Martin in the fields – have I got that right? The Georgianess of our house, the grandeur of the architecture down our street and round the square – I always felt quite connected to the idea of old Hackney, when people rode around in carriages and the place was a village some miles from London.

But anyway, these two sisters had stayed in the house and never left, so somehow number seven was the only house in the row that wasn’t at some point bought up by the council and modernised. All their basements were infilled with concrete, or blocked up at least, whereas our one never was, and in our basement dining room an ancient range cooker still stood in the wide fireplace with an old copper kettle still in place.

So, the basement housed the kitchen and dining room, low ceilinged rooms with thick walls, half buried, as I’ve said. And in the dining room, an old pine dresser built in along one wall, and a coal-hole under the front steps. In days gone by, coal would have been tipped in through the hatch on the top step you see, but for us it was a kind of cold, spidery store room where we kept the wine and empty ice cream boxes. 

A large oval mahogany table took up nearly all the space in the dining room, with a couple of cupboards built into the alcoves – one full of glasses and the other for wrapping paper, junk and other stuff – a rabbit shaped jelly mould, cake tins, and old rolls of wallpaper, I seem to think, falling out against the door as you tried to wedge it shut.

The fireplace, which I’ve mentioned, dominated the wall opposite the dresser, with a high mantelpiece above, upon which an old granny clock sat and needed winding. My father’s chair, a high backed wooden thing which came apart if you tried to move it by the arms. This was his seat, at the head of the table, or in the evenings, next to the bookcase looking up the etymology of random words. A mismatched mix of wooden dining chairs for the rest of us, and wicker table mats. The window, dressed with woven patterned curtains, looked out into the front garden, into a kind of trench, half below ground, half above – grass, hedge, tree, sky.

There were two doors off this cramped and cosy dining room, low ceilinged and carpeted and cluttered with piles of books and post and British Medical Journals and photos in clear perspex frames and dusty papier mache bowls we made at infants school and all kinds of cluttery bits and bobs accumulating dust. Two original wooden doors on metal latches – one into the kitchen and the other into the downstairs hall, a small space dominated by a defunct old mangle that came with the house. Tool cupboard, coat hooks, burglar alarm – a passing through place at the bottom of the stairs.

The kitchen was a half step lower than the hall and the dining room – a little bit of extra height probably excavated when my parents did the tiled floor. Not a fitted kitchen in the modern, stylish sense, but built in cupboards in the nooks and a built-in pine worktop over the fridge, freezer and machines. A free-standing gas cooker with an eye level grill. A run of little shelves holding all the herbs and spices. Hooks hanging pots and pans beside the door. 

I should have mentioned the bright yellow walls. I think they were always yellow, but I know my mum and I repainted them together when I was nineteen. I think she wanted a project to distract me from my depression, so we did it one weekend. A cheerful colour but quite intense in that low ceilinged room. I’m pretty sure we could paint the tops of the walls without standing on a ladder. The floor tiles in the kitchen were a kind of grimy yellow-green, I can’t think who would have chosen them but there they were, square and cool and slippery in socks. You could run a loop around the basement – from the hall, through the kitchen, through the dining room, to the hall, and back into the kitchen, round and round and round. I guess that was probably pretty fun but we were always yelled at not to run in socks, until the day I slipped and smacked my head on the dining room step. My dad tied his tie around my head to stem the bleeding and I had seven stitches. You can feel the scar on my forehead still – that and the one above my eyebrow from when I fainted on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona.

I have another memory of that hard tiled floor. Saturday or Sunday mornings, our parents still in bed, we’d pull the 4-litre tub of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and sit around it with spoons on the kitchen floor – delicious!

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Writing Practice

This moment. Jake is putting the kids to bed – reading a story, I can hear the up and down of his voice; I imagine them all, snuggled up, heads full of whatever they’re imagining. Oh, here comes one now, needs a wee – they seem to need about a hundred wees before finally settling down. I can hear the whirring of the sitting room clock, and it’s peaceful in here now that Jake is putting them all to bed. My wrist aches. Out of practice. This strange calligraphy pen is kind of beautiful, and although I’m missing the lines a bit generally it’s making my writing look quite lovely.

