Taking power – the inspiring story of Tony Gibson

We have lost one of our great community activists and innovators in participation this week. Tony Gibson, who developed the participatory toolkit, Planning for Real, and helped tough neighbourhoods across the country to turn around, died just short of his 95th birthday. He was a passionate, co-operative Quaker and a determined force of nature.

Tony made his name on the Meadow Well Estate, Tyneside, hit by riots – as Nancy Peters, who started the local credit union with Tony’s support, said at the time “at one time, you could leave the door open, people wouldn’t venture in and steal but now whether your door’s open or shut, they need the money to survive and its the same with children. The shoplifting, the aggression, the anger. I have never seen anything like it.” Starting with a talent survey of random houses in 1991, residents came together to respond, with the idea of ‘a new heart for Meadow Well’ in the form of a development centre built on a discredited youth centre. The response, though, was inertia. Despite the efforts of one sympathetic local employee from the Council, a senior officer was heard to say “those fuckers couldn’t plan a pram shed.” A decision was taken, instead, simply to close the youth centre.

As this dragged on over five hot Summer months, the residents started to drop out and then… a group of young people locally burned down the youth centre. What followed was two days and nights of riots, with fires, a burned out corner shop, pot shots at a police helicopter cruising above. The riots forced everyone to think again. The working party held estate-wide elections to form a group that could negotiate with outsiders. They used Tony’s Planning for Real approach, which creates a mock-up of the neighbourhood, from trash on the ground to buildings up high, on a table that people can then walk around, explore and together discuss options for improvement. This led to the development of a new community building, launched with a fun day. The first of many community-led improvements, it was the first building scheme in the borough that had taken shape from day one to completion without a single case of vandalism or theft.

I worked with Tony in support of a similar pilot on the Teviot Estate in East London and with colleagues such as Pat Conaty, we developed an early training course on community economic development. It was called Nutshell – one of Tony’s acronyms, which stood for ‘neighbourhood use of time, space, homes and environment for livelihood and leisure’. Rather than start with money (the conventional economic or philanthropic route), Tony guided us to start by matching local resources to local needs. Nutshell was the potential for great oaks in every tiny acorn.

Planning for Real become an exemplar for the new participatory practice of community planning and open decision-making. This and other tools are now mainstream – for example with planning for real championed by the mutual housing group, Accord (a member of Co-operatives UK) and the UK participation charity, Involve, which I am proud to be trustee and chair of, recently completing work on open government and designing a new participative accountability frame for the NHS in England. But the tools were always designed to be one part of a wider culture change and here, Tony’s work is still unfinished.

Together with Toby Gibson and regeneration academic Stephen Thake, I wrote an impassioned strategy in early 1997, arguing for a new model of local economic renewal in the UK – Taking Power, published by the New Economics Foundation, with support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. In memory of Tony, whom I can’t think of without smiling, I repeat below the introduction and conclusion of that (now probably lost, online) paper.

Introduction: New imagination
As a society, the changes being forced on us are mind-blowing. There is not much we can take for granted any longer. This is neither a minus nor a plus: it is a fact of social and economic evolution which happens to be breathtakingly sudden. How we react to it, whether we feel helpless or exhilarated, depends on how we choose to think.

There are a hundred and one starting points for local community action, but all have one thing in common. It is the day you or a neighbour step over a broken pavement or rubbish dumped in a corner and say, not ‘someone’ should do something, but ‘we’ should do something.

Many more steps will have to follow. Everyone has a role to play. Communities are full of unused energy, talent, skills and knowledge. Once this is unlocked, great changes can take place.

But for every starting point, there are many premature end points, marked by the failure of those with power outside to let go. The change in mindset also has to work for the people who are, in Tolstoy’s words, sitting on the backs of the poor, decrying their condition, and willing to do anything but get off their back. This includes letting people make mistakes and giving the time needed for a participative local democracy to develop great deeds by small steps.

We have a choice of mindsets as a country.

The first is a continuation of the current paradigm of laissez-faire. This is the mindset of those who promise growth and a better tomorrow, but connive at cutting communities adrift through the rationing of welfare and resources.

The second is a commitment to a new paradigm in which communities can become agents rather than victims, with programmes that enable them to attack the structures of dependency and retake control of their destiny.

Conclusion: Power and poverty

Taking power means seeing what Vaclav Havel called ‘the power of powerlessness’. Typically, we identify power with ‘the powers that be’, those with money, political or police authority. But in its origin, power simply means the ‘ability to do or effect something or anything or act upon a person or thing’. This is not ‘power over’ but ‘power to do’. Taking power is not a revolution intended to establish a new hierarchy, but the subversive act of simply recalling how much we can do with those around us to change our own situation.

Tackling poverty means that we all have to see that this is for us: poverty is not something that happens to someone else (and no-one likes to think they are poor, however many research reports say they are). Poverty means relationships breaking up, bring fearful on the streets, not knowing your neighbours, losing your job, your child having asthma.

Perhaps the closest metaphors historically for what is implied are the 19th century campaigns for public health, or the 20th century creation of the National Health Service. It will require an all party commitment stretching over a generation, to implement. It will require public support and an understanding that community action can work.

We hope that this will fill a void in current thinking and offers a radical alternative to the rise of alienation in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. But it will require real change and devolution, and not the usual incorporation into other people’s agendas to serve other ends. That is the challenge.”

