#Notwestminster 2017: and breathe


Emily Warrillow speaking at Notwestminster 2017 – photo by Anthony Mckeown

The road to the defining moment of Notwestminster 2017 began in Birstall Market Place the previous June. One of the mountain of TV cameras that were suddenly and improbably crammed into the little town had caught a glimpse of a teenage girl trying to add her bouquet of flowers to the growing sea of tributes in the square. Overcome by emotion, she hastily turned away, flowers still in hand.

But before long she came back. A journalist promptly thrust a microphone towards her and asked “What did Jo Cox mean to you?” 

And I looked up from the sofa in my little corner of an increasingly confusing world. I remember that moment, not just because I recognised the voice, but because of the few words that this young lady could manage in her shock and grief. Those few words were simple, and extraordinary.

“She was my friend”, said Emily.

The statue of Birstall-born Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, looked silently on.

“People and the connections between them are the only things that really make any difference, for good or bad.” – from Andrew Wilson’s Notwestminster 2017 workshop pitch

roadshow-300x225Just over a month later, the Kirklees Democracy Commission began working with local citizens and others to determine what a strong and healthy local democracy should look like. We talked about the relationships between councillors and citizens at all of our public events. We heard that people value the role of councillor, but that their experiences are inconsistent – for many, councillors can seem remote.

I’ve come to realise over the years that my experience of knowing councillors probably isn’t the norm. My councillors are simply part of our community, not something separate from it. In what’s been a dreadful year for Newsome, they have been a constant source of reassurance, advice, determination and honesty. One day I thanked them on Twitter for their humanity, and somebody immediately responded with insults. It’s not easy being a councillor. It matters that they are here, in a way that MPs can’t usually be.

But I don’t hear many people describe their own councillors in this kind of way. I want more people to be part of a strongly-connected community – I know the value of that, and I also know that councillors can do much to help. Andrew Wilson’s workshop pitch for Notwestminster 2017 about councillors as innovators recognised that too.

But for Emily, she found that sense of connection with her MP. I mentioned this to one of my councillors, whilst standing in a field selling jam the weekend after Jo’s death. A little later on, two of my councillors made time to scrape me off the pavement in floods of tears late one afternoon, despite being on their way to a memorial service for Jo. There is something about being physically here, right here, that makes the role of councillor incredibly special. We have heard this whilst gathering evidence for the Democracy Commission too.

Notwestminster 2017

Notwestminster 2017 – photo by Anthony Mckeown

In September we began to gather our thoughts in preparation for the next Notwestminster. It was by then clear that our event would be greatly influenced by the Kirklees Democracy Commission, and by a strong sense of place. We talked about the momentous events of that summer, and whether they had a place in our conversations about local democracy.

We wanted to stay true to Notwestminster’s local focus, but at the same time, things were happening nationally and internationally which we couldn’t ignore. What we wanted to do was to explain the impact of this on our local democracy. There was a story to tell here, and I felt that it could only be Emily who should tell it. But I also felt it was too soon to ask, so for the time being we just went about the business of getting the show on the road.

In early November 2016, Emily was one of the Kirklees Youth Councillors who gave evidence to the Kirklees Democracy Commission. There are lots of useful insights to be found in Kirklees Youth Council’s evidence. Emily talked about how young people are almost invisible in local politics. She feels that councillors should meet young people at least half way and make as much effort to connect as they do. Emily said that it isn’t easy to understand what a councillor or an MP is and what they do, especially without political education in schools. She was quietly insistent that there should be some.

One of the most surprising things we heard from all the youth councillors taking part is that they would rather talk face to face with councillors about local issues than use social media. Because they know and understand social media well, our youth councillors also know the potential pitfalls, such as “things coming back to bite you”. Emily talked about how meeting Jo in person had a much bigger impact on her than talking via email or social media would have done. We were back to personal connections again.

What that session also told me was that Emily seemed ready to talk about the people and things that had inspired her to get involved in local democracy, including Jo. I tentatively shared the suggestion with the Notwestminster gang, that we should ask Emily to give a Lightning talk. But I wanted to be sure that we weren’t asking too much. We talked it over and I asked advice from Michelle Ross, who does a wonderful job supporting the Youth Council. By the end of December I had finally decided that it was right to ask the question, and the answer came back quickly that Emily was “super excited” to be asked to take part.