“Ok Lauren?” I call, she’s still in the bathroom and I know in the other room the story is waiting on her. Day dreaming on the loo. “Come on Lauren!” daddy calls- and off she runs- back to bed. It’s unlikely to be the last I’ll hear of her tonight. Often bedtime is not really bedtime. Only occasionally will they settle. Although having said that, I also wanted to say: Lauren and Joel have started reading at bedtime- proper reading of their own books. I got them each a clip-on reading light, for reading after lights out- and Lauren is on her third novel – the third in a series called “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” which sounds quite funny.

How wonderful it is that they have discovered the escape and the fun of reading! I really couldnt wish for more than that. Its through reading that we travel through life-not just our own but hundreds of other lives. It’s through reading that we learn what we think, explore what we want to explore; If you look through my Kindle reading list its like a chronicle of my interests, passions, and problems!

I can hear the mice squeaking under the kitchen cupboard.

• • •

Sitting down again to write, and not knowing what to write, and wondering if I can hold my pen a little looser.

And I know that sounds like a metaphor but I do actually mean to hold my pen, physically, a bit more lightly, and I have also made the lines a bit wider so I can write a bit more freely and I suppose thats what this ‘practicing’ is all about.

The question is, how do you ever know if what you’ve written is worth reading?

• • •

Details

It was a little bit too warm in the room, so that she felt as if she might burst through her skin a little bit, a little bit suffocated in her own skin. The whirring of the clock was a constant noise is the background – not a ticking but a whirring because it was a particular type of clock. And outside the noise of a few voices chatting in the street and the waves of a few passing cars but not really much noise, not much happening.

Inside, in the slightly too-warm room, the thick grey rug was for once lying quite straight against the line of the low cabinet under the TV, and the new Ikea lamp made from a kind of upturned wicker basket was making a nice warm yellow glow which was quite cosy and satisfying. On the coffee table, an empty tea mug – one of the nice ones from some museum or gallery collection, made of fine thin china that was a pleasure to sip from.

Two of the alcoves in this room have been painted green – a deep forest green that contrasts with the subtle french grey of all the other walls. And against that forest green, the wood of the shelves, wooden picture frames, books and bric-a-brac all present a homely clutter, with warm reds and pinks in some of the bits and bobs. Butterfly masks, coloured and decorated brightly by the children, stand out gaily against the forest green wall, bejewelled with little plastic gems, fantastical. She’d stuck them there in a jaunty display and now they’ve become art as well as clutter.

The sofa, grey and drooping, grubby after seven years of family life. The cushions sag and slide out. There’s nothing beautiful about this sofa (anymore). It’s functional, an L-shape that divides the room functionally. Always kind of junky looking with miscellaneous stuff on it. Today a small doll lies facedown; leggings still entwined with pink knickers; a TV remote; more saggy mis-matched scatter cushions.

A lonely yellow balloon has come to rest under the computer desk, shrunk a bit since it was first blown up. And theres a guitar on a stand, hardly played but sometimes catches someone’s interest for a moment. Its red wood is another cosy homely thing in this quite untidy room. A virtual reality headset sits upside down on the cabinet next to a plasticky sylvanian family campervan and some random bits of paper.

Ah yes, the grimy arm of the sofa catches her eye. It’s shiny in the lamplight, grim, and she feels the twinge in her back as she sits, kind of curled up in a not-very-sensible position. The room doesn’t seem so over warm now, the flush of heat has receded and now feels pleasantly breathable. She knows she should shift into a better position for the sake of her back. She does so, rearranging the stripy blue and white blanket around her crossed legs.

Her fingers are stained purple and blue from the tie-dyeing the family tried earlier in the afternoon – a tie dye kit given as a present to one of the kids. She bought three white T-shirts on Amazon, delivered the next day; and true to her word set up the dyes and the plastic mat and looked up the instructions on YouTube. The whole family joined in, in the end, even Jake drawn towards the astonishing bleed of colour on fabric, the satisfying staining of vibrant dyes. And now the sodden dyed pieces sit wrapped in clingfilm in a pink plastic tub, waiting for the dyes to ‘set’ overnight, so we can rinse them out and look at what we’ve done.