9 thoughts on “Taking power – the inspiring story of Tony Gibson

  1. Tony Gibson. What memories. In the Second World War he saw the bombs fall on local council buildings and how people carried on regardless, carried by a sense of shared purpose. From then on he was like an old testament prophet with a dogged belief in people’s knack of amazing themselves at their own capacities. Leslie Scarman, with whom I created the Scarman Trust – which in turn championed Tony’s work – described him as “a latter day Odysseus”. Tony and I once produced 20,000 can do tool kits and sent them out in Nat West Bank envelopes… By these and other methods we found 13,000 grass roots social entrepreneurs – surprising even Tony. I head him give the same speech a hundred times and can hear it now. (of community action) “it’s like when you throw a pebble in a pond… Maybe it makes a couple of ripples. But maybe, maybe with time the ripples widen and maybe the reeds at the edge of the pond toss their heads”. Tony made waves not ripples and he left the world different.

  2. From discussing communitarian policies to rolling out Planning for Real in diverse neighbourhoods, Tony was full of ideas and energy. And his deep voice and chuckles fondly echo even now. His inspiration to community activists will live on. His example to progressive reformists will never be forgotten. If heaven hasn’t been used to engaging its residents in community-based initiatives, it will be soon.

  3. I also have many memories of Tony having worked with him since the early 1980’s all through his work for the TCPA on the Lightmoor New Community Project and the Laird College of Art in Birkenhead and subsequently with the setting up of the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation. I remember being at home one afternoon and receiving a call from Mary Riley (who at the time was the County Planning Officer for Staffordshire and involved with the TCPA) about their project in Lightmoor and about someone called Tony Gibson who was their Project Officer and who needed support. Only 10 minutes later there was a knock of the door and there he stood. The beginning of a long, happy and fruitful association with Tony. If it was not for Tony’s belief in people being unaware of the extent of their capabilities I would not be where I am now and I owe a great deal to him. I may not have agreed with him all the time but there is no doubting the number of lives he has touched and the difference he has made.

  4. Tony Gibson, through observation, evidence and creativity – set out some fundamental guidelines for town planning and community development:


    1. POWER & ADVICE: planners, (and councillors) on tap not on top. To begin with wordsmiths must lay down their tools and skills and be facilitators of collective ideas and actions – those with formal power must first learn to listen and only “speak when spoken to”. They must wait to asked to facilitate action..they must lead with humility and with support. They must work hard to provide expertise and options with few values. Values must be developed out of the building of good working relationships.
    2. CONSULTATION: use models and physical matrix grids (Action – now/soon/later..By – me/you/us/who) to focus opinion and discussion, (avoid too much eye to eye contact) – this will help people with different views and capacity work out what can be agreed, what can be done and what has to be worked on – whether you are a chief executive or a youngster.
    3. COMMUNICATION: meet regularly, making sure there was progress to report. Make sure tea and biscuits served – meetings should be civil. Make meetings “parties” where all are welcome and can make a contribution. Very few speeches, lots of chances to make your point and “make a mark” in groups, on models and flip charts. Quickly record and feed back. List attendees and key agreed action and blockages/problems, then quickly fix next meeting and what could happen before the next meeting. Put this information in the public domain.
    4. WORK PROGRAMME: focus on what meetings agreed (not disagreed) on…. and what interested locals want done as a way of growing interest and commitment to medium and long term and complex issues. Celebrate delivery; focus only a little on intransigent issues – not too long – the key, is to continue to meet and work together on things all can agree. Working together across interest groups on what locals want and agree will build capacity and commitment, local care and innovation – which in turn will grow real political currency and ability to tackle more difficult issues. Working together will eventually move mountains – working together is more important than funding.
    5. RESOURCES: seed corn funding essential – meeting space; hospitality fund; communication fund; “do it now together” ethos and energy
    6. GOVERNANCE: as groups and projects grow, become more complex – remember the rules of good governance – ie good working relationships


    7. ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY, PERSONAL and FAMILY CARE and RESPONSIBILITY, FAIRNESS, EQUALITY, ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY; LIVEABLE CITIES, PRODUCTIVE LAND USES and WELL BEING: Tony said and believed a “good working relationship would deliver good outcomes…people will do good if treated well..”

    Marc Dorfman
    ex Chief Planner and Head of Regeneration at Haringey, Redbridge and Ealing. Research Asst to Tony Gibson for the original DOE funded report on Planning for Real (Birkenhead, Sheffield, Nottingham) that led to his book on People Power.

  5. I had the pleasure of working with Tony on a project for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. I was really sad to hear he had died but he has left a legacy, and one which I hope is used again and again enabling residents to change their lifes. He was a really special person and I loved the time we worked together.

  6. I believe I’m one of the men whose life has been changed by Tony.
    I invited him to Monza (Italy) for a PfR session in 2003. I remember collecting him at the airport in Milan: he came towards me with his luggage cart full of PfR boards, targets and tools!
    One year later I was in the UK at NIF, learning so much about PfR and how to make things happen.
    Back in Italy I invited Tony to Turin in 2005 in order to bring CAN DO into YEPP (Youth Empowerment Partnership Programme). We developed the Italian versions of the toolkits and I started using them in various situations with local communities.
    I’m sure there must be something special about Tony’s way of inspiring people if I’m still spreading his tools after 11 years.

  7. Pingback: In praise of Europe – Mondragon arrives in the UK | Ed Mayo's Blog

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