On the Saturday morning of Notwestminster 2017, we heard an extraordinary talk from 15 year old Emily Warrillow, entitled Jo Cox: my MP, my friend, my inspiration (you can watch it here). Emily spoke with confidence about how becoming a community activist at age 13 had changed her. She talked about the support and encouragement that Jo had given her all along that journey, including attending the EU debate that Emily organised at her school, just six days before Jo’s death.

Then, on the wall behind her, up came the photograph of the sea of flowers in Birstall Market Place. And Emily’s voice faltered. And the world seemed to stop.

Birstall Market Place

So there I was sitting on a sofa watching Emily again, the raw grief painfully obvious. Except this time I wasn’t watching down the end of a cathode ray tube on my ancient TV, but I was right there. It took all my strength to stop myself getting up and going to stand with her, because in that moment Emily looked very fragile and very alone.

But the defining moment of Notwestminster 2017 wasn’t so much the moment that Emily let her emotion out, but the moment that she found her voice again. It didn’t take her long. And what she said next was that she isn’t giving up.

“Jo’s murder left me questioning my future in politics. But I didn’t question for long… I found something that I enjoyed and had a passion for and I had to carry on.” – Emily Warrillow

So Emily made it to the end of her incredibly moving talk, which I’m sure has lingered in the minds and hearts of everyone who was there in the room to hear it, and left us all in bits. I tried to ask Dave Mckenna whether I’d done the right thing for Emily, but I didn’t get a reply because he couldn’t really speak. I didn’t look round, but many people told me later that they were feeling similarly overwhelmed at the time. So at that moment, as always, I was grateful for the person who knows how to reassure me without words.

We drew breath. We wiped away the tears. Then we got up and went about the business of trying to create a stronger local democracy. We took Emily’s enthusiasm with us – and our own.

Notwestminster 2017 PechaKucha Night

Notwestminster 2017 PechaKucha Night – photo by Anthony Mckeown

“This is an important moment for our democracy. It’s impossible to ignore recent events, which have left many people feeling uncertain about the future.” – Notwestminster 2017

The strength of Notwestminster is that it’s become a way for many different people tell their stories, learn from each other and get involved in doing something practical to try and improve things. I hope it continues to be that.

Our network is growing all the time and it’s great to welcome enthusiastic new participants like Jenny who first introduced us to the People’s Plan in a pub in Manchester and agreed to come and share her experiences, and James who pitched a workshop on open source democracy, who was also the very first participant to book a ticket. It’s equally fantastic to be able to welcome back people like Joe and Sym from Democracy Club (did somebody say By-election?) and Anthony who as well as offering great insights as a councillor has also been so kind in creating a fantastic photographic record of our Notwestminster events.

Emily’s story wasn’t the only difficult one we heard at Notwestminster this year. At Friday night’s PechaKucha we heard the Sheffugees story from Yoomee’s Andy Mayer, who was participating for the first time. He talked about being on holiday and not realising that refugees were drowning in another part of the same beautiful sea that he was sailing on. When he did realise, Andy wanted to use his skills to do something practical to help. So he and others from the Sheffield tech community worked with refugee organisations to help them share information better. My friend Maggie who was in the audience is already thinking about how we might do something similar in Huddersfield.

Also on Friday, one of my councillors returned to Notwestminster. Andrew Cooper talked about Newsome’s “Year of Fire” in 2016, including the devastating loss of Newsome Mill, which I’ve spent the best part of a decade trying to protect. “Sometimes the bad guy wins” said Andrew, “and it’s about how the community reacts to that.” Andrew is one of our Commissioners. It’s part of our emerging learning from the Democracy Commission that we need to help more people understand that democracy isn’t about always being the person who wins. It’s an ongoing conversation, and people need to feel part of the story.

Our local democracy is a fragile thing. It is no accident that I keep talking about the need to make it stronger. For any local democracy advocate, these feel like very uncertain times. And if you’re someone who is also working in local government, it can feel like uncertainty heaped upon uncertainty, day after day.

But the verdict from the pub this year, whilst people waited for their trains home, was that Notwestminter is special – and it’s special because of the people who participate and because of our positivity. We are full of hope in spite of it all, and we went home smiling in spite of all those tears.

There is a still point in every turning world, like Brent’s little camera sitting quietly in the middle of the room capturing this 3D panorama of the Notwestminster 2017 opening session. Fixed points in the flux.

My message from Notwestminster is that some things are still certain:

You care about the things you care about.
And you care about the people you care about.

I’m not sorry for showing it.

And I’m certainly not giving up.

