Why this matters: renewal not recovery

Before COVID-19 struck, despite high overall employment, many of Camden’s citizens were not benefitting from the growth they saw around them. We had high levels of in-work poverty and insecure work, a gap in the rate of employment between those with a health condition or disability and those without, and a lower employment rate for residents from Black, Asian, and other ethnic backgrounds.

Structural economic challenges have fed into the borough’s wider social challenges too, with a child poverty rate of 43%, compared to a London rate of 37%, and 1 in 4 Camden children claiming free school meals.

It has exposed many of these structural problems and intensified them. It has shown the true cost of an unequal society and economy.

Yet it has also shown the power of community and their ability to come together and lead change.

The Camden Renewal Commission brings together the talent and energy of the many people and organisations that make up Camden to tackle inequality at its source. The core idea behind the Commission is that by working together on ambitious missions (more about what they are later) we can create radical change and that we need to renew, not simply recover.

To help kickstart this work, the Council and UCL’s Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) invited a dynamic and diverse group of people who live and or work in Camden to bring their expertise to tackle bringing place-based renewal to an area with significant social and economic inequalities, whilst supporting the transition to a zero-carbon economy by 2030. They are working with the Camden community, through a wide programme of social action, to develop a policy platform and practical solutions that create a fair, sustainable economy.

It is recognised that this is a bold and complex ambition that will take time and collective commitment. And to succeed, it needs to be rooted in the principles of citizen-voice, community action and mission-led innovation; one that will both be guided by, and help to define, policy and the systems that create change in the borough.  

Citizen voice

The Camden community has demonstrated ingenuity and resilience in the face of COVID-19 and have shown time and again that they have the knowledge and energy to mobilise real change. 

Lasting, purposeful change happens when people with varied expertise, backgrounds and perspectives come together to chart a new way forward. The public sector can’t do this on its own – and we’ve seen the power of working in close partnership with our community.  

Take Camden’s pop-up Think & Do community space for climate and eco action, for example. It encourages and empowers people in Camden to take part and run activities that tackle the climate crisis. The Commission aims to help build on the strengths of this approach, going further to collaborate across our community, in pursuit of achieving ambitious missions together.

Image of the Think & Do community space for climate and eco-action in Kentish Town, a pop up space in a shop. 

Already, we have been listening to resident stories and organisations working with those most affected by the Covid crisis – we have heard challenging stories of loneliness and food poverty, but also of human compassion and mutual aid. These stories form part of the robust evidence base that we’re collecting: from data on income and jobs, to the state of the environment, to health and wellbeing in the borough.

Mission-led innovation

Radical change needs original ideas and new methods of working. The Commission is using a missions-based approach to innovation, and we are fortunate to work in partnership with the IIPP at UCL as experts in this field to help galvanise our efforts.

The thinking goes like this: society’s grand challenges are by their nature big, bold, difficult and complex. To achieve them, they need to be broken down into pragmatic steps or ‘missions’ that frame the stimuli needed for innovation.

It shifts the focus away from sectors and on to the problems that matter to all. Missions purposely don’t stipulate how to achieve success, given one person or group can’t hold the answers to such complex challenges on their own.

We hope it will also help broaden leadership to our partners, democratise decision-making and mobilise activity across the borough – with residents, voluntary and community groups, and the business community.

Our draft missions are:

  • By 2030, those holding positions of power in Camden are as diverse as our community
  • By 2025, every young person has access to economic opportunity that enables them to be safe and secure
  • By 2030, everyone eats well every day with nutritious, affordable, sustainable food
  • By 2030, Camden’s estates and streets are creative and sustainable

Radical change is not only about the new

It’s an old cliché, but ‘not reinventing the wheel’ is less about resisting new ideas, and more about reminding us to maximise the existing knowledge, partnerships and work that is already underway.

The Commission has reinvigorated many of our existing programmes, such as testing policy on Universal Basic Services on digital and transport, the Camden Climate Action Plan, the Good Work Camden programme and a High Streets Taskforce.

The Council’s Inclusive Economy team were already co-designing services to create an economy in which people have access to good work and growth, in step with a commitment to de-carbonise by 2030. Inclusive economy means rethinking the purpose of economic development to further involve citizens and capture the benefits of growth.

