We moved to St Agnes’ vicarage, in the inner city district of Burmantofts, on my 32nd birthday, the 4th February 1982. We hadn’t moved far – I had been curate for 2 ½ years just across Leeds, in another inner city parish (Holbeck) where both Roz and I had learned a huge amount from the vicar John Holmes. Roz had worked for a while as a social worker, but illness and then pregnancy had led her to give up and concentrate on more local voluntary work, as a child minder for a friend and also as a volunteer at an advice centre in Holbeck. Her training and experience there were inspirational – she discovered a vocation and a passion for Advice work that are still with her today.
Our son Martin was born 6 weeks after we arrived in Burmantofts: that was a steep learning curve for us, with a new home, new family and new parish all at once. One positive was the ecumenical scene – locally we enjoyed a ministers’ fellowship that included the Catholic curate, the Methodist minister and a student Baptist pastor at York Road Baptist Church, in the troubled Ebor Gardens Estate to the south of Burmantofts. And there was an evangelical ginger group – the “Aslan Education Unit” – rooted at St Agnes but stretching out to include local Baptist churches in particular – which was thinking and sharing radical ideas about being church and holding this with mission to the whole of society, especially the poor and marginalised. It was through this group that I first encountered Anabaptist ways of thinking, praying and being.
In 1985 the small fellowship at York Road Baptist was faced with losing two or three families, that included much of its leadership and giving potential. The Yorkshire Baptist Association (YBA) did not have the means to support a non-viable church – the Baptist ecclesiology is congregational, and at that time congregations had to sink or swim by themselves – and so the church made the brave decision to close, rather than sink slowly into oblivion. However, they did not wind up the church as an entity: they and the YBA hoped that mission would continue in the Ebor Gardens area, although they did not know then what shape it would take. (The Baptist Superintendent, John Nicholson, told me later that, shortly afterwards and in the light of the York Road experience, they changed their policy to allow them to give financial and other support to strengthen the church’s mission in deprived areas.) Many of the York Road members who lived locally found their way to St Agnes’. One of them, Cathy Magnall, approached Roz about doing something practical in the Ebor Gardens area, and Roz (building on her experience in Holbeck) suggested setting up an Advice Centre.
What does an Advice Centre do?
Most people who have heard of the Citizens Advice Bureau expect that you can go in and ask any question at all, and be given information and advice. In principle this is true, but in the 1980s most of the enquiries were about –
- Welfare rights (“What am I entitled to? – I don’t seem to be getting enough, or my benefits have been stopped”);
- Debt (the most complex of problems, because debts are usually multiple and overwhelming before they get to an Advice Centre. This field requires special training, but overlaps with Welfare Rights because maximising income often means sorting out benefits issues);
- Employment (“I’m being harassed by my employers – what can I do?” Or – “How can I get a job when I don’t have the skills or qualifications the employers want?”);
- Consumer (“The washing machine I bought is faulty and they won’t sort it out”);
- Legal and Immigration (also requires specialist training – recently this has been taken on more and more by solicitors).
Clients would share their problems, and the adviser would both advise on action the client needed to take, and sometimes act as advocate, writing to the DHSS as it was, or to creditors, or to the supplier of faulty goods. It’s a sad truth that big companies will pay more attention to a letter with an organisation’s letterhead than to a private citizen. There is also a “social policy” aspect: the CAB in particular records problems of a particular type and the organisation uses the data to lobby central and local government for a change in legislation or policy, or run a local press campaign, where that would be of benefit. EGAC would pass such information on to Leeds CAB and so contribute to the social policy information pool.
Setting up the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre
Roz and Cathy drew up a plan for what they needed, which included an office, a phone, a desk and filing cabinet – and a subscription to the National Association of CABs’ information pack, now computerised but then in a filing cabinet, with files that needed to be updated monthly by scissors and paste, from a NACAB mailing. (Our Advice Centre was never part of the CAB, but they were partners not rivals, and we used CAB training from time to time.) They then applied for small amounts of funding to Leeds Social Services and to the Yorkshire Baptist Association, as part of its mission to the Ebor Gardens Estate. The Deputy Director of Social Services, Jack Anderson, was happy to give us £500 a year, and continued to be a staunch ally and wise counsellor. But I was surprised to get a phone call from John Nicholson, which went something like this…
“Hello, John Nicholson here. I’m the Superintendent of the Yorkshire Baptist Association. We’ve had an application for Home Mission funding from your Cathy Magnall, for an advice centre in Ebor Gardens. We’re minded to grant it, but we need to know that it will be governed properly. I take it there will be a Management Committee?”