(and breathe)

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Notwestminster 2016 – at the still point of the soundscape (EP)

Track 1 – Chorus

It’s not my usual quiet Friday night. It’s approaching 10pm and I’m sitting at the centre of a table of 20 in a curry emporium. Not where I’d usually choose to sit (I’m an as-far-away-from-the-centre-of-attention-as-possible kind of person), but I’ve been told that I’m not allowed to fade into the background, so here I am, at the centre of the maelstrom.

If the man with the big laugh were in this chair, he’d be the life and soul of the conversation by now. But because it’s me, I am sitting here quietly, listening. And because I’m receiving gentle encouragement, I know that’s ok.

Out of my left ear, Ed, Anthony, Dave and Matt are discussing the nuances of the phrases ‘democratic services officers’ versus ‘democratic support officers’ and how people in local government think of themselves. This turns seamlessly into a conversation about Ed’s father being the bassist in Jethro Tull from 1971 to 1975, until he gave it all up to be a painter, burning his stage costumes so there was no going back.

Out of my right ear, Phil, Peter, Joe and Paul kick off with blockchain (what else?) and quickly get onto the frustrations of UK address data ownership and the many ways in which civic-minded developers are trying to do something about this. Both conversations are animated to the extent that if I wasn’t interested in both it might make my head fall off.

At the intersection of our conversations about local governance, open data, personal experience and civic tech, Notwestminster has created a space in which we can make things happen and find ways to improve our local democracy. Over the past year, it has become a point of focus and reflection, gathering energy and momentum as it develops.

This evening is part of our second annual event. Already we have expanded Notwestminster into two days of “rock n roll democracy”, aimed at making our local democracy more simple, accessible and fun (and that’s not a word I use often, or lightly, either). This Friday we’ve already had our Local Democracy Maker Day, following on from our successful collaboration with LocalGov Digital Makers and Democracy Club at LocalGov Camp 2015. We’ve then heard a series of thought-provoking quick-fire presentations from participants at our special Notwestminster PechaKucha Night, and our curry is the final stop on our journey to the big day.

I know that all the voices around the Notwestminster table are important. We very deliberately set out last year to involve lots of different people. As an organising task, I’ve found this much more challenging than running an event just for local government officers (or just for food growers), but we have persevered. As the Oastler Flag says, “We are determined…”

And for the second year running we got an amazing mix of participants. I was delighted to see all kinds of different people coming back to Notwestminster, including campaigner Joe Taylor from 38 Degrees Manchester, Paul Hepburn from Liverpool University who got us all thinking about public values last year, our friends Phil Rumens and Lucy Knight from the LocalGov Digital practitioner network who have done so much to support us, and some of our inspiring young citizens from Kirklees Youth Council.

We were also thrilled to welcome over 50 new people to this year’s main event. Imogen and Annabella are town councillors who came all the way from Lewes and stayed for the full two days. Imogen made a fantastic comment about being open to having “a fully immersive experience”. That’s the spirit…

Peter Emerson arrived via bus and boat from Ireland, en route to Warsaw, to help us learn about consensus voting. Nick Booth made the mistake of giving me permission to nag him about Notwestminstser when we were in a lift in Leeds last September, and he was in the end effectively nagged into running both a great workshop about civic conversations and a talk about open local democracy (so lightning fast that I couldn’t keep up with tweeting it).

I was especially pleased that Sym Roe and Joe Mitchell from Democracy Club spent the two days with us, and that James Cattell joined us on the very-early-morning train on the Saturday. We always wanted Notwestminster to be something practical – to find ways of helping people work together to do something useful. Our first Maker Day in Leeds in September 2015 was bursting with enthusiasm, and it’s so good that many of us are continuing to work together. Sym, Joe, James and others who bring real practical focus to our conversations have made a big contribution to the development of the Notwestminster network over the past year and I hope they know how much I appreciate that.

Track 2 – Echoes

Along with the mix of people, our Notwestminster soundscape needs a good mix of spaces too. We had different kinds of sessions over the two days, to help everyone find a way of contributing that suits them. Most of us find the PechaKucha talk format terrifying, but for a few brave souls it brings real benefits. We should thank Spencer Wilson for not only stepping up as emergency compère, but giving us a couple of songs to start the evening off. It really had to be done – and it was done well.

I really enjoyed all the PechaKucha talks. I wanted to give a special mention to the two that I found funny and moving at the same time. Andrew Cooper, one of my councillors, talked about “The joy of being… a Green Party councillor.” Amusing definitely, but I wasn’t prepared for seeing some of my amazing neighbours and friends in the slides. It gave me a moment of reflection about how lucky I am to live in a place where local democracy and community activism are thriving. One of my reasons for doing this is that I really want other people to have that.

