Category Archives: Responding to the Big Society

Why sticking plasters are good, but not enough…

The Centre’s Communications Officer, Andy Walton, writes in response to the increasing focus on foodbanks and other ‘sticking plaster’ solutions to poverty.

The explosion in the number of foodbanks opening up across the UK has been greeted with several different responses. Today at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Labour Leader Ed Miliband suggestion it was a clear sign that things were “getting worse” that “more working people are relying of foodbanks.” Prime Minister David Cameron responded that the provision of this emergency provision was a sign of the ‘Big Society’ in action.

The Christian charity which helps local communities set up foodbanks, The Trussell Trust, now says that up to three such centres are opening per week across the country. A record number of people are thought to have come into contact with a foodbank in the past year. This number is expected to increase again in the coming year with the impeding changes to benefits and further cuts to the public purse.

Here at the Contextual Theology Centre, we are proud of the role we have played in helping to set up Hackney foodbank. It has been a remarkable success since setting up and has seen a number of local churches, schools and other institutions coming together to serve the whole community regardless of the faith position of those in need.

However, we are also concerned that so called ‘sticking plaster’ solutions such as foodbank are not the only response that the church has to the increasingly desperate plight of our poorer communities. Foodbanks, soup runs, night shelters and other emergency provision are absolutely vital to those who face crisis situations. Many of them also do a superb job in guiding clients onto other groups and services which can provide them with the means to escape poverty in the medium term.

However, we also recognise that there is a prophetic role for Christians to play in tackling the root causes of injustice, rather than just its consequences. In ancient Israel, gleaning the fields was allowed to provide for those who needed something to eat. But this was recognised as a temporary solution. The real solution to poverty was the radical redistribution of wealth promised in the Jubilee, the recognition that ultimately everything belonged to God and that to acquire and keep more than your family’s ‘fair share’ was only an ephemeral state of affairs.

For this reason, sticking plasters (or so-called ‘mercy ministries’) will always be an important part of our work, but never the full story. A second component of our social justice effort is focused on ‘justice work.’

As veteran civil rights campaigner Dr John Perkins puts it, “You’ve all heard it said that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. That if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. But I say that if we are to be truly successful in making this a viable community…we must own the pond the fish live in. He who owns the pond decides who gets to fish.”

To this end, we are involved in a number of campaigns which seek to redress the economic balance of our country and our world. From tax justice to the Living Wage, we want structural change which makes a difference for the local communities we work in, across east London and beyond.

The latest example of this fight for justice comes in the form of our recent appointment of David Barclay. The former President of Oxford University Student Union is an alumnus of our Jellicoe Internship and has recently been appointed to lead our work against the deeply worrying increase in exploitative lending by companies such as Wonga. Keep up to date with this campaign by following this blog and the centre on Twitter (@theologycentre)

Hackney Foodbank: the story so far.

Nationally, 1 in 5 people live in poverty. As many families hit crisis and cannot afford food, people are going hungry in their own homes. Rising food and fuel prices, static incomes, high unemployment and changes to benefits are causing many families to struggle to put food on the table.


This month saw the official launch of the Hackney Foodbank – a much needed service for people across the borough, which has been set up by the Shoreditch Group. The Shoreditch Group is a relational network of local church leaders who seek to collaborate, sharing our capacity and resources in order to meet need and bring hope and good news in our community. Conversations began in 2011 between local churches in the network who were galvanised by the desire to address food poverty in Hackney.


According to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, 44% of children in Hackney live in poverty. This is the third highest level of child poverty in England. Save The Children research documents that 22% of children in Hackney live in severe poverty – where a household has an income below 50% of the median (after housing costs), and where both adults and children lack at least one basic necessity.




Hackney has the sixth highest rate of primary school pupils (36%) and fourth highest rate of secondary school pupils (38%) eligible for free school meals in London. According to the last comprehensive statistics, 15% (13,806) of households in Hackney were living in fuel poverty, the fourth highest rate in London – that is where the amount of energy needed to heat a home to a comfortable standard costs more than 10% of the household’s income.


These stark facts prompted action from a cluster of churches in the south of Hackney, mainly around Hoxton. They were beginning to explore setting up a local foodbank. We contacted The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity whose community projects tackle exclusion and poverty in the UK and Bulgaria. The Trussell Trust’s UK foodbank network partners with communities nationwide to launch foodbanks that provide three days of emergency food to men, women and children in crisis.


The economic downturn has seen the need for foodbanks soar right across the UK. New foodbanks are opening at the rate of three a week and the number of people fed by foodbanks has doubled to almost 130,000 in the last year alone.

So how does it work?