• • •

Mother

Mothers day, 14th March 2021. She was going to call her mother but settled in the end for a brief Whatsapp message- five colourful flower emojis and ‘Happy Mothers Day mummy!’ And a brief reply, ‘Thank you- and same to you!’

It could be more, but its enough. She loves her mother complexly, and its difficult to find a way to be with her. But anyway, its not so long since they’ve spoken- a video call last weekend on Kier’s 9th birthday.

Oh the room feels too warm again, like her skin doesnt quite fit. But perhaps it’s her blood rising from coming upstairs (she went to change her pen nib). Or perhaps it’s something inside trying to get out that makes it feel like the room is too hot. Throwing off the blue and white stripey blanket helps, of course!

Well, Mothers day. There is something to say about her mother but it’s not close to the surface and not quite in reach.

Another distraction is this pen. The calligraphy nib which looked so elegant before now looks kind of scratchy and uneven. It could be the words- the thoughts- that are scratchy and uneven, of course. Ha! Metaphorical!

Is she avoiding writing about her mother? Or just trying to keep her pen moving while some thoughts about it all rise up to the surface. She’s a complicated woman. Who, now? Her mother? Herself? Yes, that’s true.

• • •

That’s pretty much 50 straight minutes of writing practice, how did she do? That’s not the point, though. It’s practice, not outcomes, and it’s not ‘how did she do’, but ‘she did’ which matters. She wonders if she would be able to write every day for a month, and if she did that, would she be able to write every day for a year? And if she did that – would it lead anywhere? Would it simply be an end in itself, like a kind of meditation? Would it loosen her tongue to write other things – things intended to be read by other people? The whir of the clock, the occasional rush of a passing car – the ache in her hand and in her neck, the inky stained fingers- not from pen ink (its a tablet!) but from tie-dying t-shirts with the kids.

Noticing details, writing them down as if they are somehow significant when really its just that she is noticing them. And this strange calligraphy pen, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes scratchy and uneven. Interesting, she thinks, in the third person.

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Reading 2020

I’ve read more than 60 books in 2020, travelling freely through time, space and ideas, despite having not actually gone anywhere at all

Here’s the list:

Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe
The Good Body by Eve Ensler
Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
The Miracle Equation by Hal Elrod (for the second time)
Sustainable Home Refurbishment by David Thorpe
The Dry by Jane Harper
Let’s Do It (Victoria Wood) by Jasper Rees
Your Business Your Way by Bernie Davies
Home Stretch by Graham Norton
Building a Better World in your Backyard by Paul Wheaton
Finding Our Way Home by Nikki Simpson
Boarding School Syndrome by Joy Schaverien
Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
The Gift – 12 Lessons to Save Your Life by Edith Eger
The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch
The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer
The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
A Mind at Home with Itself by Byron Katie
Logging Off by Nick Spalding
The Surrender Experiment by Michael A Singer
How Change Happens by Duncan Green
Why Bother? by Jennifer Loudon
Loving What Is by Byron Katie
American Wife by Cutis Sittenfield
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfield
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe
The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
Lockdown by Peter May
The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (to the kids)
Here and Now by Santa Montefiore
House Between Tides by Sarah Maine
The Girl on the Cliff by Lucinda Riley
Futuregen: Lessons from a Small Country by Jane Davidson
The Butterfly Room by Lucina Riley
The Love Letter by Lucinda Riley
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (to the kids)
The Seven Sisters series by Lucinda Riley (6 books)
Pippi Longstocking (to the kids)
Epic Zero books 1-6 (to the kids)
The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss
Good Vibes Good Life by Vex King
The Girl in the Tree by Sebnem Isiguzel
A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (audiobook)
The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Digging In by Loretta Nyhan
From What Is to What If by Rob Hopkins (audiobook)
A Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf
Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Who Do We Choose To Be by Margaret Wheatley

Futile

Today I sat down at my desk, found myself flicking through Facebook, clicked on a link about how the rights of children are being eroded on the quiet by a government intent on using the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to advance its deregulatory, liberalising agenda…

And all of a sudden I’m crying.  Wow, that came out of no-where, I hadn’t realised I was in the mood for crying.