And what can I say about Dave Mckenna’s “The Godfather Part II, Part II” talk? Hysterical. Intelligent. Compelling. The product of a unique mind. Remarkable also for the fact that Dave seemed reluctant to do it, not because of the public speaking (one of my quotes of the day on Friday was Dave saying: “I do like to talk”*), but because it turned out to be the only wildcard option on the programme. But it made the evening. The sound of laughter in that room will be one of my abiding memories of Notwestminster 2016. There’s a lesson about finding a space for every voice in there too.

Our Maker Day was aimed at creating a more practical space for some of our digital makers to work together with council officers, community activists, councillors and others. I’m hoping it went quite well – frankly, I fretted so much over this new addition to our Notwestminster programme that I really can’t tell any more. For my part, I enjoyed spending the time with people who I don’t often get chance to work with, and I got some useful ideas for things I might try. And of course I’d like another one soon…

For our main event, we stuck with our format of having a mix of Lightning talks and workshops. What was different this time is that we asked for workshop pitches based on our Design Challenges for Local Democracy, which we crowdsourced from our network. This is one of the things that has helped to give the whole event a more practical feel – many people commented on it.

Track 3 – Interlude

A small but by no means insignificant change was the introduction of our Nap Room, an unconference tradition that was started by Nick Booth. This involves leaving a room free for anyone who needs to relax, reflect, recharge or just collapse completely. We know that it was put to good use. In a spare moment, James did a spot of redesigning local government webcasts there. Mevan did some planning for her talk about fact checking. And (very excitingly for me) Joe Mitchell also took some time out from our Maker Day to write his weekly blog in our Nap Room.

What Joe doesn’t know is that every Friday I come home from work, keel over on the sofa and look in utter despair at the list of things that I didn’t get time to do this week. One week I turned to twitter for consolation and saw the Democracy Club weekly blog post. By reading it, I was immediately reminded that good people are getting useful things done every single week, whatever the obstacles, and that I’d just better buck up my ideas and keep going. So I make a point of reading Joe’s blog every Friday – and to see it coming live from Huddersfield was a real treat.

Another change from last year is that we swapped our set list around a bit, to allow for a bit more time for each workshop. We also introduced the after-show drinks to give us more chance to do some last-minute plotting before we went home. As before, Notwestminster has created ideas that you can work on over the coming weeks and months. If you’re not already signed up, make sure you’re part of the Notwestminster email network or follow us @LDBytes to find out how to get involved.

Track 4 – Not easy listening

What I heard amidst the busy chatter of voices at Notwestminster’s Saturday morning break time is that we have begun to develop a distinctive sound. Because our work together continues all year round, together we’ve weaved our ideas into a kind of score, a rhythm of intent that runs through everything we do. It’s an undertone of energy and possibility that creates the positive conversations we need to get things done.

What I heard from so many individual conversations is that you all really value the opportunity to listen to each other. Digital makers and user researchers alike said how useful it was to hear from councillors, local government officers and active citizens. This focus on users and on how things sound, look and feel to people in their everyday lives has become a strong aspect of Notwestminster. Two of our PechaKucha speakers, John and Matt, talked about how public servants, and public services, need to be more human and empathetic. Matt’s workshop was on the same theme, and it was a key part of our Maker Day conversations too.

Notwestminster is also about hearing things that are challenging – not challenging in the way that Baroque music is impenetrable to most of us, but open, direct challenge about the way we do things and why. Please have a look at our Notwestminster livestream archive to hear from the Lightning speakers at our main event, including Chloe Brown from Kirklees Youth Council. The things Chloe said about young people and democracy at our previous Maker Day in Leeds were so powerful that I wanted to make sure everyone heard what our youth councillors have to say. If your kids ask you who a politician is on the telly and you say “it’s just grown up stuff” then you are part of the problem, she said. Challenging, and true.

On Friday night we heard from Patrick, who confronted a room full largely of digital advocates with the view that digital isn’t the best tool for improving local democracy. In some of our workshops, we also talked about the limitations of existing systems that are part of local government – the data sharing session quickly provoked a discussion about why different councils have their own web sites, and whether data should be centralised or localised. Characteristically, Sym stopped us becoming bogged down in a discussion about things that seem insurmountable, by focusing on one small incremental change and making a commitment to do it. It’s not the first time I’ve said this, but we can all learn much from that approach.

My appeal to all of you is let’s definitely keep finding opportunities to listen to each other, and let’s not be afraid of the difficult conversations, but please let’s also each pick one small thing that we can start doing right now and just bloody get on with it.