1. Schools, churches, businesses and individuals donate non-perishable, in-date food to the Hackney foodbank. All food given out by the foodbank is donated by local people and collected by volunteers at supermarkets, and is also given regularly and at special times of year – including Harvest and Christmas – by churches, schools, businesses and community organisations.

2. A team of volunteers manage a warehouse operation on a weekly basis, weighing and sorting new donations, managing the rotation of stock and ensuring local distribution centres are kept replenished.

3. The foodbank builds relationships with a wide of local front-line care professionals such as the local Citizens Advice, children’s services, housing, probation, health and other welfare services, as well as Job Centre Plus, who can identify individuals or families in crisis. The foodbank registers these agencies and allocates vouchers which allow them to refer clients directly to the foodbank distribution centres.

4. Foodbank clients bring their voucher to a foodbank centre where it can be redeemed for three days of nutritionally balanced food.  Foodbanks are an emergency food service: to prevent dependency on foodbanks, clients are entitled to up to three consecutive foodbank vouchers. To help clients break out of poverty, we signpost clients to organisations able to resolve the underlying problem.


Over the last several months, Hackney Foodbank has established itself as a registered charity and has now been supporting local people for 14 weeks. It is operating two weekly distribution centres – in Hoxton and in Stoke Newington. Since opening on September 3 we have fed 283 people, referred to us by many of the 48 front line agencies that are already registered as foodbank voucher holders in Hackney. Of the more than 6 tons of food donated so far, we have already distributed over 1.5 tons.

St Matthias, Stoke Newington, where the launch of Hackney Foodbank took place.

St Matthias, Stoke Newington, where the launch of Hackney Foodbank took place.

31 Churches, 15 Schools and children’s’ centres, 15 business and community organisations, and over 60 individual volunteers drawn from local churches and the community have come together over the last year to enable this service to be provided.  The Shoreditch Trust, a charitable regeneration agency, and St Matthias Church are each providing venues at no cost which host Hackney Foodbank’s weekly distribution centres. Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco – who have a presence in the borough have put in place a rolling programme of annual collections. Our Lady and St Joseph Primary School in Dalston collected a third of a ton of food alone. Many other schools and churches have donated their harvest produce, often in excess of 100kg. Woodberry Down Children’s Centre organised a collection on behalf of the Foodbank in celebration of Eid.  Safestore in Stoke Newington have provided us with a 150 sq ft unit to store our food and their staff are able to receive donations of food on our behalf from people coming in off the street.


St Joseph’s Hospice, a registered foodbank voucher holder, has provided staff expertise to train our volunteers in understanding the welfare benefit issues our clients face. In addition, the hospice has set up its own weekly collection point for staff, patients and visitors to donate weekly to the foodbank.


Committed compassionate volunteers with daytime availability, including many drawn from the churches that are supporting us, are the key to ensuring that the food we have been fortunate to amass can be made available to those in crisis. We are grateful for those individuals who have been getting alongside those we are serving.


What is the long term vision for Hackney Foodbank?

In due course, as resources and volunteer capacity grow, Hackney Foodbank will seek to expand the number of local distribution centres in Hackney in order that a greater number of clients in need can more easily access a foodbank in their neighbourhood. All of us are aware of the pending impact of changes to the Social Fund and the welfare benefit cap and in anticipation of increased demand that we expect to see on our service we are already planning for that growth in Spring 2013. We know this is only the beginning of the journey but we look forward to continuing to involve our local community.

A new poverty map

As the 2011 Census figures are released, Andy Mathews blogs on the way one of CTC’s partner churches is using the latest technology to map its parish – and work more effectively for social transformation:

Maps are great when you want to get from point A to point B. I have spent the last three months finding out how this is true in an entirely unexpected way.

Whilst interning at St Peter’s Church, Bethnal Green I have discovered an entirely different way of using maps as a guide; not to get from a geographical point A to a geographical point B but as a means to help get from a general problem towards specific, achievable change.

At the beginning of October I was tasked a mapping project to help better understand the needs within the parishs. To do this I needed to use a very modern type of map known as a Geographical Information System (GIS). If you are unfamiliar with a GIS, imagine an interactive version of Google maps – upon which you can add layers of important information.

What this gives you is an interactive data store tied to specific locations – in other words, a very effective means by which to tailor a church’s ministries and social projects to areas of greatest need.

If you are still unsure, let me give you an example. Recurring themes of our listening within the parish are the impact of unemployment and poverty. From research we have undertaken I was able to find a huge swathe of demographics at multiple levels within our parish; at the borough, ward and estate level. We now have data on unemployment, age, ethnicity and even tenant satisfaction – just to name a few.