“Erm, yes, I know about the application, but to be honest I hadn’t thought about a management committee… But I’m sure one can be set up.”
“Good. And as vicar, we take it you will be the chair?”
“Erm, I hadn’t thought of that either…!” (And I had to consult Jack Anderson about a potential conflict of interests, between my role as chair and Roz’s as volunteer adviser. In the event it was acceptable as long as Roz was not earning from her advice work.)
“Good, good… Now, about continuing the mission of York Road Baptist Church in Ebor Gardens, we think there should be a Local Ecumenical Project between York Road and St Agnes’. How do you feel about that?”
You can see why I remember the conversation! The Local Ecumenical Project was eventually set up, but that’s another story.
The final element was an office space. The York Road church building had been bought by the Continuing Education Department of Leeds City Council, and they were an obvious first port of call. They made available to us a small room, formerly used as a vestry, and various church members helped Roz and Cathy to fit it out. The Ebor Gardens Advice Centre opened officially in September 1987.
Early years – Battle for Survival
In the mid-1980s the political situation in East Leeds was polarised. The Establishment was solidly Labour – Denis Healey was the MP for East Leeds, and George Mudie (city councillor for Seacroft, 2 or 3 miles to our east) was the Leader of the Council. But a radical Liberal presence had grown out of the evangelical think-tank in Burmantofts, and Burmantofts Ward had three Liberal councillors, whose unofficial leader Margaret Clay was a member of St Agnes’. When I arrived in 1982 there was a regular prayer meeting at St Agnes’ to support Margaret, though that gradually faded as Margaret’s political commitments took her slowly away from St Agnes’.
Perhaps the most politicised department in Leeds City Council was the Education Department, where the Chair and Vice-chair (both city councillors) had desks in the department, and were far more hands-on than is usual. Education officers with any ambition discovered that it was advisable to belong to the Labour Party. And it was the Continuing Education part of this department that had responsibility for Ebor Gardens Community Centre, formerly the York Road Baptist Church building.
In February 1988 a middle manager from Continuing Education came to my vicarage. He told me that they were finishing the Advice Centre, and we had a week to get out. I refused point blank (really I didn’t know what to say – I was totally speechless) and asked to see his boss. The boss (a higher middle manager) was someone I could talk to, but it was very hard to get straight information from him. I did however learn a good deal about the internal politics of Leeds City Council, and began a six-month campaign of lobbying anyone I thought would listen. I spoke to Jack Anderson, who was sympathetic but discreet, and Councillor Bill Kilgallon, ward member for a nearby ward and known to be a committed Roman Catholic. I wanted to speak to George Mudie, who as council leader I thought should be able to sort out this issue. But I could not get through to him. I spoke to his PA – I even had a conversation with the keeper of his diary, which had a semi-independent existence, being seldom in the same place as its owner. But no one would tell me how to speak with George Mudie himself – at least, not then.
Allies and Networking
In the meantime Roz and Cathy were struggling on in their tiny office, while the atmosphere in the Community Centre became gradually more difficult. We were told that the office was required for two employment advisers – they did appear briefly, but on different days of the week from our sessions. Without realising it, I was learning how to network with people in the council, the voluntary sector and the church. Paradoxically, the reaction to the Advice Centre from local people was overwhelming – young mothers would meet Roz outside Martin’s school and say, “Now we know the church really cares!”
The school (Ebor Gardens Primary) was very supportive. Roz was allowed to keep Martin’s young sister Rebecca at Nursery for longer in the day than usual. A year or two later, when the Community Centre closed for refurbishment, the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre (EGAC) moved into the underused medical room of Ebor Gardens Primary School (on a temporary basis which lasted two years!). And we enjoyed emotional and prayer support from our local church and wider friends.