Track 5 – Silence

A few minutes before the opening chords were struck at the Notwestminster 2016 main event, two of us sat quietly in the Billy Bragg corner, gathering our scattered thoughts in sudden and complete calm. I can’t tell you how much I value the expansive, full-throttle Notwestminster soundscape – the amazing sound of enthusiasm and possibility as our lives overlap in a little corner of Huddersfield – but I value that still point in my turning world even more. When you feel safe and valued and trusted, anything is possible. Even when you’re so knackered that you missed your bus on the biggest day of your year.

Incidentally, that conversation about address data that you were reading about 10 minutes ago involved a lot of talk about levers. You know what Archimedes said on this subject… “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” Well, I have been given a place to stand, so brace thissen’. Maybe the revolution is just a T-shirt away?

Secret final track…

*my other quote of the day on Friday was “a gentleman never goes in a lady’s bag”.



The word “soundscape” was coined by composer R. Murray Schafer to identify sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place”

The soundscape is the component of the acoustic environment that can be perceived by humans.


More about Notwestminster
The best of Notwestminster 2016



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22 things you said that I won’t forget (from #localgovcamp 2015 & #LDMaker15)

Diane the day after localgovcamp

Me pondering life, the universe and democracy in the runner bean forest the morning after #localgovcamp 2015

I’ve been away from LocalGovCamp for five years. But this time I made it.

I came back home, I had a very long nap, I had a toasted teacake, I went to the allotment, then I sat in my mum’s garden with the cat. I’m just starting to gather my thoughts about LocalGovCamp 2015 and our Local Democracy Maker Day. Here are your little voices in my head telling me that there’s much to be done and not to be afraid of doing it…

From the Local Democracy Maker Day #LDMaker15

1. “We all know algebra but we don’t know who to vote for”

I learnt a huge amount from Chloe, one of the Kirklees Youth Councillors, at our Maker Day. She told us that kids grow up knowing more about American politics than even national politics in the UK, let alone local democracy. Our democratic content just isn’t in the places where young people are, either online or offline. She’s angry about the lack of education around democracy (it isn’t on the national curriculum) and is frustrated about the things young people aren’t told. She was also blunt and eloquent about the consequences of this…

2. “What are you going to do in 20 years time when you have no councillors?”

This was one of many questions posed in my group during our Maker Day conversations. The challenge we were responding to was:

Access to Decision Makers: People want greater access to decision makers and yet to many the local decision making process seems remote and impersonal. How can we encourage real contact between those making the decisions and those affected by them?

This issue came out top in our Design Challenges for Local Democracy survey. Conversations with Chloe and others on the day made it very clear why this is important for all of us.

3. “It’s a snakepit, but it has to happen…”

One of the inspiring things about the Maker Day was seeing how eager the participating councillors (of all ages) are for change. This was Julia’s Berry‘s response when asked about digital disrupting politics and encouraging a different type of person to become a councillor. She said that those who want to hold back councillors from being part of online dialogue should “just get over it”.

4. “Some people say to me ‘I’ve stopped voting because I’m retired now'”

Mike Jordan gave us lots of insight into life on the doorstep in his constituency, including some of the reasons why people don’t vote. He knows that if he doesn’t create leaflets as well as digital content, he will miss out on connecting with half the village. This helped us to think about doing something to create connections both online and offline. It also made me think we should all have an icon for our preferred method of contact painted to our front doors.

5. “We’re going to hit the streets to do some guerrilla research”

This was the point in our Maker Day (at the first check in) when I felt that the day was worthwhile. It didn’t take us long to get there, and that’s due to the quality of thinkers and doers in that room. Our friends at Democracy Club made a big contribution to that.

6. “I’m not a normal citizen though, am I? I take too much interest in things”

There was also a lot of laughter on the day – and I laughed a lot at John Popham‘s response to being asked to tell his user story as a citizen 🙂

From the #localgovcamp pitches

James pitching at localgovcamp

7. “What are we going to do about this?”

Bravery and honesty have been part of LocalGovCamp since day one. I still remember the discussion we had at LocalGovCamp in 2009 with the Birmingham bloggers who responded to an important and impenetrable council document by publishing their own digital, commentable, plain-language version. It was great to hear James Cattell openly confronting current issues for Birmingham head on and also making a pledge to do something about it. I really respect that.

