Hartlepool Action Lab: Local people working together to solve poverty

This is the second article in a series focusing on what it’s like to live in poverty near seaside places. To read the first article, about living year-round in places where others come only on holidays, please click here. In this article, Ruth Knibbs  and Caitlin Sibthorpe of ATD spoke to Darren Leighton, a resident of Hartlepool. This is a post-industrial, northern coastal town, steeped in rich history. 

Darren is a father and a change maker. Currently he works at Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and is the Communications and Connections worker at Hartlepool Action Lab. Previously, he worked in health and social care, supporting people around care planning and providing comfort towards the very end of their lives. He says that “the transition into community work showed the same kind of principle: we have to allow old systems to die and have these good deaths in order to create and generate new systems. I am really passionate about this kind of work, to create a town that my children can inherit and be proud of.”

Read below the conversation between Ruth, Caitlin and Darren, which was centred around: changing landscapes; the impact of the pandemic and a polluted sea upon the people of Hartlepool; differing projects Hartlepool Action Lab runs; and the importance of community strength.

‘The answers are in the room’

Caitlin: You are doing good work Darren. Focusing on community and the area you live in is paramount; so much can be changed from that. For our series focusing on poverty by the sea, could you tell us about Hartlepool Action Lab?

Darren: JRF’s involvement in Hartlepool came through the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, a social landlord that also sets up care facilities. There’s a retirement village in Hartlepool, a 242-property self-contained village. Through that initiative, an intern asked questions: “How can poverty be solved in a place like Hartlepool? And, what is it like to live in Hartlepool?”

That spiralled into a lot of connections. In the collective space, they constantly felt like they were banging their head against the wall; they weren’t coming up with solutions. We brought people together and said: “The answers to all these questions are in the room”. Days later, everyone came up with projects. We set ourselves the million-pound challenge: putting a million pounds back in the community’s pockets, through things like reducing food waste. 

Supporting care leavers

Another project that came about was supporting young care leavers exiting the care system at 17, supporting them to acquire and decorate their own HMO (house of multiple occupancy). They set their own house rules and then lived there as a group. 

The statistics suggest that up to 80% of young care leavers within the first couple of years of leaving the system will end up in the judicial system or will end up addicted to substances. 

Every single one of the kids we supported through Housing Heroes is in either full-time education or full-time employment. We have been able to buck that trend just from them being able to have a base and a home to build from, once the care system says you are too old to be fostered out. The outcomes are quite good, but it has been on a micro level.

‘A pandemic of takeaways’

We have a project called Hartlepool Food Network which acquires excess food or donated food from supermarkets which they can’t sell. They save it from landfill and that then gets recycled at the community groups, through breakfast clubs or church groups. There are about 47 different agencies accessing the Hartlepool Food Network.

They recycle around £65,000 worth of food a year back into the community, as well as doing a monthly food and fuel fair roadshow, where they take out budget meals into the community, teaching people how to make them while providing them the resources to have a go themselves to try and generate that curiosity towards cooking and get people more self-sustained. 

This is important because we have a real pandemic in Hartlepool of takeaways. We have got the 2nd highest amount of takeaways per population, only behind Blackpool; and we are not even a tourist venue. So, there is a massive amount of takeaways piling poor quality food, high calorific food into the community. Just Eat receives something like 15,000 orders per day in Hartlepool at its peak and there are only around 94,000 people in the town.

‘Something seriously wrong with our society’

There is this pandemic of what they call ‘Shit Life Syndrome’ that is feeding into obesity, a health crisis. Families feel like they do not have the skills to be able to cook their own meals, but there is also part of it that shows that:

If that is the best part of their day, to order a meal for that endorphin rush, there is something seriously wrong with our society.

So you see the bigger picture. Over the course of the last six years, in partnership with the National Lottery, we have been running place-based social action projects to alleviate, or at least release the pressure on some people facing poverty and destitution.

But there is a stark recognition that, for all the work we have done and all the people that we have been able to support, we haven’t actually stopped the flow of people coming in; we haven’t stopped the systems that create the need for this type of support.