So what to do with all this data? We can now use this data to find the estates with (for example) the largest levels of unemployment, or the highest rents and target ministry to these most needy areas. We can now act with precision as opposed to vague gut instinct; we can make a deeper impact for God’s kingdom in Bethnal Green.

GIS is also helping the work we are doing to build a safer neigbourhood.  We have been able to plot on the map the location of our 30 ‘CitySafe Havens’  – shops and businesses which are now working with St Peter’s and Shoreditch Citizens to provide safe havens to people in danger of gang violence.  We’ve also come across this website on London Street Gangs, and are checking and mapping the information.

Modern technology is opening up remarkable ways for us to work for God’s Kingdom – and GIS mapping is one very exciting example. I’m sure Charles Booth would have jumped at the chance to use this when he mapped poverty in London back in 1898!

There will be more information on how to harness demographic data for effective ministry at our Making Sense of the Census workshop on 18th February

Introducing the Shoreditch Group

The square mile around Shoreditch High Street at the Hackney Road interchange is a curious mixture of trend-setting creativity and (often hidden) deprivation – with 75% child poverty and 40% unemployment in this area).

The Shoreditch Group is a network of local Christian leaders committed to social transformation.  Under the patronage of Lord (Nat) Wei, it is overseen CTC’s Senior Tutor, the Revd Adam Atkinson.

The aim of the project is to:

  • contribute to the social transformation of Shoreditch, and in particular the reduction of child poverty
  • demonstrate and build up the capacity of churches as agents of social transformation
  • engage churches with a broader cross-section of Shoreditch residents – in particular young people (14-20) experiencing economic and social exclusion and young urban professionals (20-35) with a concern for social justice (both of these being groups the church usually struggles to reach)

Helen Moules (the Project Co-ordinator, based at St Peter’s Bethnal Green) will be blogging on some of the exciting ways this vision is taking flesh.  It’s a great example of the Contextual Theology Centre’s mission in action: equipping churches to engage with their communities.

The Ideas Redefining Britain

John Milbank, a Fellow of CTC, has contributed an article to a recent ResPublica publication entitled Changing the Debate: The Ideas Redefining Britain.  Indeed, Philip Blond who is the Director of ResPublica is taking part in a Jellicoe seminar hosted by CTC in a few month’s time, and Nat Wei, who also contributes an article, is Patron of the Shoreditch Group.

The collection of essays offers a fascinating sweep across some of the ideas bouyant in current political and social debate.  While not comprehensive, it is certainly a valuable collection with other contributors including Rowan Williams, Roger Scruton and Will Hutton.

The publication is available to purchase here.

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Big Society Needs Big Religion

Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy, has been in London, channelling the wisdom of social capital at No 10, as well as talking at St Martins-in-the-Fields on Monday evening. That venue is the big clue to his latest findings. It could be summarised thus: if you want big society, you need big religion.
In the US, over half of all social capital is religious. Religious people just do all citizenish things better than secular people, from giving, to voting, to volunteering. Moreover, they offer their money and time to everyone, regardless of whether they belong to their religious group.
It could be, of course, that the religious already have the virtues of citizenship. However, Putnam believes the relationship is causal, not just a correlation. Longitudinal studies also show as much. So why?
Read the full article here.

Could this be the church to calm secularist outrage?

John Harris, a self proclaimed “unshakeable agnostic” over at the Guardian, has filmed a fascinating video, and written an accompanying article, about Liverpool’s Frontline Church.  The work done by the church for the local community is remarkable.  John Harris’ closing comments in the article offer a fascinating insight into a frequently ignored and often unspoken secularist dilemma:

The next day I meet a former sex worker, now apparently off drugs, set on somehow starting college and a regular Frontline worshipper. “I was a prostitute and a drug addict for 11, 12 years – maybe more,” she tells me. “God is so forgiving – he wants me to win.” Wider society, she says, is “too judgmental … it’s: ‘That’s a prostitute, that’s a drug addict.’ They don’t want to know.” And how has the church helped her? “Oh, it saved my life,” she shoots back. “I would be dead if it wasn’t for this church.”

A question soon pops into my head. How does a militant secularist weigh up the choice between a cleaned-up believer and an ungodly crack addict? Back at my hotel I search the atheistic postings on the original Comment is free thread for even the hint of an answer, but I can’t find one anywhere.

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Questioning Attacks on the Big Society

Dave Hodges has posed the question on the Labour Uncut blog whether it is time to stop bashing the Big Society?  He points to an important distinction which many critics of the Big Society fail to recognise: the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan, and the resulting cuts to public services, is not part and parcel of the Big Society vision.  Criticising one does not necessitate rubbishing the other.  As he says,

Aiming fire at the big society is not the answer. It is a positive, idealistic message that we sour with harsh home truths. We are the grumpy person in the corner who perks up adversely to criticise every time the opportunity arises.

