A close up picture of a microphone in a crowded town hall, warm colours of indoor lighting and people are out of focus from the stage view.

Public Meeting Methods- The Wyndford

Leo Plumb

You may have heard of the Wyndford scheme in Maryhill, Glasgow. A fortnight ago I attended the Wyndford Residents’ Union public meeting on the future of homes in their area. Local people want to challenge the Housing Association who plan to demolish several blocks of social housing for 600 residents. Current proposals would make way for ‘Mid-Market’ rental properties within the scheme. The local residents are outraged about the mass removal of homes, they instead propose a retrofit of the tower blocks in the area, to bring them up to higher environmental standards and retain their use as public housing.

As I watched from the back of the room, I was thinking about what this type of event can tell us about the tactics that work well on a complex issue. I was reminded of the ways that such an open meeting can give communities a sense of their own power. I’m going to examine how this works in more detail, using the Wyndford public meeting as a case study. For more background on the campaign itself head to the Common Weal podcasts from January and listen to ‘tearing down communities’ with Malcolm Fraser. Or read his article here in the architects journal.

Our readers will probably have all been to public meetings of one kind or another. I imagine many of you will have listened to local housing development proposals or perhaps gathered in a village hall to discuss flood defences after severe weather.These days, you find these events being hosted and run by those in civic or powerful positions in Scotland. At least that’s the tendency I have come across. Think back on any you’ve been to recently. Was that the case?

Take for example Kaitlin’s recent article on The Decline of the Granite Mile in Aberdeen. She writes about an instance where Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce decided to put on a ‘crisis summit’ to discuss how the city could save the local shopping areas, which are in terminal decline. It turns out many of the key speakers were from major property developers (the kind who couldn’t care less about Aberdonians) and on this occasion a central participant was the oil industry giant Shell. This seriously troubles me as in a crisis who can you call on? 

In Scotland, real change is held back by a culture of nestling too close to politicians. This is something we write about often in Common Weal, especially those figures in organisations that should be providing a public good, like housing associations for instance. They nestle too close to politicians. As a result regular people are cynical about local democracy until they get a chance to exercise it. 

When we do finally encounter our own agency, we seem to suffer from a lack of  the “muscle memory’  of democracy. “Like riding a bike or a hard day in the garden, if you’ve not been using a particular set of muscles and then you try and use them suddenly, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.” (I borrowed that rather good analogy from Robin McAlpine.)

I found that being a participant in  a well run public meeting is a good way to get that muscle memory working.    

Within Community Organising there are often 3 goals referred to. These are the three pillars of a campaign drive: 

  1. To win, real concrete improvement in peoples lives, 
  2. To give people a sense of their own power and 
  3. To alter the relations of power itself.

If you are  part of a community group you have to see a public meeting as a specific tactic to ensure they act on behalf of ordinary people, not the other way around. It is a tactic which can grow the organisation and bring your group closer to influencing decision makers such as politicians.

That final goal, to alter the relations of power, sounds very grandiose. It is not an end goal as much a commitment people should make throughout any campaigning process. But if it were an end goal, it would be for your campaign group to sit down at the negotiating table with your opponents, the people who can give your group what you want, and for your opponents to know deep down they must agree to your demands. 

A public meeting by its very nature is a formal stage in a campaign. A stage where the group can present powerful pressure through turning out others to attend. This is something politicians are aware of. Sometimes numerical strength is enough to ensure they act on behalf of ordinary people to compromise on the issue.

A public meeting no one is expected to vote and you can air disagreements. Such a meeting contains elements that one might experience in the final negotiation with a decision maker, except most often the decision maker is not present. At least until you reach a later stage in the campaign. Should someone representing their office arrive community groups are in the perfect position to apply pressure to the officials.

These meetings can be both rowdy and organised. When a crowd of people begin to hold fast behind a set of ideas which they have a stake in, this can create a kind of magnetic pull.