That is the next measure of our work in Hartlepool: hopefully across the next ten years if we can get the investment from JRF, to look at how we can actually not just fix broken systems but uproot them at source and create brand new systems that fit for everybody. Of course that is through the lens of a post-industrial coastal town. That is Hartlepool Action Lab, in brief!

Old feelings of togetherness

Caitlin: Thank you so much, that is fantastic. It is really interesting work and it is nice to see the outcomes. You say it is micro but these are people’s lives; so to us that is massive. I am curious, have you always lived in Hartlepool? 

Darren: Yes, I was born in Hartlepool.

Caitlin: As an area what is it like? And has it changed since you were younger?

Darren: Oh yeah, it has changed a lot. We used to say it was the biggest village in the country because everyone used to know each other. Everyone knew each other’s business. When I was young, I remember people knocking on the door and bringing food. It was a really big, strong community where everyone looked after each other.

There is such rich cultural heritage here; the first soldier to die on British soil during the First World War died in Hartlepool. We have the legend that during the Napoleonic wars we hung a monkey, thinking it was a French spy, so the town is known as the ‘monkey hangers’.

The people here are fantastic; but sadly the sense of community and the spaces to gather, the ability or will for people to be involved in those democratic decisions that affect their day-to-day lives has just dwindled and withered away.  But the energy is still there for it to happen; we just need a catalyst and a spark to find somewhere where we can make it land and settle, to reignite those old feelings of community and togetherness.

Cost-of-living isolation and turmoil

Caitlin: I think that is a problem potentially happening across the country. It is heartbreaking to witness, especially in the times we live in today where community for some people is all that they have got. Trying to reignite that is one of my passions too.  

Ruth: How has the rising cost of living affected the day-to-day life of the people living by the sea?

Darren: Good question. Capitalism as a whole has led to these extractive practices. We live by the sea; but we can’t get decent quality seafood in Hartlepool, unless it costs a premium.

There has been a massive crab shortage  all across the north east where they believe that pollution had been put into the water and killed loads of crabs. The fishing industry is pretty much in turmoil at the moment. I think what the cost-of-living crisis has done is isolate communities away from each other.

The stigma of asking for help

COVID showed us that we can come together and do good things; we can achieve anything as a town quickly during a crisis as and when we need to. But I think the cost-of-living crisis has isolated us. It has put that stigma back into asking for support and help.

During COVID there was a cohort of people who were unable to leave their properties, or who became accustomed to services being brought to them; then when the cost-of-living crisis happened people are lacking that service. It is difficult to get people to try and break down some of that stigma in communal spaces, to let people know that we are all struggling, we are all in this together and we can support one another. 

On top of this, Hartlepool I believe has the second highest food bank use in the north east; we have got a baby bank that is rammed out to capacity; we have a voluntary community centre that has risen up to meet that need.

Someone said recently that lots of the action taken is like sticking on a plaster, things can’t heal under plasters, however, we need to know as a town when to take that plaster off and realise that it won’t fully heal until we can now look at getting out and meeting each other again. 

Colonial capitalism

Ruth: I know when places like Brighton get into season, the cost jumps. Do you find when it is in season in Hartlepool that the cost of doing something is higher?

Darren: Hartlepool doesn’t have a season; we are not a tourist hotspot. We are quite thankful for that really as the cost tends to stay the same throughout the year. But that also then means that we don’t have that access to tourist money. 

Ruth: Living in a seaside area, do you find that it’s harder to get council properties?

Darren: Yes, we are really at risk of that colonial capitalism impact. To use archaic language, we have got these investors who come to our town for the pure exploitation of our economy.

We have all these buildings that have been built on the seafront, with sea views; but they are outpriced for the average person to be able to afford them.

So, all these people coming from down south will either buy them as homes they commute out of, where they work and spend time outside of the town, or they use them as a holiday home. Again, that takes away from our economy.

