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Civic Societies Convention Blackpool


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Civic Society Convention, Blackpool, 15th -16th October 2009

This first Civic Society Convention in 30 years had been instigated by the Civic Trust. Ironically the demise of that organisation meant that the main business of the meeting was to discuss a future representative body for Civic Societies. The Convention was sponsored by Blackpool Council and Bluefin Insurance. Delegates each paid a registration fee and arranged their own transport and accommodation. As the two days of the meeting were split between a more social affair on the Thursday reflecting the day-to-day interests of Civic Societies, and formal business on the Friday, this report is split between the two days. Anyone interested in the main business should proceed to Friday's report. There is a Summary at the end of Friday's report.

Background: The Civic Trust, a national body representing local Civic Societies, closed in April 2009. The stated reason for the closure was the loss of Government contracts which had provided a greater income than the payments from local Civic Societies.

The Trust had, among other activities, provided a help-desk for local societies, negotiated the liability insurance contract and lobbied national Government on policy matters. The Civic Trust also made payments to regional bodies such as the Yorkshire and Humberside Association of Civic Societies which provides an opportunity for local Societies to meet and share views.

Following the collapse of the Civic Trust, other organisations such as the National Trust, Royal Institute of British Architects, the Esme' Fairbairn Foundation and North of England Civic Trust offered to support the Civic Society Initiative. This is an organisation set up for two purposes - to provide interim support to Civic Societies and to establish what future a National organisation of Civic Societies should have.

Support from other organisations included paying the salaries of Director Tony Burton and administrator Ian Harvey and providing office space and other logistical necessities.

Over the past few months, the view of Civic Society members have been sought through e-mail questionnaires, meetings of local groups such as YHACS (at which Grimsby, Cleethorpes and District Civic Society was represented) and 14 Open Forums in major cities. The main business of the meeting was to deliver the report which resulted - "Own the Future". The report was also published electronically during the meeting at www.civicsocietyinitiative.org.uk/own_the_future.html

Although delegates were invited to vote on various questions during the course of the meeting, it was made clear that this was not a decision-making forum. Any votes were solely to establish the mood of the meeting and were not to be taken as binding. Anyone who did not attend the Convention is urged to make their views known by contacting the Civic Society Initiative.


Thursday

Delegates gathered at St John's Conference Centre, within the 1878 Parish Church of Blackpool. Following a welcome from Elaine Smith of Blackpool Civic Trust, two guided tours were offered. The first, by local historian Ted Lightbown, took us around Blackpool's Winter Gardens.

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The tour took us through every part of the complex from the Empress Ballroom to the downstairs bar modelled after the interior of a Spanish Galleon. This leads up to a series of rooms designed by Andrew Mezzai, an art director from British films of the 1930's. Culminating in the Spanish Hall, a vast auditorium decorated with a three dimension representation of a Spanish village.

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Other rooms, not usually open to the public, are modelled in plaster giving a Hollywood version of renaissance Italy, and a mediaeval dining hall. Taking us up through the Opera House, the tour gave us a chance to admire the small bars and ante rooms which, as more than one person remarked, seemed be waiting for Hercule Poirot to tell us who the murderer was.

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In the second tour, Carl Carrington, Built Heritage Manager for Blackpool Council explained the redevelopment of the St John's area - the largest single area of intervention in Blackpool. Although the centrepiece is an ultra-modern statue of a diver plunging off a shining steel wave, the council has encouraged restoration of original features in some of the facing shop fronts.

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The stained glass windows of St John's Church are protected by bullet-proof glass and are internally illuminated at night. The rear of Abingdon Street Market occupies the 1862 Police Station and Courthouse. Because the station closed in 1893, the cells beneath the building remain in their original situation. Blackpool Council has contributed to the cost of renovating the building, and as part of the deal the cells will be opened to the public four times a year.

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Carl then began a tour of heritage sites pointing out the remaining terracotta frontage of the town's first post office above a modernised jewellers and the majestically restored Grand Theatre. He then handed over to David Evans of Blackpool Civic Trust (who also ran an entertaining, if chilly, open-top bus tour of the illuminations on the Friday night).

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Within the short time available the heritage tour continued past Roberts Oyster Rooms, Talbot Square (with the restored and extended war memorial) and up to the Grade 2 listed Town Hall. One of the hidden treasures pointed out was a frieze on the wall of the extension to the Municipal Buildings depicting transport through the ages. Sadly, the 1868 Yate's Grill/Tivoli Theatre building opposite has been burned down, and the site is currently fenced off awaiting some kind of re - development. However, many of the surrounding shop fronts have already been renovated.