Crisis and Victory
One prominent member of the East Leeds Labour party was the Archdeacon of Leeds, Tony Comber. I had already learned to respect and trust him over other issues, and he did us a huge favour, one Friday evening, by telling me in passing that the Continuing Education subcommittee (which he was invited to attend) would discuss a motion at its meeting the next Monday to evict the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre once and for all. What on earth could I do between Friday evening and Monday? – then I realised that the intervening Saturday was the monthly visit of our MP to Burmantofts Library for his “surgery”. I went to see Denis Healey, whom I had met a few years before, explained that we were working hard to alleviate poverty in a deprived estate, and asked him what could be done.
“You need to see George Mudie.”
“But I’ve been trying for six months to see George Mudie…!”
“He’s a city councillor. He’ll be holding a surgery now – if you get yourself over to Seacroft in the next 15 minutes you’ll catch him!”
I nearly got lost in Seacroft, which is a maze of identical-looking houses, but arrived just in time at the room where the Council Leader was waiting for people to see him. I explained again what we were trying to do; then, to my astonishment, he told me that we were regarded as a Liberal plot to subvert the orderly governance of East Leeds according to socialist principles. When I explained that we were strictly non-party political, dedicated only to helping people to get what was due to them, he said, “Leave it with me.”
I was told years before by a City Councillor in Sheffield never to trust local politicians who say, “Leave it with me.” It’s the opposite of empowerment, keeping the power securely with the powerful politician. But in this case I had no alternative. The following Monday I went as a member of the public to the subcommittee meeting, and was given a copy of the agenda.
“Item 7: Ebor Gardens Advice Centre, currently occupying a room, rent free, in Ebor Gardens Community Centre. Officers’ recommendation – to discontinue the agreement and close the Advice Centre.”
The meeting was extraordinary. Agenda items were announced, then without discussion or explanation, the motion written on the agenda paper was voted on and (almost invariably) agreed. No wonder they got through so much business – I learned that the real discussion happened beforehand in the private meetings of the Labour Group. When item 7 was reached, the chair simply said, “This item withdrawn,” and moved to Item 8. George Mudie was not at the meeting, but between Saturday lunchtime and Monday afternoon he must have “had a word”, and got the item withdrawn.
A few weeks later I was summoned to George Mudie’s office. “I got a bollocking from Denis Healey because of you,” he said, “so now I’m giving you a bollocking!” I stood there, thinking, “But you didn’t shut the Advice Centre …!” I felt we had won – not against George Mudie but against the system that allowed one man to make unjust decisions without being aware of all the facts, and which shielded him from learning the true facts. A victory of truth over the distorted use of power. Oddly enough, we grew to respect each other. When council hostility reared its head again he supported us. Shortly afterwards he succeeded Denis Healey as MP for East Leeds, and at the time of writing is still there.
Reflection – Power, Prayer, Victory
It would have been tempting to demonise George Mudie, who some of us thought (correctly as it turned out) to be behind the Council’s hostility to EGAC. But as soon as he met me and listened to what I had to say, he recognised its truth and changed his stance. I never did demonise him – I had worked too hard trying to meet him. But there was still a sense of victory once the decision had been overturned. I now believe we won a victory, not over George Mudie but over one aspect of what St Paul calls “the principalities and powers,” spiritual realities that manipulate human beings to deny God’s will for people to have abundant life. Such powers manipulate the powerful decision-makers as much as the powerless people whose lives are constrained by those decisions. And that conversation in Seacroft liberated the Council Leader (by giving him true information and enabling him to act on it) as much as it did the Advice Centre’s leaders.
I had at the time a clear sense that we were engaged in a spiritual battle, in which the prayers of ourselves and our friends were at least as important as my persistent phone calls. I felt that my action was like flying blind – I had to trust that, acting in ignorance, I was yet being guided in the right directions. And the contrast between our tiny group and the huge organisation of the City Council led me to the reflection, “We can’t outgun them. But we can outrun them, out-pray them, and if necessary out-suffer them.” That insight has stayed with me ever since, especially when I get involved in the inner workings of a large bureaucracy. The contrast between the biggest of dinosaurs and the smallest of primitive mammals came to mind – we might have to dodge some very large unthinking feet, but we, not the doomed reptiles, would survive in the end.
