Birmingham: Brexit and building community

A hot summer’s evening in east Birmingham. The first proper one of the year, and in Bromford, children are out playing in the muggy evening air.

St Wilfrid’s Community Centre offers a cool respite from the heat, but people would be forgiven for having better things to do on such a lovely Friday night.

However, it’s a measure of the power of this election that the room is, well, nearly full. And when I arrive, the Hodge Hill hustings is in full swing.

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Ably chaired by local Rev Al Barrett of Hodge Hill Church, Liam Byrne, the Labour parliamentary candidate who has represented the constituency for 13 years, is joined by Liberal Democrat Phil Bennion.

The debate focuses on Brexit. So far, the subject which prompted the whole election has been curiously absent from the campaign.

 

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But although this diverse, low-income constituency voted narrowly to leave the EU,  there are deep concerns that the hard Brexit being touted will result in job losses and damaging migration curbs.

“I want to keep the best bits of the EU, ” says Suraiya.

“We are and we will be in Europe. So why not cooperate?”

For others, it is the prism through which all other policies should be viewed.

A strong economy that is able to adequately fund education, social care and the NHS, Balal says, can only be achieved through a Brexit deal that protects the economy – and precious jobs.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment,” he tells me.

“We need an economic policy that works for everyone.”

Jo Green, of the Embrace Autism support group, stands up to ask her question.

As someone living with autism, she is deeply worried – and frustrated – at cuts to council care. And she wants to know exactly what the candidates are going to do about it.

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Jo also works as a volunteer with the local ‘Our Street Connectors’ project, which helps people like her bring the community together. It’s an initiative founded by Rev Barrett, a huge advocate of asset-based community development (ABCD).

The ABCD approach looks to develop communities using their existing strengths and potential, and works to support people like Jo.

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It’s embedded in the parish through Firs and Bromford Neighbours Together.

Amongst other initiatives,  they run a Real Junk Food Kitchen, an allotment, and hold a huge number of community events at St Wilfrid’s.

Yet their project worker Paul Wright – or “community builder”, as he calls himself – says despite the obvious strength of the community, they are struggling to withstand the impact of cuts, sanctions, and austerity.

“People are getting knocked down all the time”.

After the event, attendees and candidates sit and chat; the conversation continues on Twitter.

Hundreds of events like this have taken place throughout this election, in unremarkable town halls and community centres up and own the country.

But what is remarkable about them is the direct connection between citizens and democracy, that demands these people asking for our vote are held accountable for their actions, and deliver their promises.

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Rev Barrett and I walk out into the estate. It feels lush and green and is bathed in the early evening night. He tells me he’s very happy with the way the debate has gone.

He lives just round the corner, and wanders home.

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