We have 2000 empty properties in Hartlepool and we also have a big homeless population. The properties that are empty, we see somewhat of a social engineering, where people who aren’t able to access social housing are almost segregated into parts of the town where they can get absentee private landlords to give them a property at an extortionate rate, that they cannot afford to live in, that are never maintained properly.

It feeds into that ‘shit life syndrome’ because people are living in rubbish housing and it is not secure; therefore, their outlook is rubbish and insecure. 

A history of gentrification

We are almost split into three parts in Hartlepool. We used to be two different towns. Hartlepool as a town was what we now know as the Historic Headland. Around the 1600s, a fella called Ralph Ward Jackson, a shipmaker, came past and recognised that our coast was a fantastic place to start building ships.

He came to the people of Hartlepool and explained that he wanted to build a port and how it would increase the people’s economy. The people responded with a no. So he went half an hour down the coast and built it there, which then became West Hartlepool. It quickly expanded beyond Hartlepool by two to three sizes of the original town because they were getting that shipping industry money.

Eventually the two towns amalgamated and became Hartlepool. So, we have the Historic Headland part of town, there is gentrification that goes on there; the houses are lovely but unaffordable. Then we have the industrial part where there is a big dock, where the fishing used to be; there is nothing there now. Then we have the tourist side, where there is an arcade and fish and chip shops. 

Our council doesn’t own that many properties. There is a social housing scheme that bought the portfolio from the council. They are quite strict on people who miss a few rent payments and once you lose your tenancy it is difficult to get one back, which feeds into that segregation of people through social engineering into these private absentee landlord properties that aren’t fit for purpose. 

Feeling forgotten

Ruth: What is your belief behind why seaside towns receive less funding?

Darren: I think we have been forgotten about as things have moved forward. That ideal of people travelling to the seaside has been surpassed by other holiday destinations. As tourism isn’t there anymore, or people don’t have that same passion for going to the beach, I just think we have been left behind. But we are also in that sense a sleeping giant for economic opportunities that we can develop.

Outside of tourism and outside of people migrating to us in the season, we should be using our ocean in a much more community-based way to generate community wealth, to access jobs and secure employment, to bring some culture to the town, to bring industry, to look after our planet and live in harmony and move to that net zero, carbon neutral with sustainable fishing practices, oyster farms, seaweed farms etc. 

‘Blue mind wellness’

We have so much potential as a seaside town to be much more than just a tourism spot which has dwindled out now. We just don’t use our sea as a natural asset.

In Hartlepool, the biggest tourist attraction is the HMS Trincomalee. There are opportunities for tourism, but if I had it my way tourism would always remain 2nd or 3rd priority on the list and we would use our ocean for communal wealth and social good.

Have you ever heard of ‘blue mind wellness’? The science behind it is that when we are close to water our minds are more at rest and we have greater wellbeing. The health outcomes for people directly by the coast is massive. It proves that there is so much poetic licence that we can use with our coast; we can wash away the old and bring in the new. 

Ruth: If the government could do one thing to make your town better, what would it be?

Darren: There should be focus on the blue new deals. You know we talk about green deals; we at Hartlepool Action Lab want the blue new deal; we want the industry and sustainable practices; we want to use our ocean as a blue commons for the public to benefit from. 

‘Our ocean as an asset’

Caitlin: We agree that everything you are saying is vital. Taking advantage of the sea is a brilliant idea. Is this something Hartlepool Action Lab could place pressure on through their voice? 

Darren: For all the place-based, asset-based approaches we have put into Hartlepool, we have never seen our ocean as an asset until we have recently been learning about it, to be honest. The poverty crisis is hitting; there are all these different issues. If you go to the people of Hartlepool and say “give us your five issues you are facing”, no one is going to say “the polar ice caps are melting, the crabs are dying, and the ocean is more acidic than ever” etc, but they are real crises that we can meet, while also creating social good and community wealth.

Get people out to the ocean, make them feel proud of where they live, touch on the heritage and history of the place. This is not beyond the realm of imagination; so our next inspiration for the work with JRF is to run some experiments and prototypes around how we can energise and organise the coastal community, to start looking at those initiatives in the Emerging Futures.