I can’t cope with this.  There is just too much to fight.  It’s just another tiny example, but everywhere I look there are injustices that seem insurmountable.  And everywhere I don’t look, I know there’s even more.  So much injustice, so much suffering.  This crisis is being used as an exercise in mass brainwashing, as if that were needed, and a convenient excuse, a distraction, an opportunity.  Taking us further away than ever from an informed, functioning democracy.  While we stand on our doorsteps and clap.

I’m feeling powerless, pointless, defeated.

I haven’t cried for a while.  I’ve been feeling quite joyful.  Only because I have been disengaging, detaching from what’s happening, enjoying my life in my little bubble where everything is lovely.  Watching seedlings grow, noticing the flowers, enjoying the sunshine.

Presence, letting go, surrender.

I can’t decide if that’s no way to live, or the only way to live.

Pressing Pause

When was the last time you got down on the kitchen floor and cleaned the cupboard fronts?  Or took soap and elbow grease to the filthy arms of the sofa? I did both those things this morning.

As we settle in to this period of pause, and after an initial period of denial, panic, and existential crisis – we find ourselves doing things we never usually have time for.  So far, I’ve cleaned and dusted all the neglected corners of my living room – including pulling everything out from under the sofa. And I’ve rearranged the furniture – it feels like a completely new room (for about 5 minutes).

We’ve planted seeds in little pots and put them in the window.  We’ve turned our outdoor coffee table upsidedown and made it into a “square foot garden”, full of compost hurriedly purchased on the last day we were allowed out to do that kind of thing.

And I’ve set up a desk in the corner of the kitchen, where I am now writing this.  I’ve put all the coats and jackets in the back hallway, and put away most of our shoes.  When might we need those again?

What else have I been doing?

I’ve launched (via Facebook) a community bunting challenge in our neighbourhood and I’ve been cutting out triangles of fabric from old tablecloths.  And I’ve dug out the sewing machine from the back of the top cupboard, ordered supplies on Amazon.  

…And I think what’s interesting about this is the mental distance you have to travel to get to the place where sewing bunting feels like a helpful use of time.  Just two short weeks ago, there is no way on planet earth I had the time or inclination to start making bunting, or biscuits. What’s happening, seriously? This is weird.

And so I’ve sat down to write this because otherwise my thoughts are just tangling themselves together in my brain, full of passion and purpose one moment only to die in the swamp of pointlessness or cower in the shadows while another voice (not mine) explains that really our only job right now is to exist and be happy about it, because there is nothing anyone can do.

And Virginia Woolfe implores me, just write it, whatever it is, because there are few enough women’s voices as it is, and if even those with the time and inclination, the privilege and the compulsion, to think and to write, stay silent cooking dinner and sewing bunting, if then, then what?

So I’m thinking that the most hopeful thing anyone has said to me about this whole emergency so far, was Mary when she said (and hadn’t I spotted it yet for myself?) that this was Gaia, mother earth, saying, Enough, and I saw in my mind the plump and awesome woman rising like an ocean swell and bursting open the shackles of petty men’s excuses and vanity and politics and thinking themselves so clever.  

And isn’t it the truth, that civilisation as we know it, the transnational omnipresent domination of commercial realities and market economics, is being revealed in all its brokenness, and our first urge is to rush into the garden and plant seeds in the soil and look up through the branches of the flowering magnolias into the blue blue sky?  While the systems crack and men panic and lie and scramble about making deals and spouting bullshit, the hard seed of our shared humanity is stirring in the earth and pushing out its roots and shoots, reaching out hopefully to touch some other tendril of beaten, battered but still alive, hope.

We stand and clap the NHS while thinking cynical thoughts about the whole charade, torn between our deepest gratitude for the men and women heading out to serve another shift, and our deepest scorn for the men with power who have so proudly and openly over many years driven our health service into poverty, degraded the work and value of those who are trying their damndest to care for other people, and who now stand and clap and weep with false pride at the sacrifice of underpaid, overstretched workers whose job it is now (because honestly, what else can they do?) to mop up their abominable mess.