8. “blah blah blah blah blockchain”
This is how Esko Reinikainen responded when we ran short of time for the pitches and Dave Briggs asked for all other requests to be in five words. It’s one of the best repsonses to a call for brevity I’ve heard (hey, if you’ll only give me five words, I will only use two). It even popped into my head whilst I was picking Beetroot this morning.

From the #localgovcamp sessions

9. “there are armies of muppets in the cabinet office”

This easily wins the prize for best image that you can’t get out of your head. The lesson behind it is that having structured data and making it open is only part of the battle – for it to be useful, you also need people to understand how to input good quality data that’s easy to understand.

10. “All the devolution discussion is about the deal, which is happening behind closed doors. It’s very difficult to get across to local people how this is going to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Ed Hammond made the point well in his session about just how abstract the devolution debate is for most people. Is it “almost an existential issue for local government”? It was really interesting to hear devolution discussed from the scrutiny angle, and it has echoes of some of the conversations going on in Yorkshire right now.

11. “Isn’t it because they want to have 8 conversations instead of 400?”

This is another comment from the devolution session that stuck with me. I think this elegantly sums up the back-to-front nature of how devolution is happening to us.

12. “If you’re going to have ‘people as needs’, I have to have ‘people as assets'”

I heard only the beginning and the end of the co-designing participatory processes session, but there were good things in both. I was really pleased to hear Catherine Howe speaking up about asset-based approaches when the conversation turned to focussing on people’s needs. You can’t talk about co-production without recognising that people have something to offer, and that’s where you should start.

13. “All democracy is local”

When Carl Whistlecraft asked people to give us one wish for redesigning local democracy in our session, the first question we were asked is: “What do you mean by local democracy?” This immediately brought out lots of different ideas about what local democracy means to people. Carl’s own comment is perhaps a wish in itself – if all democracy isn’t local, it should be.

14. “Am I allowed to be Notwestminster if I work in Westminster?”

This was the question that Ed asked on the way out of the redesigning democracy session. Of course the answer is yes, step this way sir 😉

From the in-between spaces

Sym and Joe from Democracy Club

15. “What I’ve decided is that everybody should be able to find out where their polling station is, and everybody should be able to find out who their candidates are. So that’s what I’m working on. I’m going to do that, then I’ll move on to the next thing.”

This is what Sym Roe said at the Friday night curry, when faced with a comment about democracy being really difficult. I have huge respect from Sym’s complete focus and for the work of Democracy Club. They are just getting on with it, even if the first stage is more difficult than they thought, and I’ll be doing what I can to help. I encourage you to do the same. For starters, if you work at a council, read this blog post: Why doesn’t Google know where I should vote?

16. “Do the entire pitch in the style of Norman Collier – go on.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous. An utterly bizarre conversation in the bar with Nick Hill and Carl, in which we sat on a strange turquoise sofa and somehow all agreed that 1970s Stand Up Comedian Camp is a great idea.

17. “I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing then – but I know what I’m doing now”

The modest Mr Phil Rumens quietly did a huge amount towards making LocalGovCamp 2015 happen – and Phil, you really do know what you’re doing. You also took the time to involve me, encouraged others to listen to me and trusted me to get on with it. And I don’t think I’ve said this yet… thank you.

18. “I’m loving the LocalGovCamp comms”

I really appreciated these words of encouragement from Sarah Lay, and the understanding of the ‘it’s day two and I just want to lie down in a dark room’ expression on my face before we gathered around the grid on Saturday morning.

19. “I want to share your blogs”

This kind offer from Liz Copeland came with some useful tips about making blogs on Knowledge Hub easier to find and to share. I’m grateful to Liz for some practical advice that I’ll be sure to act on, and for taking the time to let me know.

20. “I used to read your blog in coffee shops”

It was really lovely to get a tweet from Lorna Prescott asking to say hello. We’ve never met in person before and it was so encouraging to hear how my blogs had meant something to her. We talked about lacking the confidence to write sometimes. She’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this.

21. “I once overheard two people looking at a LocalGovCamp session grid and saying ‘I wonder what N.A.P. stands for'”

I hereby make a public apology to Nick Booth for not designating an official nap room on the session grid. Sacrilege. I did, however, still have my nap (outside, on the 8th floor balcony, in the rain). I only found Nick late on in the day, but we had a good chat about local democracy, blockchain and napping on our way out of the building. Put those Notwestminster dates in your diary Nick – we need you.

22. “You can’t hide in a corner… I’ll kick you if I need to”

Thank you to Carl for saying the right things at the right moments to get me through the day and out of the shadows, and for being the only person who could get away with it.

