George Hill’s route to becoming chair of Kingswood and Hazel Leys Big Local in 2012 has been a long and winding one, taking him from an apprenticeship as a slater, three years in the army – “I’m what you could call an angry pacifist now,” he chuckles – and then time spent back home in the west of Scotland.
He grew up in Greenock, George tells me, “the eldest of five. We lived in a working-class town with shipyards, on the Clyde.” The culture of his childhood was tough, he remembers. “There was violence, not directly to me, but in my life, I’ve known a lot of people involved in a lot of, ah… big stuff,” he says, thinking back. “There were difficult times, there was no doubt about it.”
After leaving the Army in 1980 he did “a decade of wandering, doing some not so nice jobs if I’m honest with you” he says. “Factory work, supermarkets and so on. But there was great stuff too, in outward-bound centres, lots of outdoor pursuits, working with kids.”
What about all the moving around, I ask. What was that like, not having a home base?
“Oh, it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t terrible. I wasn’t pitching up places with a tent. I had people I knew.”
Finally, George landed in Corby where his brother had settled. “My brother said ‘you canna just keep jumping about,’” he laughs. Soon enough, his parents retired to the area. George spent four days a week caring for his mum, with his sister doing the rest of the week while he picked up part-time jobs where he could “to get a few shillings”. His mother died in November 2015 and his father died in March 2017.
A few years ago, George was looking to do “a bit of community work”, he explains, and joined the table tennis club on his estate, helping out. It was there he heard about a neighbourhood association that needed some support, and became the secretary.” When Big Local announced that a grant was being made in the area, George volunteered to find out more and ended up on the first residents’ steering group.
“Mainly because I was caring for my mum and wasn’t in full-time work, I could take these opportunities,” he says. He was elected Chair from the off, and has volunteered in the role ever since.
What is he most proud of, I wonder?
“I’m really pleased that the core of the membership has stuck with it since day one,” George says immediately
Don’t get me wrong, it can be hard going – we meet every fortnight and often in between. But fundamentally we believe in each other.
“And our capacity has grown hugely. I wish people’s confidence would grow to match. I don’t know if it’s them being shy – we’ve done so much!”
Six years into the programme, with a lot of experience to draw on now, the group, he says, is more assertive with its priorities. “We don’t allow diversions to muddy our plan.” As Chair, he’s clear that the most important thing he can give residents and volunteers is his time. “Listening, advice, a bit of humour.”
The role of Chair, he acknowledges, takes a lot of energy. “Sometimes I’m guilty of not switching off my devices, and I’m up emailing at all hours.” He’s got a grown-up daughter, and he’s a grandad. Life is busy. And he knows that Kingswood and Hazel Leys will need to recruit younger people to the partnership, which is an ongoing task. “When you take up the responsibility of being in any group, you have to give it time. And I understand that younger people often don’t have time. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water.
We live in really challenging times economically, socially, politically, and so I credit anyone who gives up their time.
An important element of his role, he says, is drawing community and council together. “This estate has massively improved because of the collaboration between the borough council, other organisations and Big Local,” he says firmly. “The best way to get on with the council is to get to know the people in it. They’re just human, they’re just trying to do a job. With the council, I’m a bit of an advocate for how important they are, and it’s not as if I’m high flying or a council officer. I’m one of the cleaners!”
Looking at the state of the country, George believes that Big Local partnerships have a crucial part to play in supporting people who are struggling, to thrive and take charge of what happens locally. “I want to see Big Local making positive impacts in some of the most deprived communities in this land,” he says.
Standing up for people. Giving people the chance to make a place an even better place to live and let the community make decisions.
“For us all to be on the collective bus, if you like. It does take time and it does take energy, but in giving you receive. I count my blessings, I don’t count my chickens.”