And what’s stirring inside me is an urgent voice that’s begging us to notice, amidst the overwhelming chaos of information and opinion, and in this unprecedented global lockdown of normal daily life…

An immense and sorely needed opportunity, a golden and precious moment, to stop. For once in our lives. And think.

And while governments and local authorities and the NHS and the crumbling social care system and all the suddenly essential workers (only now being acknowledged) must take on the biggest fight of their lives to prevent a million deaths, for the rest of us the challenge is different but no less urgent or essential.  

For those of us with the time and the means, caught at home in limbo between the lives we were living last week and whatever the future might hold, the pause that stretches out in front of us is not just for watching netflix and making bunting, hiding under tables while the bombs explode.

Our challenge, I’m here to suggest, is to PREP for the future.  To Pause, Reflect, Envision and Plan for the future that we WANT to see.

Pause. That’s the first step. Feel the feelings, take a breath, be gentle with ourselves as we go through this.

  • We’ll explore the emotional journey of letting go and slowing down. Finding ourselves at home – maybe alone, maybe in a full house, maybe out of work or trying to work from home. Afraid, isolated, uncertain. Cut adrift in the middle of whatever we were doing, and suddenly wondering, what’s it all for? Through that experience we’ll reconnect with what’s really important – the health, wellbeing and nearness of our loved ones, the fabric of our communities, the basic necessities, access to outside space, and a sense of purpose, and meaning, in life.

Reflect. Look back at the mess we’ve created, grow our awareness of the whole broken system, and then uncover our strengths, our values, the roots of our greatness.

  • We’ll reflect on the brokenness of the current system, identifying all the many ways we hate what we have created and who’ve we have become.  We’ll discuss why it’s important to listen to different voices from all parts of the system, to develop a whole-system awareness. And then we’ll share stories of past triumphs. We’ll ask, where, in all this do we see the greatest hope for humanity? Where are the chinks of light? Those are the stories that will illuminate our strengths and emerge the wisdom of our past experiences.

Envision. Imagine what we really want. What is the life we would love to live, the world we would love to inhabit?

  • We’ll be programming the satnav with the address of the future we want, in all aspects of life – a vision for whole-system flourishing.  From living a meaningful life, fulfilling our own potential for greatness, to a circular regionalised economy that regenerates our planet, communities, and society.  We’ll think about what we really want, even if we have no idea how to get there. Because only with a destination in mind have we any hope of ever arriving. And we know that the mere act of envisioning a flourishing future unleashes powerful forces, within us and among us, revealing the path forward, and empowering us to take action.

Plan. How will we get there, what are we going to do next? Now we can start to create a to do list.

  • We’ll explore what each of us can and will do, towards our shared vision of a flourishing future.  With the whole system in conversation, we’ll share ideas and co-create solutions. Wisdom, resources and value will emerge from within us and among us, so that we can start to make change happen.  From policy ideas to marketing campaigns, from strategies for connecting communities, to best practice pledges for people and businesses and leaders. We’ll emerge a list of the practical things we can all do, as changemakers, community leaders, citizens and civil servants, to make change happen – personally, locally, regionally, nationally, and who knows, maybe even globally.

Love

I’ve been quiet recently, taking some time and space to process all this and waiting for the way forward to emerge. I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been feeling lost and uncertain.

But today, I am sitting in the sunshine sipping my coffee and feeling grateful. The fear is still there in the pit of my stomach but LOVE is winning through.

None of us can solve this, and perhaps as changemakers we all are struggling to see what our role now is. I have nothing but admiration and love for those that leapt straight into action to serve others. Amazing. And I have the deepest gratitude to those for whom this period won’t be one of stepping back and reflecting, but instead one of jumping onto the frontlines and doing their best work – the biggest and hardest test of their lives.

For the rest of us, there’s a simple choice. LOVE (for each other, for ourselves, for life); or fear. The question is, who do we choose to be?

Closer than we think

The truth about the climate crisis is hard to hear and harder to fully accept. I can’t claim to be there yet – I am nowhere close to accepting the reality of our future, my kids futures. 

Because the truth we need to accept is that over the next few years (whether we are talking 5, 10 or 30 years, we can’t say for certain), environmental and ecological collapse, in the form of extreme weather and crop failures, will have a catastrophic, impossible-to-ignore impact on our lives. 

