Tom Hook was a CSaP Policy Fellow while he was Director of Policy & Participation, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. He is now Assistant Director, Adult Social Care & Health, East Sussex County Council.
I have responsibility for a range of core services in Barking and Dagenham relating to community priorities, including communications and strategy, and the use of data and insight. We make use of scientific types of data analysis and research, as well as valuing more informal types of community consultation and participation. Areas in my remit include heritage, culture, parks and leisure.
I applied for the Policy Fellowship to help in our work addressing a range of complex issues in Barking and Dagenham – these are issues that have exercised people working in social policy for a long time. We are seeking to take some of our interventions to the next level, looking beyond the local government world to gain perspectives from universities and other experts to gain fresh ideas based on research.
A number of the questions for my Policy Fellowship were based around social cohesion and community engagement. A meeting with researchers in the Centre for Social Innovation at the Judge Business School was very useful, as was a visit from that Centre to Barking and Dagenham. I also valued speaking and making connections as part of a panel on social cohesion at the CSaP annual conference. These kinds of connections have helped take our borough forward to a place where it is recognised nationally for good practice in developing community cohesion and we have been successful in some recent bids to central government to support work in this area.
Another area of work we have been able to progress with input from CSaP and its network has been our strategy on urban green spaces that are smaller than parks. CSaP connected me with another Policy Fellow, David Cope, then Director of Strategy and External Affairs at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Grow Wild outreach initiative. This resulted in a co-organised one-day conference held in Barking to pool expertise on how smaller green spaces might be used to benefit the community. Academics from four universities attended as well as representatives from other local authorities, practitioners from several environmental and community organisations, and residents from the borough. We have now developed a strategy which recognises the smaller green spaces in the borough as community assets, with the potential to become spaces for orchards, gardens and green gyms, and not to be sold off simply for parking or development.
I think there is good potential for local authorities to make further links with universities. For instance, Coventry University is opening a campus in Barking and Dagenham, and there has been a wide-ranging conversation about points of potential engagement, from employment and apprenticeships to heritage and communications. Experiences like the Policy Fellowship can help develop policy professionals’ understanding of and exposure to the academic world.
I came out of my Policy Fellowship visits massively inspired and with my mind buzzing with ideas that could work. I have recommended the Policy Fellowship to others, and I would say to others that it’s best to come up with a clear plan as soon as possible about what would be good to follow up. It’s been challenging to follow up as much as I would have liked to, once back at work, but it’s been great to take forward some of the connections that have made a difference for people in Barking and Dagenham.