Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Have traditional branches had their day?

I am rapidly reaching the view that traditional branches, based on ward boundaries, have probably had their day. This doesn't mean that where they are successfully established or thriving they should be wound-up or neglected, but we must never be afraid to seek other ways to engage people in the process.

When I grew-up in Wallasey in suburban Merseyside, our road of modest post-war three bedroom semi-detached houses were occupied by a stable community of long-term residents. Forty years later I can still recall the names of almost every family in the road.  In a society where people "settled down" in their dream home, worked, shopped, socialised and worshipped locally and remained in the house until their grandchildren put them into Twilight Lodge, it is hardly surprising that neighbourhood boundaries were important markers.

Today, however, this is not the case. For many, home is a place to sleep not where you would choose to settle. Job market fluidity, social mobility and changes in lifestyle result in even those who can afford to buy not doing so until later, or 'buying to let' as an investment whilst continuing to rent or share with friends. Steve and I have lived in four homes since we moved south, and this is far from unusual amongst our friends. At our longest period of residence, the five years we lived in Bromley, we knew the names of just two of our neighbours. In an increasingly peripatetic world it is little wonder that people are reluctant to join a committee when the only bond is a random local government ward, the boundaries of which are usually drawn by the pen of a remote 'commissioner' with more interest on numeric quotas than community. 

Think about your inner and outer circles of friends and acquaintances. Who are they? Are the people you spend your free time with drawn simply on the basis of geography? Or are they people with whom you share an interests? If you were invited to an event with a random cross-section of people who just happened to live in the same "north east" corner of your town would you bee more or less likely to attend than if you were invited to an event with a group of people who shared a hobby or vocation?  

If I was invited to a meeting of boat owners, or inland waterway enthusiasts, or lovers of Gibraltar,  I would almost certainly go as I would know that I had something in common with the others; I would be able to hold my own in conversation and contribute to the discussion. Surely most people would feel the same way?

That is why in Tonbridge & Malling we will be investigating ways in the coming year to launch new branches based on shared interests rather than simple electoral geography; and there are so many potential groups to work with. Young professionals, city commuters, farmers and growers, SMEs and so on. 

Surely our aim is to bring people in?  Will it not be easier to attract and retain people if they know they will have an opportunity to network with others who share their interests and with whom they would choose to mix with?  And won't it be easier to encourage them to bring along their friends if they know the events will cater for their interests and the speakers will be relevant?

None of this means that we should abandon the traditional branch, but in order to prosper we must start welcoming people on their terms; not rejecting them as they are not willing to join on our terms.

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