‘From footcare to walking bench to bench’: 30 years of environmental campaigning updated in the new report from KOVE – Kilburn Older Voices Exchange in London, UK

In a new report* for KOVE, part literature review and part exposition of its recent work, I link its programmes to the Madrid conference on ageing of 2002, where the condition of the ‘physical environment’ was identified as one of the World Health Organisation’s seven determinants that ‘can contribute to the realisation of active ageing’. Our aim has been to ensure that these issues are now given due weight within the current raft of initiatives aiming to combat social isolation (KOVE is a beneficiary of the National Lottery-funded Ageing Better in Camden) and to illustrate the extent to which concerned older people have been co-contributors to both research and policy. This reflects the concerns of a fragmentary movement whose roots go back at least to the 1980s in Britain and which has depended on the willingness of some older disabled people to counter stigma and speak out.

Kilburn Older Voices Exchange (KOVE), set up in 2001, was indirectly an outcome of the UK’s Better Government for Older People project, a devolutionary programme started in the Cabinet Office in 1998 only to be dissolved just over ten years later. Alongside local colleagues in the public sector, I helped initiate KOVE while working for Camden Council, since when Mel Wright has been its part-time coordinator, and – until very recently – sole employee. Although it has been a charity during much of its history, KOVE’s ethos remain in collaborative practice rather than with the pursuit of ‘independence’.

Unusually, despite one sustained push around the quality of local care provision, KOVE’s focus has been on the condition of the street environment. This emphasis wasn’t anticipated. KOVE’s founding agenda was a capacity-building, outreach programme rooted in a local authority day centre: the original panel of older people, service-users and local professionals was given six month’s money to come up with sixteen recommendations. When a range of issues were reported, in the spring of 2002, there was an important spoiler regarding access to podiatry, but no sign of the focus on public toilets, road crossings times, and community seating that was soon to develop, and which took root as KOVE expanded its panel format by talking to community groups in the following year.

KOVE’s focus on public toilets reflected the fact that while the council had maintained some good facilities it had closed and left derelict the one nearest Kilburn High Road. The High Road is a district retail centre with the misfortune to be located on the boundary between two boroughs, Camden and Brent, which have never been able to fully consolidate its management as a town centre. Its problems are exacerbated by traffic density, narrow pavements, and the high rates of poverty and disadvantage which affect its local populations. From 2004, when KOVE began working with Acting Up, to film its conversations on the street, older shoppers on the High Road talked with surprising openness about the conditions that obstruct their getting out and about. ‘Why do you prefer to use the toilet in Marks and Spenser’s?’ Carol Thomas asks one passer-by, who drily responds ‘Because at least there is a toilet there.’ As those conversations were developing I was reminded of the situation in Hackney a dozen years earlier when the council began closing many of the borough’s public toilets. Danny Silver, a retired official of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers, who had a health condition which meant he was partially incontinent, began challenging the loss of facilities in his Stamford Hill neighbourhood, first in the Hackney Pensioners Press, and then through the Hackney Gazette. He was willing to be photographed and to speak frankly about his condition. Although his protests were unsuccessful the issue gained some attention – but it didn’t as I recall become a broader campaign: the issue for many older men still veered too close to the condition of abjection and a fear of impotence.

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This low-fi poster was taken from the Hackney Pensioners Press regular strip cartoon by Alan Howard. Over three years it also dealt with street-crime, racism and pension and benefit cuts.

That Silver’s protest took place at all, however, was partly due to the events in the previous decade. The Walk Tall Campaign in Hackney pre-dated the official falls prevention activities starting to take shape on the fringes of the NHS in the 1980s. The campaign emerged against a back-drop of the declining inner-city public realm and with the recognition of ‘pensioners’ as a vulnerable category within the  frameworks used by the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the Greater London Council (GLC) to

P1060962.JPG‘Pensioners no-go’ February 1984. From left to right: Dolly Simmons, Ethel Morris, Maisie Mansfield, Micky Lewis, Lily Cook, Edna Glasgow, Kitty Dryer – protesting in the now highly fashionable Broadway Market.