There is an important strand of Christian thinking that sees Christ’s death on the cross as winning the victory over the forces of evil, not by force of arms (he rejected the 12 legions of angels) but by refusing to retaliate, rejecting the weapons and attitudes of violence and therefore evil, and resorting instead to forgiving, suffering love. We were not called to take our non-violent resistance as far as suffering, but we did sense the mind of Christ in our struggle and subsequent victory. I wonder now whether I would have the energy and sheer persistence to do it again – perhaps the people we were then (as opposed to now) were part of the story.
Structure and Growth
While Roz and Cathy continued to give advice to local people, the Management Committee had many other issues to address. The first was its own structure. I was keen for EGAC to be managed by local people and other stakeholders, so our constitution included a place on the Management Committee for local residents, at least one volunteer worker, and one or more members of both St Agnes’ and the Yorkshire Baptist Association. At one stage we invited the warden of the Community Centre to join us, but she always had more important things to do than attend the meetings. One problem with such a representative-led constitution is that we could not guarantee our members having the skills necessary to make the Committee work. So we allowed for co-option of a secretary and treasurer, and also a volunteer fundraiser.
At about this time I contacted Voluntary Action Leeds for their help and advice, and had the great good fortune to meet Peter Gallant, who worked there. He was member of a church on the outskirts of Leeds, and not only asked his colleague at VAL to prepare our first formal constitution, but became our Secretary, stressing that he was doing this as a private citizen: he would not have been able to sit on our Management Committee in his professional role with VAL. The prevailing culture at St Agnes’ was very informal – I used to wear jeans with my dog collar and leather jacket – and I remember Peter saying, “You’ll have to accept me as I am – suit and all!” His presence and advice were invaluable, as he educated us in how a committee works and what is needed from the different committee members. We became personal friends, even to sharing a hobby: when Peter was forced by deteriorating health to sell his model railways, I helped him get a good price for two specialised locomotives, and he gave me a little tank engine and carriages, which I still have. One evening his church invited me to make a presentation at a fundraising social event for EGAC. The presentation went well – then, during the interval I bought a few raffle tickets – and won 1st prize, 3rd prize, 5th prize, 7th prize…! (I did keep the 1st prize!)
The hardest post to fill is treasurer, and we had two who lasted only a short time (due to other commitments) before John Smith allowed himself to be co-opted. He is a “local lad” who got all the brains in the family (according to his sister!), and worked in a senior post for the City Council. He had recently become treasurer of St Agnes’, and holds that and the EGAC purse to this day.
Advice work is free to the client, and so EGAC had no source of income. We therefore had to work hard to raise funds, not from the local community (which itself is economically deprived) but from funding bodies, including charities. The YBA continued to give us an annual grant (which increased year by year) and so did Social Services. But the work was expanding, and we began to see the need to employ a manager who would both have more time for advice work, and train and encourage other volunteers to increase the centre’s capacity to meet the growing need. The role of fundraiser fell to me in the first instance: I wrote to various national trusts, mostly without success, and to one or two local trusts. The secretary of one trust invited me to a party, which I attended and enjoyed – I guess being sociable is part of a fundraiser’s “person spec” – and in conversation I said to him that I didn’t really regard fundraising as part of my calling as a priest. Quick as a flash he replied, “I put it to you that this is exactly what you’re called to. You are the parson – the persona – of your parish. You represent your people, who have no voice in the corridors of power. You come here and talk to people like me on their behalf – something they cannot do for themselves.” His trust gave us a generous donation. Later on we were able to recruit Daphne Green as our fundraiser: she worked for a publicity consultancy and brought better-honed skills to the never-ending need to raise funds for EGAC.