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On Thursday Evening, a Mayoral Reception was held at "Funny Girls", the nightclub occupying the 1939 Odeon Cinema building. The nightclub interior has been re-modelled to echo the Art Deco exterior. During the evening, delegates were able to admire the detailed fittings and discuss Civic Society events when not enjoying the ribald comments of D.J. Zoe and frequent cabaret performances.

After the event, delegates were able to admire the new light system installed in the streets as part of the renovation effort. Reminiscent of the Martians from "War of the Worlds", and the supercomputer from 1970's TV show "The Tomorrow People", the snaking lamps project multicoloured discs of light which drift and glide over the pavements and buildings. As Elaine Smith would point out the next day, Blackpool's history was built on constant re-invention, and the new light system is a fine example of this.

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Friday:

The Civic Society Initiative has issued a report on the meeting which includes links to, "Own the Future". The CSI report on the meeting can be found at http://www.civicsocietyinitiative.org.uk

What follows is our own experience of the meeting.

105 delegates attended the meeting ( some societies were represented by more than one delegate and not all societies sent representatives).

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1)Elaine Smith of Blackpool Civic Trust* opened the meeting by talking about Blackpool's 200 year history. The town had pinned its hopes of regeneration on the bid for a SuperCasino. When Central Government abandoned this plan, Blackpool had to start again from scratch. It was therefore fitting that this first Civic Societies Convention in 30 years should consider the shape of an organisation to replace the Civic Trust.

*A Civic Trust is a legal form of organisation - The Civic Trust was the representative body under discussion.

Elaine introduced Carl Carrington, Built Heritage Manager for Blackpool Council, who read out a letter from Prince Charles, praising the work of the Civic Trust and the Civic Society Initiative."As a former patron of the Civic Trust I was saddened to hear of its demise in April this year. I was particularly concerned for the future of the network of civic societies which can be of such value to communities around the country. I was therefore hugely encouraged to see the emergence of the civic Society Initiative to find a way to fill this void. I think Tony Burton and Ian Harvey deserve every congratulation for what they have helped to achieve in less than five short months."

2) MP for Blackpool South, Gordon Marsden, spoke about the challenge of renewal and development. He also spoke about getting the balance right: Promoting the new and preserving the old. Key phrase was "Civic Engagement".

3) Robin Clarke - Office of Public Management (a Research Body to work with public sector and voluntary bodies to provide a better social outcome). "The work that I do is to design events like this to ensure that everyone gets their views across." Robin explained the electronic keypads which would allow delegates to vote on a number of questions posed during the meeting and see the results displayed on screen (photos below). A video message of support from Griff Rhys Jones was played on screen (below right)

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Presentation by Tony Burton, Director of Civic Society Initiative (CSI ) based on outcome of meetings held across the country ( see Own the Future Appendix 1). Our own Society had been represented at a meeting of Yorkshire and Humberside Association of Civic Societies.

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The Open Forums had been asked if we want a national representative body for Civic Societies? If so, what did we want it to do? The outcome of the Open Forums was that there is a need for a relevant body to face the challenges for the future on a national scale. This is a new chapter for the Civic Society movement. We need to unite the movement in a changing world.

There is a common thread of Place/Pride/Community. People need more than economic success and the Civic Societies can provide Civic Pride etc.

Parliament is enthusiastic about encouraging Localism and Empowerment - but Civic Societies are doing this already.

There is a growth of new movements - can they be connected to us (eg FixMyStreet).

The CSI picked up on the feelings of Civic Society members from Open Forums, Surveys and the Website. Campaigns such as Street Pride 2010 - Clear the Clutter/reclaim the streets.

He talked about Leicester's attempt to save a Victorian Railbridge with online petitions and websites. He talked about Grimsby's Ice Factory and campaigns from other societies such as St Albans.

100 Societies were involved in Heritage Open Days.

When asked what new things they want to be doing by 2015, Societies showed, "a real desire...to be less reactive and to shape the future, to be less passive and more active, to be dynamic and to generate change rather than rely too much on responding to the proposals of others."

By 2015 the aspirations of Societies included;

1 Work with Schools and Businesses,

2 Involvement in Planning and Transport

3 Have a younger profile

4 Avoid Duplication

5 More Campaigning

Tony Burton identified what we want from a movement - separate voices to a collective movement. To be more independent. To be grassroots down.

He envisaged 3 to 4 paid staff and a running cost of 300,000 to 400,000.

He envisaged a 3 per person contribution to give the new body full powers to represent the Societies. One benefit already negotiated was a free pass from the National Trust

Discussion sessions included

A) The role of a national body - should it work with similar bodies such as Heritage Link, Natural England, and the Victorian Society?