More quickly than you might imagine, we will experience food shortages, spiralling food prices, hunger, water shortages, flooding, rising unemployment, deep recession… It’s likely that all this will lead to rising division, desperation on our streets, violence, and ultimately societal collapse.  It’s also likely that governments and corporations will resort to authoritarianism to re-assert control.

“I am often asked what frightens me most about climate change, whether I lie awake at night thinking about ocean hypoxia or arctic permafrost or other feedback processes that could turn a bad thing into a catastrophe. I am scared of the physical changes that await us on a warming planet, but the most important feedback process is the least well understood. The scariest thing about climate change is what it will make us do to each other.”   Kate Marvel on July 29, 2019

At the same time we will be dealing with the awful, brutalising, dehumanizing experience of bearing witness to the deaths of millions of people around the world. We – and our children – will have to find a way to live with the knowledge that millions are dying and will die, on a scale unimaginably greater than we have so far experienced.  If we are now devastated by thinking about migrant children being killed at sea, or Mexican toddlers being imprisoned in America, how will our humanity bear what is to come? 

And how close to home will the deaths and desperation come? Will people in our own communities starve? Will our own desperation and fear turn us all against each other?

The truth about ecological and environmental collapse, and the associated economic, political and societal consequences – is terrifying to contemplate. It feels more like the premise for an apocalyptic action movie, than a real possibility for our own lives, kids and communities.

Let’s just think about that.

Reflections I

I’ve loved hosting two inspiring and generative conversations this week – a dinner with some of our local #4theRegion changemakers, and tonight’s Swansea Sustainable Travel roundtable. So grateful to all who came to share their expertise, passion and ideas.

We all want an integrated public/active transport network for the region – it’s an issue of health, economic and social inclusion, as well as an environmental one. It feels like there’s a shift in attitudes happening, with more of us wanting to leave the car at home more often, so the question is how we leverage what we have and develop what we need, to make that change happen. So much good work being done already, so much more to do.

Tonight was the first in a series of topical 4theRegion roundtable events that Zoe and I will be running across South West Wales over the coming months, focused on breaking down silos, tapping into the collective wisdom to find what works and co-creating action in our 6 impact areas. Do check out the events calendar on our website and see if you might join one or two…

http://www.4theRegion.org.uk/My focus next is our Social Justice and Race Equality Conference #EveryoneMatters, with Race Council Cymru, on 9th October. Now more than ever, with BoJo giving license to all kinds of racism, not to mention the impact of a decade of austerity on life chances and community cohesion, we need to stand up for what we want and create space for the conversations that need to happen.

18 months into our 4theRegion journey, it feels like we’re clearer than ever about the role we need to play in connecting people, empowering changemakers, and shining a light on the good stuff. I’ve come to understand what Zoe’s known all along, which is that lots of little changes make big change possible… in the same way that lots of small conversations, day in day out, with all kinds of people all across the region, is how we’ll build the mass movement we need.

For me, and maybe for many of us, every day feels like walking a line between despair (at how screwed we all are) and hope, that there is still something we can do about it all. 4theRegion represents that hope for me, a tribe of people and organisations leading from the emerging future. Each of us on our own feels powerless. Working together, our potential is limitless.

So it’s great to be heading into August with a sense of progress and a clear mission for the coming months. In the meantime, school’s out, and I’m so ready for some time out with the kids, family visits, and 3 whole weeks in a cottage in Yorkshire…. (Putting the call out for book recommendations, what could I be reading this summer??)

Foundations

Two of the best decisions of my life: moving to Swansea, and starting a business.

The first was a random non-decision, it wasn’t a conscious choice, I was just following Jake.  But this city has become my first real home and I count my blessings every day.  As I walk my kids to school, as I run through the park and along the beach, I feel freedom and belonging and possibility.

Starting a business was always in me.  I wanted self-determination, my life in my hands.  You might see a business, I see the journey of my life, every struggle, every win, made solid after 16 years.  I love what we have created, a happy place for an amazing team.

These days, I’m consumed by new challenges, bigger problems to solve.  Hope for the region, building a movement.  Self-determination, our life in our hands.  If you could see this region like I see this region, you’d understand.