In the Wyndford public meeting, the people who live within the scheme have long campaigned on issues related to housing. Though, so far they haven’t had to contend with anything as fundamental as the loss of 600 places to live right on their doorstep. So the magnetic pull of this issue is already very large. 

An attendee to a public meeting will either get a sense of this pull working on them or they won’t experience it at all. If it is working, then this fundamentally changes the power of your group and therefore the way your opponent needs to react to your next moves.

To reference another campaign which is relevant, I spoke with John Young of the Dovesdale Action Group in South Lanarkshire about the use of public meetings. He was mentioning how these meetings can spark the formation of committees, intent on pushing for win after win. “Even the smallest of successes can convert the naysayers to understanding the power they have in their own abilities when a problem shared is a motivation to resolve the issue in question.”

I think this is quite a formative process and one which can be tracked over the course of many years where some of these groups go on to fight multiple campaigns. Dovesdale Action group from which John is a part launched a campaign to oppose an Incinerator being built in the area. They fought this battle twice over a decade the second time winning commitment from Scottish Government on a ban on new planning applications in Scotland for incinerators’ in addressing overcapacity issues and the impact on climate change targets nationally.

The success of opening up campaigns to public involvement can take a strategy from a defensive start to new opportunities towards public ownership. As John went onto explain much of the campaigning knowledge was carried accross to other groups he has helped build such as ‘Friends of Stonehouse Park’ who were formed to improve the visual appearance,  increase investment in the maintenance of their local park, create a Local Nature Reserve and seek community ownership agreements for facilities within the park to bring them back into use and make the case for being properly invested in.

I’ll return to the Wyndford public meeting to sketch out my point briefly about how the campaign group demonstrated power through the process. 

It might seem like an aside but the history of the ‘Maryhill hub’ is poignant here. This is the venue where attendees took their seats for the meeting. It was what was once theGregory Primary School until Parents and staff decided to occupy the building in 2009 when it was threatened with closure. 

There are still residents ‘occupying’ the four towers due for demolition. I’m referring to those tenants who’ve chosen to stay put and reject the housing associations’ support to move onto new neighbourhoods. There have also been illegal occupations of the high flats which has grabbed media attention and helped further the cause of the campaign. All in all a reminder that whilst attendees to something as formal as a meeting bring with them additional credentials when they understand the realities of occupation on the ground.

There are many  different reasons to support the Wyndford campaign, for us at Common Weal it is one of the latest examples of local people proposing to improve the energy efficiency of their neighbourhood. In the Wyndford, public meeting speakers were chosen who represented  the community but who approached the issue from different angles, and this lent the speeches a great deal of power. 

At the meeting people spoke at length about how the GHA (Also known as Wheatley Homes) had conducted the consultation with residents about the proposed demolition. The media had publicised claims that residents supported the demolition, the speakers claimed this data collected by the Housing Association was unreliable. 

I listened to people speak about the possibility of housing refugees from Ukraine and other countries in the existing flats, quite well situated for this purpose. Others spoke passionately about their own feeling of security being threatened by a potential loss of community, their anger at what appears to be mismanaged decline of the area, and environmental loss.

I was there because Malcom Fraser is an architect who has been providing expert advice to the campaign group in the Housing scheme. Malcolm is Convenor of the Common Weal Board, so we brought supporters to come and listen to all the speakers. Malcolm’s full speech at the meeting is featured here.

Malcolm is not the only architect involved at the Wyndford. At the public meeting other experts brought their analysis including conservationist, Miles Glendinning, and carbon analyst Aythan Lewes, together making the case for saving and retrofitting the high flats.

Those ‘experts’ I listed above, were brought into the campaign by local people. I got the sense that knowledge is being quite fairly shared. Experts value the personal testimony of those still staying on in the high flats. A plan for sustainable housing is widely supported when it is explained clearly to residents and local area know- how, is vital to this. This is the other way power can begin to appear altered, as local people themselves begin to amass a legal and technical case for their own proposals. 

As I understand it, politicians were invited to attend that meeting. I could not say which councillors or MSP’s were there, I am unfamiliar with the elected faces of that part of Glasgow.