I was meant to be there, and without a bit of help I wouldn’t have been.

I won’t forget that either.
Carl and Steve at LocalGovCamp 2015

You can read more blogs from LocalGovCamp 2015 on the LocalGovDigital site:
LocalGovCamp and fringe 2015 blogs

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My #notwestminster journey

On Saturday 7th February 2015 I helped to bring around 80 people together in Huddersfield for Local Democracy for Everyone – We’re not in Westminster any more.
I’ll say more about the event elsewhere, but this blog is about how (and why) I got here…
Ideas Bazaar at #notwestminster

On the eve of LocalGovCamp in June 2009 I made some little badges for me, Mari and Steve, with our twitter avatars on. I still have my badge, along with the little orange badge that we were given on the day. I treasure my badges, but they aren’t the only thing I kept.

I remember that feeling of anticipation in the room as the crowd quietened down just before the introductions, the sheer thrill of standing in a room that was jam packed with like-minded people. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think my #notwestminster journey started that day.

Some of the intervening years have been inspiring, some largely wretched. I’ve lost people, lost my place and very nearly lost hope along the way. Over the past two years in particular I haven’t always known where my heart or my head or my courage have been. I’ve had more than one foot out of the door. But my #notwestminster journey has changed that.

PechaKucha Night in Huddersfield

In some ways I feel like a latecomer to the LocalGov Digital family. In other ways, I’ve been here all along. Either way, it was a surreal moment walking into Cafe Ollo on Friday (where I’m often found drinking “a tea with a bit of extra milk”) and seeing the LocalGov Digital gang gathered around a table in the middle of the room, in readiness for the Huddersfield PechaKucha Night.

Dave Mckenna

Dave “the brains of the outfit” Mckenna

Strange how it’s taken the arrival of so many people who have never been to Huddersfield before to make me feel at home again.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind three months of preparation for what eventually became #notwestminster, something that began life as a conversation between Carl Whistlecraft and Dave Mckenna. When Carl decided to press the big red button on our as-yet-unnamed event to bring together advocates for local democracy, we had no money, not much time and no idea how things might turn out. But I didn’t take much encouragement (if any) to make that leap of faith.

I already had my benchmark.

In December 2014 when I applied to UKGovcamp for a grant to support our event, one of the things I said was that “the experience of being part of LocalGovCamp in Birmingham on 20th June 2009 has stayed with me all these years. I could tell you what we talked about on the train home. More importantly, it didn’t stop at the talking.”  And I meant it.

Richard Butterfield

Richard Butterfield talking about Huddersfield’s democratic heritage at PechaKucha Night

Could we possibly do something, together, that left people on the train home from Huddersfield feeling that something had changed? Could we even get people here in the first place? And if we could, could we find any money to feed them with?

We had plenty more questions to ask of ourselves over the coming weeks. What I tried to hold on to was our shared belief that if we got the right mix of people in the room, something good would happen.

We knew from the start that we wanted not just other enthusiastic local government officers to be there, but also councillors, academics, digital makers, campaigners, community activists and young voters. David Bundy has described it as being like making a good stew – we just needed to find the right basic ingredients. To this mix David brought the University of Huddersfield, both staff and students, and members of the Kirklees Youth Council, amongst others. Vital ingredients one and all.

Carl Whistlecraft and David Bundy

Carl and David – photo by Anthony Mckeown

The same is true of the project team. We began with me, Carl, David, Spencer Wilson and Aggie Wilstrop, who all work for Kirklees Council as our ‘day job’. To this mix we quickly added Andrew Wilson who organises the Hannah Festival and has collaborated with me on various neighbourhood projects.

Between us we figured out a structure for the event, found a venue (our friends at the Media Centre in Huddersfield have been fantastic), stuck up some basic web pages and swiftly announced our intentions to the world.


Make sure its anarchicAs things progressed we were joined by Andrea Robinson (also from Kirklees) and Jane Wallace, a politics student at the University of Huddersfield. And between us we set about ploughing through all the tasks on our ever-growing list. This one is my favourite, though I know that my geekboy friends will probably say it’s an “acceptance criteria rather than a task”.

The other thing we were adamant about was that it should have some local character. The radical heritage and creativity of Huddersfield are pretty amazing. We didn’t think we could host an event to celebrate local democracy without also celebrating the place that we would be gathering in. This train of thought developed into hiring a local artist, Amy Hirst, to help us print a banner, creating our own manifesto, making placards for our Ideas Bazaar and setting up our badge making station.