And there’s some compelling examples of delivery too.

Good Work Camden – a new programme that supports more residents into good work and drive long-term reform – was a response to what we heard from residents. It’s creating ways of delivering employment support rooted in neighbourhoods, and as a result, over a thousand residents are projected to be supported into good work in the next couple of years.

The hyperlocal Good Work Camden Job Hubs, for example, take the time to build relationships and trust with residents seeking work, and provide holistic support that is so often missing.

This whole approach is anchored in the Council’s commitment to early intervention and prevention, recognising that getting people into work that is right for them can be instrumental in achieving other outcomes around health, wellbeing and happiness.

The Commission missions are designed to capitalise on what’s working. Through renewal, new systems can combine with existing ones to shape an economy that is inclusive and sustainable.

It’s a radical vision for a borough ready to take on the challenge of renewal.  

By Nick Kimber, Director of Corporate Strategy and Policy Design at London Borough of Camden


COVID Stories: Resident Experiences of the Pandemic

Coronavirus entered all our lives early this year and threw a harsh spotlight on the deep inequalities in our society. The pandemic exposed long-existing issues and in many cases exacerbated them.

The Renewal Commission was set up by Camden Council and UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) to explore practical solutions to some of our biggest societal challenges: inequality and the climate crisis.

This work is driven by residents’ and communities’ lived experiences. This summer, residents shared their experiences of the pandemic through stories, videos and art. We also heard stories told to other organisations in Camden, such as Ageing Better in Camden and forum+ , and stories collected by local residents from their neighbours, such as Isolating Together, a wonderful project by Camden resident Karishma Puri. These stories – alongside many others – have informed the focus areas for the Commission.

The disproportionate impact of Covid-19

Image credit: Normal Life, Kentish Town, 2020 by Secret Artist NW5

We know that some communities have been hit disproportionately hard during the pandemic.

One resident said that life on a large estate was unbearable during lockdown, describing the difficulty of isolation in a noisy, overcrowded building without outdoor space.

We heard stories of the digital divide: some residents found themselves cut off from the rest of the world when they were unable to access library computers. In many schools across Camden, we found that less than half of pupils had access to computers at home for online learning.

Hunger was another key issue, made more visible by unprecedented demand at food banks and the public call for the extension of free school meals, led powerfully by Marcus Rashford.

“Food poverty is all around us,” said Camden residents Dan and Juliet. “What I will really remember is the scandal of acute food poverty, and how its shameful prevalence could no longer be hidden.”

Social isolation

We heard stories of struggle with loneliness and social isolation, especially from residents who have been shielding through the last few months.

“The weeks pass by in loneliness,” Harriette wrote. “The radio stations spoke about nothing else but deaths and increase in the spread of the virus.”

“If it wasn’t for the Mutual Aid volunteers helping with food and shopping, and giving me a little bit of time here and there, I don’t think I would’ve got through it,” Lisa said. “The little conversations do a hell of a lot for somebody’s mind.”

Community action

Image credit: Keep Your Distance by Lena Burgess

We also read stories of solidarity and the very best that humanity has to offer. Many residents spoke about the kindness of neighbours and shared how they stepped up to help others.

Lena wrote about the virtual support she received from the Greenwood Centre:

“We were all so desperate during lockdown. Our mental health was deteriorating at a ridiculous rate without having our usual main support available in its usual form… I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Leon’s efforts and I’m not exaggerating. The same goes for many others at the centre.”

 “Lockdown has proved my belief that most people are fundamentally decent,” Sheila wrote.

“I know so many more people in the area,” CJ told us. After losing their job during lockdown, CJ volunteered with Swiss Cottage Mutual Aid and started shopping for a shielding neighbour every week. “We get on really well. It’s nice to have got in touch with someone locally, from a different generation.”

Hopes for the post-pandemic future

Image credit: I Hope We Can Save Our Planet by Aerynne (courtesy of Holborn Community Association Virtual Gallery)

While this crisis has exposed deep injustices in our society, it has also shown the power of community and the ability of ordinary people to lead change. The Camden Renewal Commission wants to help catalyse this energy by helping people across the borough come together to achieve some bold, ambitious missions.

By Tor Marie, Apprentice Project Support Officer at London Borough of Camden.