From informal group to Charitable Company
At the point when we decided to employ a manager, Peter advised us that we should apply for registration as a charity, and with his help that is what we did. We interviewed and appointed Ken Hewson, who stayed at EGAC for many years, and whose gentle, encouraging personality enabled many nervous volunteers to develop their skills and confidence. While Ken was developing the advice work, we were seeking to move into our own premises. Roz had moved into paid employment by then, but as a member of the Management Committee she acted as Ken’s supervisor, and helped by training the volunteer advice workers. The Ebor Gardens Estate was about to undergo a major building refurbishment programme, and we were allowed to occupy one of the shops in an underused parade of shops beneath a small block of flats. We had to think through issues like the safety of advice workers (there are panic buttons in the office and interview room), confidentiality and soundproofing, and the need for efficient administration and follow-up as well as the advice sessions themselves. We were given a load of handmade bricks (by a local millionaire brickmaker), which made a feature out of our internal wall, but we had to buy the computers. We had no letterbox, so took a PO Box number (which is still part of EGAC’s postal address) and collected the mail from the Post Office depot just up the road. And, while Peter, John and others were negotiating with the professional outside world, our local and volunteer representatives were networking in the estate, gently letting it be known that EGAC was not only alive and well, but expanding its business.
In the autumn of 1993 I was visited by a senior manager of the local Social Services office. (We had been on opposite sides in a difficult pastoral issue, so I was a bit wary of him.) “We have been told that we must put out some of our services for elderly people to non-statutory organisations – either private companies or the voluntary sector. We’d far rather involve the voluntary sector than a profit-making company, and as far as Burmantofts in concerned, the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre is the only show in town. Would you be willing to start up a pastoral care project for senior citizens?” He was offering us about £30,000 which wasn’t a fortune, but it did not take us long to realise this would be an unmissable opportunity, not only for EGAC but for the mission of the local church. Over several months of negotiations, we rented some of St Agnes’ Church Hall (an extensive facility which needed a project like this to use it to the full) and recruited and appointed our first manager, Alison McGilp. But how would the new project be managed, without distracting the EGAC Management Committee from its core task?
The creative answer was to set up a new charitable company limited by guarantee, which would be responsible for both projects. The board of directors would hold the professional and statutory tasks, and each project would have its own management committee (technically a subcommittee of the board), consisting of users, volunteers and local residents as well as office-holders, allowing the projects to be managed by a group closer to the front line than the board of directors could achieve. Indeed, any number of projects could be managed in this way, and we set up a third project for community development in Ebor Gardens, although sadly it did not last long. At that time I was involved with “Leeds Education 2000”, a charity dedicated to enhance education in the inner north-east Leeds area, and had met solicitors and others who gave not only their advice but an “off-the-peg” company, which we then adapted with a Memorandum & Articles that reflected our particular structure and purpose.
At the end of 1994 I knew that my time at St Agnes’ was coming to an end, and we needed to ensure that the umbrella board (Burmantofts Community Projects) and its constituent projects (Ebor Gardens Advice Centre and Burmantofts Senior Action) would be sustainable into the future. There had been a review of the ministry of three local churches, including St Agnes’, conducted by Jon Vogler, local business consultant and something of an expert in recycling rubbish before it became standard practice, and I wondered whether Jon would be willing to chair the BCP board for a while. He agreed, and must have enjoyed it because, to my astonishment, I learned in autumn 2012 that he is still there! Also still there are John Smith, and Sylvia Snowdon whom I had known as Deputy Head of the Church of England School in Holbeck, and whom I recruited to fundraise for Burmantofts Senior Action. Local volunteers who were around in the 1980s and 1990s and are still around today include Robert, general supporter and “gofer” and also Management Committee member, and Terry, whose craftsman handiwork was evident when we first moved in, and has been seen again through a number of makeovers – also Sylvia and Denise, and no doubt others I have forgotten. I wish I could say what keeps people of such ability and energy committed to such a small organisation for so long. Perhaps it’s a combination of the structure, which allows each person to make their own contribution, and the historical ethos of working together for a common aim (and at times against a common threat), with the church’s mission and values in the background but never intrusive or coercive.
EGAC had its 25th anniversary in September 2012, and is celebrating with a party and open day on 1st February 2013. The detailed landscape of poverty and advice work has changed with every piece of social legislation, but sadly the Ebor Gardens Estate is still among the most deprived in Leeds. The need for an advice centre is as acute as ever: long may the Ebor Gardens Advice Centre continue to flourish.