In this instance we know councillors or MSPs have a secondary influence over the key decision makers (GHA). A united council group, for example, could intervene on the next choices of the Housing Association. I haven’t mentioned this before but we obviously need this to happen because the Wyndford case could be a model for sustainable housing and strengthened communities throughout Scotland.

These local campaigners hope to win the politicians over to their side. To explain why saving the flats is necessary. This is primarily why you wouldn’t want elected politicians in any community organising group you establish from the outset. As you build towards winning, your group will have more influence over politicians, if they are kept at a healthy distance. 

Instead what you have are local residents much more clued up on the campaign and the technical details of the alternative they are proposing. And councillors should be thankful the locals are forming the plan and saving them work. 

I can call on some other examples from campaigns where local residents have amassed an incredible  amount of knowledge on proposed plans and done it all themselves. in Torry in Aberdeen local people were suddenly sprung with news of a rapid redevelopment of the Aberdeen Harbour, plans to remove green spaces, all in a bid to develop an Energy Transition Zone (ETZ). (That’s right the same, bungled economic development which bore Freeports and Scotwind.)

Local campaigners continue to fight against any attempts to take the park away from the people of Torry. They feel that their community has been singled out, what’s more, so many decisions were made  behind closed doors, Residents had to research deeply to uncover what was going on. 

At a social event in Aberdeen activists for the campaign told me about these developments, it was so complex I could barely keep up, then they showed me they had made a timeline of all the events online. They have documented a truly staggering investigation. 

Perhaps this is a good time to note that such a tactic as a ‘public meetings’ is usually used somewhere In the middle of a campaign timeline. It is often the case that a campaign group may have already run a public meeting to outline the issue, highlight what can be done to resolve it and decide on a set of demands for the campaign to take shape. The research throughout the campaign escalates as the tactics do.

It is often the case that a public meeting to specifically put pressure on politicians comes after the campaign team have had their alternative proposals dismissed by a ‘decision maker’. You can imagine a range of tactics used first; petitions, picketing the local developer’s office or boycotting a particular service, finally sending a letter of demands to the decision maker. Only then to have had their demands rejected in correspondence or publicly by the decision maker in the local press for example.

This is the perfect time for a meeting that gathers many people. This may sound counterintuitive but it is not. Rejection by the decision maker is to be expected in the initial stages of any campaign. Even when local homes or livelihoods are at stake. 

What’s happening now in the Wyndford is that local politicians can no longer remain distant from the question of where they stand on the issue. The campaigners can explain that they have tried all the conventional routes first and they have testimony and expert analysis to back their case. The public meeting has grown the support base. 

If you were a councillor in this situation and your constituents invited you to a formal meeting to hear this testimony, would you show up? If you arrived to hear residents voice concrete issues, would you be compelled to act? If you didn’t show up you would be targeted in an escalated way anyway.

The Wyndford Residents’ campaign heads out again this Saturday 25th February at 11:30am  marching from The Point at Saracen St at Possil Cross, in Glasgow to draw attention to what the GHA and the Council are trying to do to carve up communities and remove social housing. 

I interpret this to mean the campaign group are aligning their situation with other neighbourhoods across the city in working class areas. By making this a citywide narrative, the centre of power is tipping away from GHA. The plan to demolish homes begins to look a lot weaker to everyone, and it will be really interesting to support a push from residential neighbourhoods for better more sustainable housing. This also makes it the largest ‘anti-gentrification’ drive the city has seen. At Common Weal we remain committed to these topics, along with local Democracy and Land Rights, which makes this a unique case to watch as it evolves. There will be a lot more questions for GHA to answer during the next stages of the campaign. Get in touch if you want to find out more- leo@common.scot.

I’ve written this week largely about the energy of public meetings. If it is something that has made sense to you, try to go along to one of these meetings in the near future, make sure to observe what the relations of power appear to be at the meeting- and ask yourself what’s working well here?. Please get in touch with Common Weal to tell us about the community campaigns in your area. 

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