Published in 2 April 2009 Community Care under the heading ‘A poor move that eventually came good’
Peter Beresford is chair of national service user network Shaping Our Lives, and professor of social policy at Brunel University
Peter Beresford had a good job and an enjoyable life. Yet he gave it up and took his family to London to endure years of poverty to carry out important work with service users
I was in my first proper job as a lecturer in social policy at Lancaster University. I met my partner-to-be, Suzy, and after 18 months was settled into my permanent job. There was much that I enjoyed about it and I valued working with the students. I was happy. We had a baby, Catherine. I love Lancaster and Morecambe. We still go there.
Perhaps it is when things are OK that you make your bravest decisions. I decided to leave. Working somewhere where I didn’t have roots began to worry me. More and more I was thinking: “What right do we have to parachute in?” Because we were academics, we would sit on local committees, become trustees of local organisations and influence local decisions. I thought: “Is this right? Shouldn’t local people be doing it?”
So I decided to go back to where I had my roots, Battersea (right), south London, to work alongside others and support local people to have more control over their lives, locality and destiny. I assumed we’d get funding – bad mistake. We never did. The result was eight years on benefits, living in neglected private rented housing and becoming a user of mental health services.
I wouldn’t wish all this on anyone. Yet I now feel it was my best work decision too. Sure, we didn’t get funding, hardly surprising because it was in Wandsworth, then called Margaret Thatcher’s favourite borough. But with others we were able to do new work at grassroots level, to enable genuine and effective broad-based involvement and participation.
We worked with a range of local tenants and residents, with service users and community activists. We forged helpful relationships with supportive social workers and social services. We undertook user research based in communities. We shared it locally and we worked to spread the word nationally. With others we were able to exert influence, to press for the more participatory future that has come to be widely accepted for the 21st century.
Troubles, such as those you encounter living on benefits, are hardly what any of us strive for. But they transform our understanding of ourselves and other people. They certainly had this effect on me. It’s meant I’ve had the chance to be involved in real change, to work alongside true pioneers and to be involved in the development of new service user organisations. Who could ask for anything more?