The Florence Lockwood bannerIn early January Spencer arranged for us to be shown around Tolson Museum by Richard Butterfield, a visit which led to us putting those lovely replica banners at the heart of our event and adding touches of our democratic heritage wherever we could find a spare corner.

We also made contact with Discover Huddersfield and the Huddersfield Local History Society, who offered to run a guided walk around some of the town centre locations that feature in the story of our radical heritage.

Andrew with placard

Andrew with our “Doing devolution without permission” placard

We were inspired by our local heritage, but we were also looking firmly to the future. We talked a lot about how to focus our participants on the “doing” of local democracy. Andrew helped us to look at different models for structuring the event, and we opted for inviting workshop pitches in advance. We also decided to set our workshop hosts a big challenge – to come up with 3 ideas for redesigning local democracy in each workshop.

The upshot was that, well, to paraphrase our long-distance partner in crime Dave Mckenna, we only went and did it.

Somehow all of it came together – and the clans gathered in Huddersfield for an energetic and inspiring day.

Councillors Karen Allison and Julie Stewart-Turner

Councillors Karen Allison and Julie Stewart-Turner

Many people have remarked about the amazing mix of #notwestminster participants. It’s already been discussed online, at a community meeting in my neighbourhood and in my workplace. I live in Newsome, the electoral ward where the event took place, and was delighted that my councillors took part. You may have met them – they were the ones with the pigeons 🙂


And for me, something definitely changed. For the better.

This is why it means a lot to me that…

Sarah Lay said “you are changing things just by getting together”
and quoted “if you want to go far, go together”

and that…

Carl Haggerty said “Remember this date”
(and made all the participants give themselves a round of applause)

and that…

Dave Mckenna said “It certainly felt to me like a game changer” and “Remember,
if we are not in Westminster anymore then maybe we are somewhere over the ….”

and that…

Carl Whistlecraft simply (and repeatedly) said thank you

and that…

between us, we just made it happen.
bagdesI’m delighted to have sent people away with badges and ideas and new-found friends and aspirations for the future. I could not have wished for anything more.

Somehow I have been behind the moon and beyond the rain and on an amazing journey, then found that I have been home all along.

Then I woke up… and you are still here.



p.s. This is the only version of Somewhere over the Rainbow that you should ever listen to. Them’s the rules…

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Empty windowsills

empty windowsillMay is the season of empty windowsills. Every surface in the house that’s within reach of daylight has been crammed full of plant pots and seed trays for weeks. Now these hundreds of young plants and seedlings have been given away in just one morning, placed into grateful hands at Growing Newsome’s annual Plant Swap. A gift shared between growers, happy both to give and to receive. And I am left only with empty windowsills, a smile, my favourite tomatoes, two small cosmos seedlings, the plants that I’ve kept for friends, and an urge to sow lots more seeds.

Sometimes empty isn’t really empty at all.

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The grey and the green

fir tree in silhouette

The space left by the fallen willow.

It was perhaps 1981 when I collected the furry little silver catkins from the willow tree in our garden and put them in a tiny metal tin that has a hinged lid bearing a picture of Mr Strong. I’ve investigated now and then over the years, so I know that they’ve never lost their softness.

The two grey-furred companions that have been part of different stages of my life have both loved climbing the willow. It forked in two directions, one leaning towards the house, the other away from it.

The halves were wrenched apart by the storm in the first week of December 2013, which brought most of the tree crashing down right across the garden, tore the trunk apart and left a sliver of tree teetering precariously without visible means of support.

It also revealed the lower half of its massive neighbouring fir tree, strangely naked and also looking vulnerable for the first time.

My brother has slowly excavated the garden, a bit at a time, reclaiming it from beneath the wreckage. The twigs were bagged up and removed, the branches cut into a stack of timber, the trunk cut painstakingly into three sections. The smallest piece he used ingeniously to prop up a smaller tree that the next storm had tried to bring down. The middle section he placed carefully as a feature along the rockery. The main section remains where it fell, unmovable, with the plants it squashed when it fell gradually finding their way around it.

The fallen willow is laying across one of the paths, but it’s firmly set. It’s a handy extra bench though. And when I sat on it two days ago, May Day 2014, what I discovered is…

willow tree

…it’s still alive.

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April rhythm

two photos of seed potatoes lined up ready for planting

Left: April 2013. Right: April 2014.

Another April almost over. All our potatoes are finally in the ground.
The rows are probably a bit wonky, as ever. But we are into our stride.
We’ve caught up with April’s rhythm. And I’m stepping on quietly through another Spring.

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