distribute funding. But it  was the specific conversation about injuries – and even deaths – from falls among people coming into our advice centre at Pensioners Link Hackney in Dalston Lane that triggered the hastily convened ‘Worst Broken Pavement in Hackney’ competition of Christmas 1983. 200 people sent in entries. All were photographed and a short-list drawn up by the Hackney Pensioners Press editorial group. The winning nine entries were chalked up in a day of action reported live on Capital Radio. An exhibition was held with the Hackney North MP Ernie Roberts as one of the judges. Prizes were distributed to the winners. The leader of the council, Anthony Kendall, attended the judging and promised action. A poster campaign followed and Dolly Simmons, an outreach worker with the DOE/GLC-funded Hackney Pensioner Projects, who also ran a voluntary lunch-club on the notorious Holly St Estate, led the delegations which met the borough engineers over a six-month period to oversee improvements. The great Miriam (Micky) Lewis who had opposed pursuing the issue in the editorial group of the Pensioners Press (‘We should be stopping nuclear weapons – not messing about with bloody pavements!’) conceded later that she’d been wrong and said it was ‘the best campaign we’ve ever done’.

A greater willingness among older people over the last twenty-years to make the personal political has become an important correlative for the developing interface between health, social and environmental programmes. However, the limitations of such campaigns are everywhere evident. KOVE’s most obvious success has been with the installation of community seating – currently being celebrated through an ongoing programme of Bench-to-Bench walks. Its attraction for drinkers and the related objections of the police have been circumvented in the last decade by an approach to community safety which encourages active ageing and social participation. But benches tend to be one-off projects – they don’t require continuous servicing like toilets, nor regular maintenance, like pavements. In Britain legal responsibilities for the footway come a poor second to those for the highway, and piecemeal, reactive, approaches to repair predominate – the contractors who repair the badly underpinned zebra crossing where I live are prone to dump the resulting rubble on the neighbouring community garden or the pavement in front of it. It remains to be seen whether older people’s appetite for the sheer drudgery of this kind of campaigning can be sustained – there may have been both period and cohort effects behind the elder-led neighbourhood activism that mushroomed in the first decade of the 21st century. Even Speakers Corner, just down the road from Kilburn lacks a toilet – you can watch Tony Allen and Heiko Khoo in a fraught but entertaining conversation with the former Culture Secretary Sajid Javid in 2014. By contrast KOVE has been fortunate to make good relationships with both the Camden’s community safety team and the borough’s transport planners, working interactively and productively.

Near me in Wood Green the main Post Office has just been decanted to WH Smith’s, while the Haringey Council reception counters have been installed in the Central Library, substantially altering its character. I find these responses to the pressures of digitalisation and austerity discomforting: my mood drops somewhat when I think about both. I’ve found neither the Post Office nor the Library congenial for a good while but I note myself less inclined to visit either as I visualise them now. To my son, born in 1976, such public fora are of little interest, but I’m from a cohort for which the change is more likely to have an emotional impact, while I’ve also observed both environments to make a slight but noticeable contribution to socialising the impact of globalisation. This cannot be said of WH Smith’s, nor, unfortunately, of the strained mood now evident around the municipal counters. For my elders or my future self to be staying away and living more indoors as a result of such changes would be a further shift towards the privatisation of social identity (what Raymond Williams called ‘mobile privatisation’) which we know to suit so many of us ill in later life. There are signs, so far rather under-researched, of older people forming ‘informal groups’ of the kind identified by Paul Willis as ‘the smallest human unit capable of cultural penetration’. Articulating and democratising such processes of innovation and examining the environments that foster them may be the next challenge for social defence projects like Kilburn Older Voices Exchange. We hope this new review provides encouragement to progressive collaborators as we try to maintain civility and dignity in the face of austerity and the philistinism and indifference of those at the top, and seek responses to the impact of new threats and the rapidly diversifying social conflicts of a democracy in decline.

*From footcare to walking bench to bench: an examination of the evidence based for KOVE’s environmental approach to wellbeing and social isolation has just been published by Kilburn Older Voices Exchange and can be found by clicking the ‘Publications’ pages at http://www.kove.org.uk.