Saturday, August 16, 2008

The doer lord and his do-it manor, by Paola Totaro - Fairfax - 16th August 2008

Paola Totaro catches up with an Australia-bound leader who banks on the resilience of people - not the capacity of government - to effect life's improvements.

Lord Mawson bounds into the room, every step exuding a springy, down-to-earth optimism: "I'm Andrew, would you like a coffee?" he says, handshake at the ready. There is no PA or secretary at attention here. Instead, the life peer with the gentle Yorkshire accent returns with his own half-finished cup of Fairtrade coffee in one hand and a fresh mug in the other.

We have been ushered into what appears to be the teensiest conference room in the universe, but the view from the window is far from small. This is Number One London Bridge Road, and outside is the River Thames. Across the water is Sir Norman Foster's iconic green glass gherkin, in front the shiny beehive that is City Hall, just up river, the golden stone glow of Tower Bridge.

Lord Mawson, who has been described as the Richard Branson of the social sector, is apologetic that this little meeting room is in constant use and we may be evicted at any moment. "I've been on holidays and forgot to make a booking," he laughs.

Nothing could encapsulate Andrew Mawson's philosophy of life, business and social entrepreneurship better than this moment. The room is one of 30 or so that form part of what is known as Mezzanine, an offshoot of the national charity CAN (Community Action Network) he set up in 1998. CAN bought the three floors and offers charities and "third sector" bodies space in the prestige building - but for rents calculated by the desk space (four to five square metres) and on flexible or even short terms. Faxes, copiers, phones, kitchens - and even that Fairtrade coffee - are included in the monthly rental bill, as is use of the 30 or so meeting rooms, some tiny, a few big enough to accommodate conferences of up to 80 people. About 400 organisations, from the World Wildlife Fund to Social Enterprise London to the Princess Diana Memorial Award work together under the same, upmarket roof.

"Why shouldn't charities and social welfare organisations work from beautiful places? Why, because they work for the poor and have limited resources, should they operate from a back street somewhere?" They should, says Mawson, have presence. And operating under one roof affords economies of scale - the ability to buy at discount, for example - that benefit all.

Mawson, 54, began his journey in Bradford, Yorkshire. The son of working-class parents, he left school at 16 to take an engineering apprenticeship with the post and telecommunications utility. His parents were thrilled their boy had public sector security with entitlement to a pension at the end. For Mawson, it was an opportunity to learn life's practicalities, to learn the job at every level. It is what he describes now as "the how" - the philosophy of learning by doing - and it would stand him in great stead.

"Three or four years afterwards, though, I started to become interested in the 'why'." He met a clergyman, John Shaw, a profound influence, and the young Mawson studied for the ministry at the Baptist College in Manchester, where he was influenced by the principal, Michael Taylor - intellectually rigorous and demanding. Then there was the pastor who ministered to drug addicts in a nearby small parish: "I saw then how tiny church communities could do just so much on the ground."

In 1984, Reverend Mawson, married and with a young child and a degree in theology, landed in a moribund Uniting Church parish at Bromley-by-Bow, one of the bleaker and exhausted public housing concrete jungles in east London.

In a district bisected by motorways, windblown, forgotten to generational cycles of poverty and unemployment, he found 50 languages or dialects spoken within a 10-minute walk of his church building. A sense of hopelessness pervaded, and anyone who could fled the place.

On that first, freezing November evening - standing in a church hall built for 200 but with just 12 septuagenarian parishioners seated before him - Mawson realised he had three choices: "stay in bed and succumb to depression; hide away and write a doctorate on inner-city poverty; or wander the streets, observe the local community and try to understand what on earth was going on outside the solid oak doors that until then had protected me from the world".

With just £400 in the bank and a suite of rundown and derelict buildings as his domain, Mawson took to the community his natural optimism and refusal to take no for an answer. The modus operandi remains the same 25 years later - anyone who comes with an idea and desire or energy actually to "do" will get a hearing, and backing to see if it works.

At first, it was finding innovative uses for derelict empty buildings. When a young woman wanted to build a boat from scratch, Mawson cleared a hall to provide her with space. When Santiago, a Chilean political refugee, needed to use his carving and building skills to restore his spirit, he recreated the centre for the community. A young woman wanted to teach art and pottery, another wanted to set up a ballet school. Dismissive local bureaucrats insisted the poor would not send children to learn dance - let alone pay for the classes - but within a year the school was filled with local, fee-paying children.

Art and life were joining hands.

The same model was applied when a creche was desperately needed. Mawson reduced the unused space set aside for formal prayer in his church, redesigning the building to make it usable as a state-of-the-art and accessible early-childhood centre - and as a place of Sunday worship. Germaine Greer, an early visitor, later wrote that the centre showed what could happen when "a church climbs down from its eminence", generating "incalculable riches". Prince Charles is also a supporter from early days.