B) Pros and Cons of Civic Societies Grouping/Clusters. Was it better for Civic Societies to meet on the basis of geographic location, or would it be more valuable to network with Civic Societies from similar communities or facing similar problems ( small villages, large cities or communities threatened by windfarms)?


Governance and Democratic Process.

Did we want it to lobby at a national level, provide support for local civic societies? Did we want the national body to lead or follow the local civic societies? Most importantly, how should it be funded? One of the reasons for the failure of the Civic Trust was that it came to depend too much on Government funding. When that funding was withdrawn, the Civic Trust could not meet all its commitments. If local Civic Societies wanted the new body to be independent, they would have to provide more funding.

As noted above, not all Civic Societies were represented. Lincolnshire and the South appeared to be under-represented. It could be argued that the delegates were a self-selected sample of societies which were pre-disposed to the idea of a national body. It could also speak to cost/time considerations within the voluntary sector. Certainly the majority in the room seemed to agree that a national body was needed and the main disagreement was in how it should be organised.

A suggestion was made that Civic Societies should contribute on the basis of a set sum per member. If the sum was 1 per member this would mean the new body would have to find funding from elsewhere? At 3 a member the new organisation could be independent.

Delegates were asked to give their views and vote on a number of questions during the meeting, although it was stressed that this was just to gauge the mood of the meeting rather than commit societies to a course of action. Copies of the report were e-mailed out during the course of the meeting and recipients were invited to respond with their own thoughts.

A common theme during the meeting was to ask why the Civic Trust had collapsed and how we could avoid the mistakes of the future. To some extent there was a mood permeating the meeting that not all the facts had been told. There was also resentment expressed that the Civic Trust had cashed cheques from societies only a few days before going into administration.

Some delegates were adamant that we still had the remains of a representative structure in the shape of regional organisations like YHACs, and that we should not try tearing it down until we had something better to replace it with. Opposing views seemed to feel that there was some sort of conspiracy going on to carve up the new organisation between unrepresentative bodies. There appeared to be some potential conflict ahead in how much control each body should have of the new organisation. One proposal was that, if the new organisation was funded on the basis of a set fee per individual member, those societies with the largest membership should have greater control . A counter suggestion was that regional groups should represent the views of Civic Societies within a geographic area regardless of numbers?

At the meeting delegates had to be reminded that CSI was funded for only one year. The salaries of the full time staff had been provided by other bodies which believed in the value of the work being done. The appeals for money by the CIS had been to enable it to carry on during this year and do the scoping work. At the end of the year, a decision on the new body had to be made, The CSI was there just to put the new organisation in place.

At the end of the meetings delegates were asked to vote on whether they could answer the questions put by Tony Burton. Very few were able to do this. They were also asked who had enjoyed the meeting. Almost 100% said they had. The general opinion seemed to be that while not everyone was happy with what had been discussed, everyone was glad to have been given the chance to attend.


SUMMARY:

105 delegates attended the meeting. Not all Civic Societies were represented. It could be argued that this was a self-selected sample of Societies which believed in the need for a national body. There appeared to be a majority view that a national body was needed and the main disagreement was in how it should be organised.

Tony Burton, Director of Civic Society Initiative, presented a report resulting from national consultations. The main findings were;

There is general agreement that a national representative body is needed to support Civic Societies. Civic Societies promote civic pride and local empowerment which Government seeks to encourage. Civic Societies have expressed a wish to be more proactive and less reactive.

Decisions had to be made about Governance and Finance. Should the new body should be steered from the membership up, rather than management down? If so, should it be a case of one Society one vote, or should larger societies have a greater say? Another consideration was sub-groups such as Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies. At present, these groups meet on a geographic basis. But would it be more appropriate for groups to interact on an issue basis (small villages, communities threatened by wind farms, areas of industrial decline etc)?

How much finance were members willing to provide? It had been estimated that if Civic Societies paid a fee of 1 per member, the new organisation would need to seek additional funding from Government or elsewhere. This would reduce its independence and repeat the situation in the Civic Trust (where Civic Societies did not provide enough income to keep the organisation solvent when additional funding was withdrawn). It was estimated that a contribution of 3 per member would give independence.

There were many opposing views during the meeting. Some were convinced that the full story had not been told about the collapse of the Civic Trust. Some did not want to replace the existing remaining structure (of local representative groups) until something solid could be put in its place. However, the meeting was reminded that the Civic Society Initiative had been funded for one year only, and that a decision had to be in place before the end of that year.

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