At a recent Compass event in Westminster, Jesse Norman MP and Anna Coote from nef clashed over precisely this point.  Jesse Norman, a strong supporter of the Big Society as a vision for a society emphasising mutuality and reciprocal relations, argued that this vision should be separated from the current Coalition plan for tackling the deficit.  Anna Coote instead believed that they were one and the same, and that therefore the Big Society could and should be judged by what is happening now.  The debate will no doubt continue.  But resolving it, and deciding on what grounds the Big Society should be attacked when it resonates so clearly with many aspects of the emerging Blue Labour narrative, would help opponents of the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan have a clearer objective in their sights.

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So Farewell Then, Lord Wei

Nat Wei has stepped down from his role as an unpaid adviser to the Government on the Big Society at the Cabinet Office.  A remarkably gifted social entrepreneur, it is likely that Wei’s talents will perhaps be better used in his new role at the Community Foundation Network.

There was always a significant question mark over whether the Cabinet Office could ever be the beating heart of a civil society renaissance.  As a Department it is a curious animal.  Often silent and stealthy, its officials are some of the brightest and sharpest minds dedicated to making the art of governing a refined, and efficient, science.  It’s bread and butter is strategy, and long term planning.  Occasionally the Cabinet Office breaks the surface – hosting the 2010 Coalition negotiations, for example, thrust it into the limelight – and its present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has much more name recognition than his predecessors.  Yet there are obvious limits to what central government can achieve through strategy papers (however clever) and bold ideas.  The power to really change things which will impact the Big Society lies in the hands of spending Ministers at other departments.  For example, Eric Pickles and the DCLG team are driving the localism agenda, not the Cabinet Office.  It is little wonder on one level then that Nat Wei might be of more direct use, and have more obvious impact, working at a grass roots level where change is more immediate, impact more measureable, and action favoured over strategy.

His departure prompts an observation however.  David Cameron shows no sign of disowning the Big Society brand despite growing calls for him to do so even by those that support its aims.  And it is important to note that Nat Wei is not going to be replaced.  It may be simply the case that no-one else willing or able to do the job for free could be found.  But it is not insigificant that the role is being taken out of the Cabinet Office and given to the No 10 Policy Unit.

Far from distancing himself from the Big Society, Cameron is taking it closer under his wing.  It remains to be seen, though, whether this results in greater attention to it.  A more likely option, given recent developments, is it becomes lost in the sea of more pressing problems the No 10 team are preoccupied with, such as NHS reform.  Cameron’s promise to cut the costs of government have led to serious problems in not having enough special advisers (SpAds) to provide sufficient political support for his objectives, and those of his ministers.  Their time and energy is already spread too thin.  Using civil servants instead has been the favoured option, though this may help explain some of the political mistakes of the past year which more seasoned partisan operators might have avoided.  Civil servants have not shown themselves natural supporters of the Big Society vision.  Let’s hope that they are not given responsibility for it in No 10.

Lord Wei will no doubt continue to add to the richness of civil society. His track record as a social entrepreneur speaks for itself.  But the impact of his time in the Cabinet Office is not yet clear.  And what will happen next, now that his role has been taken into No 10, remains to be seen.

By Josh Harris

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Big Society Commission

ACEVO has launched its Commission report into the Big Society this week.  The Commission members, drawn from across the political spectrum, broadly welcome the Big Society and regard it as an idea which should “transcend” party politics.  Concerned by polling figures which show just 13% of people think the government has a clear plan in place to achieve the Big Society, the Commission urges the Prime Minister personally to take control and drive forward the agenda.

Powerful People, Responsible Society is an intelligent and considered report.  Its balanced criticism is particularly valid on the lack of consistent guidance from the centre over what the Big Society – as a policy programme – is trying to achieve.  Refreshingly, the report makes concrete recommendations.  For example, building in through No 10 and the Cabinet Office specific ways of measuring the success or failure of the Big Society.

Of course, as a way of describing society and the relationship between people and the state (as Jesse Norman MP does well in his recent book), it is hard to measure its success.  As anyone interested in cultural change will know, pointing to measureable outcomes is fiendishly difficult. 

But there is a danger that this leads to a lack of accountability.  Not so much for whether the Big Society is achieved or not, but whether the money and civil servive time invested in it was worthwhile.  At a time of public spending restrictions it is vital that the Big Society is not ‘toxified’ further by those claiming it is a cover for cuts.  Being able to show positive outcomes for the government’s investment in it is vital for avoiding that accusation.  ACEVO’s suggestions for how this might be done is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Josh Harris – Research Coordinator, Contextual Theology Centre

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