For the next decade, Mawson found ways to inspire his community, to help them take risks, to innovate as they bumbled along, finding new ways to revitalise or reuse abandoned assets. Kingsley Hall, the pioneering pre-welfare East End centre chosen by Mahatma Gandhi as his residence during the 1931 roundtable talks on India, was across the road and also played to Mawson's spirit and imagination.

Many famous visitors had walked the same streets. Gandhi's morning constitutionals were still remembered by older members of the community; the former prime minister Clement Attlee had come; the experimental psychiatrist, R.D. Laing worked nearby; even Charlie Chaplin paid a visit.

But most of all, Mawson learnt from his neighbourhood that he should not fear a challenge. And if the state rejected a proposal, other ways needed to be found to make it say yes. In so doing, he inspired others.

Then, in 1991, another catalyst hit hearts and home. Mawson watched horrified as a young mother - an active community helper - struggled against terminal cancer and battled to look after her children, while the National Health Service failed her at every step. It was the community that stood by her as she died. Galvanised by the neglect - and the buck-passing they saw during a subsequent inquiry - Mawson and his team set about creating Britain's first integrated health centre, a model that pioneered and promoted lifestyle and prevention as the keys to health care.

Through it all, Mawson refused to use second-rate materials or cheap alternatives - terrestrial or metaphysical. His first project - building public toilets for the centre - "was marble all the way", he says.

His unshakeable belief in human beings and their need for environments that inspire led Mawson to aim high in each aspect of his community's life. They built gardens, restored an ancient wall, created quality-food co-operatives. Health improved and new skills were nurtured, opening business opportunities and means to self-sufficiency. Social workers, counsellors, teachers and other professionals used to come by bus to the blighted area; now, three-quarters of these jobs are held by locals.

In his book The Social Entrepreneur Making Communities Work (Atlantic Books), Mawson - who arrives in Australia next week for talks in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra - uses human stories, anecdotes and an easy, chatty style to describe the revolution he led in social service delivery.

But he also describes two decades of an almost comic - if it were not so tragic - litany of bureaucratic dithering, of opportunities lost, of reports forgotten on desks, of paper shuffling, obstructive politicians and civil servants who lived on buck-passing, excuses and never-ending political rhetoric.

His early enthusiasm and respect for Tony Blair and New Labour's desire to use Bromley-by-Bow as a model for a nationwide integrated health system is obvious.

But as the years unfolded - and millions were spent - he watched with barely contained heartbreak as the system attempted to carbon-copy his community's model rather than use the experience to empower other communities to create and tailor new facilities to their needs.

Mawson says that in this, New Labour failed: "The areas of deprivation in the UK have not shifted a great deal since Dickens's day and any talk of a new approach of the kind I fervently believe would work has led us to nothing but lots of strategising, meetings, papers, conferences, seminars, websites … and when the money runs out, there is nothing left to show, no tangible result and so, of course, the show moves on."

Mawson is too much of a gentleman (or crossbench politician, now) to cast stones, but it is clear he fears little will change under Gordon Brown or his Tory opponent, David Cameron.

He argues that politicians should empower individuals and communities that have had success and step back from promising big, expensive, one-size-fits-all nationwide social regeneration projects.

"People are weary of traditional methods of community consultation and community governance which have failed to engage them, their interests, their commitment, and have failed to make changes to their lives. My experience in East London suggests that the world is fundamentally unfair and unequal, but full of glorious diversity. Some of the mantras that underpin much traditional thinking in this area have contributed to the impoverishment of our inner cities and have undermined both community and personal responsibility."

A quarter of a century after the first big step of his journey, Mawson's enthusiasm remains infectious. He says the world is changing, that the generation of his children - 28, 22 and seven - responds differently to age-old problems. He speaks fervently about the creative spirit, about the political system finding ways to legitimise doers such as himself and communities such as Bromley-by-Bow.

If he did not have runs on the board, it would be difficult to cop what can sound like simplistic sloganeering. But his extraordinary achievements suggest otherwise.

In the 10 years since he established CAN, he has founded a £300 million housing company in east London and was instrumental in setting up a £100 million regeneration program in the lower Lea Valley, almost next door to the 2012 Olympic site, also in east London.

Now he is fighting to have the two projects "talk to each other" so that the Olympic legacy is not a ghost town of empty stadiums. He is also at the helm of St Paul's Way, a multimillion-pound project to transform the disadvantaged local government area of Tower Hamlets in east London, and is a big force behind the innovative One Church: 100 Uses project, which is trying to bring fresh uses to church buildings no longer needed for worship.

As we are evicted from the meeting room, Mawson recalls the young woman who wanted to start a local cafe amid warnings that Bromley-by-Bow people would not spend good money on coffee. He backed her anyway and, years later, Pie in the Sky is a thriving local restaurant.

For details of Mawson's Australian tour, visit Paola Totaro is the Herald's Europe correspondent.

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