Starting

Sometimes you just have to start, even though you don’t have it all figured out.  It won’t be perfect – in fact it will probably be a bit rubbish.  But you have to get out of your head and into the world.  That’s living.

The anxiety about starting right, stops you from starting.  But then what?  Nothing changes.

Everything good in the world, had to start somewhere.  And the point is that you learn along the way, but you can’t learn anything, if you don’t start.

So stop thinking, be brave, hold your breath… hit publish.

 

You are a tree.

I came to South West Wales almost 20 years ago, and those 20 years have really been a story of falling in love with this place.  Like many of you, I have lived my life’s journey in this place. I’ve had my heart broken in this town, and I’ve had the highest points of joy in my life here.  I’ve had my babies here, I’ve pushed buggies along these streets, I’ve watched my kids run wild on the hills and pick shells on the beaches. I’ve grown my business here, I’ve driven to meetings, faced defeat and victory, built relationships, discovered places, grown up through my twenties and thirties, day in day out.  And in that time, I’ve come to love this place and belong to it, and every day I try to remember to appreciate how blessed I am, how lucky we all are, to belong to this place – in peacetime, with freedom, with food on the table and people we love: South West Wales is a wonderful place to call home. And it’s our place.

The way I think about places is that they become overlaid, over time, with the tapestry of our lives.  Our physical lives – the routes we’ve walked to school or work, the buildings we’ve been inside, the roads we’ve driven.  And our emotional lives – the feelings that we’ve had at particular moments in time, the high points of joy and the low points of despair.  All these threads and knots of our lives lived in a place, weave a tapestry that settles over the land we inhabit, like a blanket, growing thicker and richer with every passing year.  That is my experience of belonging. We belong to the places that are overlaid with the threads of our life, the memories and experiences, the feelings, the daily existence.

Now, there’s a theory of global economics that says, place is not important.  I spoke to an American friend about some of the economic struggles of this place, and he said, people should move, if there are no jobs where they live,  They should move, go where the business is, go where the money and opportunities are. And of course that’s what generations of young people have been doing from across this region since the old industries began to decline.  Leaving South West Wales to go and work in London, in England, in the rest of the world, going where the jobs and money and opportunities are.

That is globalisation, economic migration, and it’s been happening all over the world.  People have moved away from their own places, and towards ever growing cities – so that now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 that figure is expected to grow to two thirds of all people, living in megacities.

But this theory of economics is a broken system.  It is unsustainable in every way. It has led to ever worsening inequality, and massive environmental destruction.  Because for every booming economy and burgeoning city, there are all the places left behind. All the Left Behind Places.  And of course, not just the places, but the People, left behind.

What happens to a place when all those who can, leave?  

It doesn’t just happen to our most ambitious and pioneering people.  It also happen to our most successful companies. Businesses grow to a certain size in the region, and then they either stop growing, or they leave – the retiring founders sell up to bigger national firms, good ideas get bought up and taken away, large industries get offered a better tax incentive or lower wages somewhere else in the world, and the means of wealth creation – people and businesses – leave the region and go off to make someone else, somewhere else, rich.

That’s the reality of global capitalism, and the clue to the problem is in the name – it’s global, it’s disconnected from Place, as if Place wasn’t important.

But if you live in one of the Left Behind Places, and South West Wales is just one of those places, there are thousands of regions that have been left behind by the global economic machine, all over the world.  If you live in one of the left behind places, you should know of course that Place is Everything. We live in a global culture that has tried to disconnect us from our sense of Belonging to a Place, but every day we wake up in our own beds in our own homes; every time we walk down our own streets, sit on our favourite sandy beach or look out of a window at the view, we Know it’s a lie.  Belonging to a place, weaving that place in and out with your memories and experiences, being surrounded by your own people, feeling rooted and safe – these things are fundamental to our well-being as humans

I guess my neoliberal American friend, who thinks everyone in South West Wales should just jump in their cars and move to Texas, might say, if your economy is broken, just move, you’re not a tree.  But that’s just it, You Are A Tree. You are a tree, rooted in a place, and your roots hold the soil of that place together. Keep uprooting the trees, and the soil falls apart.

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