A Question of Identity

Identity (noun): the characteristics that determine who or what a person, thing (or place) is.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? We recognise people, things and places by their identifying and sometimes unique characteristics. While we might not spend much time thinking about it, we all, to some extent or other, shape our own identities not only as individuals but also as members of wider groups and organisations through the roles we take on.

What we wear, what we say and do, the values and beliefs we hold, the interests and hobbies we follow, how we vote, where we live, where we work: all are part of our identity. Some of these characteristics are mutable, changing over time with the passing fashions (as we give ourselves a bit of a makeover) or because of changes in our circumstances. Meanwhile, other aspects of our identity are such an intrinsic part of our nature that they just are: the colour of our skin, our eyes and the (natural) colour of our hair, for example. Taken together, all these aspects of our identity affect not only how we see and understand ourselves but also how others see, and know, us.

Developing brand identity

This is also true for organisations and businesses where branding, design and marketing play such a large part in establishing the identity and reputation of the goods and services they have to offer. However, in an increasingly global economy, making sense of a brand’s identity can be more complicated than it first appears. You only have to think of famous British car marques such as Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar, none of which is any longer British owned, to see the problem. Does foreign ownership, and possibly foreign manufacture (even if only of some of the parts), make these brands less British? Do the name and brand transcend such factors as ownership and place of origin, or do foreign ownership and manufacture trammel any claim to Britishness?

Like for Like – but is it the same?

The loss of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building to fire in June 2018, just a few months ahead of its scheduled re-opening following the earlier fire of 2014, was a terrible blow, not only to the institution and the city but also to anyone who admires the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). As we now know, some parts of the surviving structure were so badly damaged that they were deemed unstable and had to be taken down. The good news is that there appears to be sufficient enthusiasm (and presumably funding) to see the building rise from the ashes yet again. But will it be the same: will its ‘identity’ survive or will the new building and its contents be no more than copies of what was lost?

The Mackintosh Building isn’t the first ‘heritage asset’ to be damaged by fire and no doubt it won’t be the last. When significant buildings in the public eye are damaged, undertakings to rebuild and restore often follow, subject to money being found to cover the costs – and those costs will be substantial – vide Notre Dame Cathedral. Re-instating architectural features takes time and craftsmanship which can be hugely expensive; repairing, re-making or sourcing suitable replacement furnishings, fabrics and artworks likewise. Inevitably, people ask whether or not the expense is really justified, particularly when there are so many other causes that require funding and investment.

The National Trust suffered a major fire at Uppark in 1989 and initiated a major restoration project. When HM The Queen suffered her own annus horribilis in 1992 culminating in the fire at Windsor Castle, a restoration project was launched – and the result is possibly better than the original. However, after the fire at Clandon Park in 2015 (also National Trust), a decision was taken to rebuild and reimagine the property, rather than to faithfully restore it, at least in the short-term.  

While there is a strong case to be made for rebuilding and restoration after serious loss, we need to keep in mind that what we are left with after restoration work is completed won’t be what it was before. No matter how carefully the work is done and no matter the trouble and care taken to source authentic materials and to use original building methods, the newly restored building or artefact will to some extent be a copy of what was there before. It might look the same, it might even be better than what was there before, but it won’t be the same as what was there before. What does this say for the historical significance of the building (or an artefact) that has been restored? Can it claim to be what it once was? Is its identity intact or has it in some way been transmuted?

Antique or reproduction?

The antique trade is a mix of authentic antiques, copies (which may themselves be antique in origin) modern reproductions and, occasionally, fraudulent fakes. If you know what you are looking at, all is well, particularly if you’re thinking of buying it. The problems arise when modern copies (or fakes) are passed off as originals. Sometimes, a reproduction or copy will suffice for our needs, especially if the item is offered at a big discount over the cost of an original item. And copies can achieve their own identity: Michelangelo’s sculpture of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is probably seen and photographed more frequently, despite being a replica, than the original which has been located in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873. Visit a stately home and it’s not unheard of to find yourself looking at a copy of an artwork, the original having been auctioned off to raise funds for the family that once lived in the house or to pay for restoration work to the property.

A new broom

There are different versions of this ‘thought experiment’ but they raise the same basic conundrum about identity. In the simplest terms the discussion can be based on what happens with a yard broom. If the head wears out and is replaced, it’s still the same yard broom and good for a few more years. But what happens when you eventually need to replace the handle as well? Is it still the same yard broom when it has acquired both a new head and then later a new handle? Is it the usage that gives it the provenance rather than the parts? What if you kept the old head and then attached it to the old handle so you had a second broom made of the original parts: which one is the more authentic yard broom?

Genius Loci

The identity of a place arises in part from its geography and location, and in part from its history and traditions, often made visible through its architecture, street layout and so on. People imbue a place with cultural and social resonance (and sometimes, dissonance): they give a place character, memory and personality. Collectively, these factors create what we might call local distinctiveness.  But such qualities change over time. As traditional skills and industries wain and perhaps disappear or demographic change occurs, our towns and cities change and evolve too. They always have, and they always will. Old buildings get demolished or repurposed, new housing gets built, sometimes on a massive scale, and new infrastructure is laid out.

Local versus Global

Within the civic society movement, I’d like to think that we have a role to play in shaping or maintaining the local distinctiveness of the places where we live – but it’s not getting any easier! Is it even possible to preserve the local distinctiveness when national housebuilders seem intent on using the same standard designs right across the land, or when high streets and retail parks feature the same identikit store chains, each with their own national and sometimes international branding? One Ikea warehouse looks very much like any other Ikea warehouse with their blue sheds and yellow lettering wherever they are built in the world.

In fact, as we accept the benefits of global consumerism, should we just give up on the idea of local identity and distinctiveness? Should we be prepared to forsake the notion of local identity and admit that the new vernacular isn’t local but global?

After all, the general population, and I count our civic society members among them, seems willing to drive cars that look the same across the world; to wear globally branded clothing; to rely on a few big international companies to supply their technology; and their tastes in food are increasingly cosmopolitan, as evidenced by the range of foodstuffs that are now available on the shelves of our supermarkets and the variety of restaurants in our high streets that offer culinary styles from around the world.

Yes, let’s make life easy for ourselves! Let’s abandon notions of local identity and, in accepting that we are all part of one human race, embrace an international design code, even if that means one town or city will increasingly look like the next? If all our towns and cities look alike, at least we’ll no longer need to travel to see them all, which should do wonders for our carbon footprint!

[This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2018 edition of Society Insight, the newsletter of YHACS, the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies.]

Are Civic Societies ‘Cultural Organisations’?

When was the last time you participated in a ‘cultural’ activity? My guess is that, as a member of a civic society, you are more likely than not to have done something that might be regarded as cultural – after all, civic society members are sophisticated, discerning, erudite individuals, aren’t we?

Draw up a list of all the ‘cultural’ activities you’ve taken part in recently. What’s on that list? Trips to the theatre and cinema, perhaps? Surely you have visits to art galleries and museums, yes? Maybe you’ve been to a lecture or a concert, perhaps an exhibition? All these things comfortably fit into our shared understanding of ‘cultural’ activities. But are there any civic society activities on your list? Did you recognise that attending a civic society talk, a blue plaque unveiling, or a guided walk might also be thought of as doing something cultural?

The reason I’m asking these questions arises from discussions I have been having in Wakefield recently about the role culture can play in creating jobs and opportunities and thereby helping to support or even trigger economic regeneration. As I am sure readers will know, Wakefield is now home to The Hepworth Wakefield, a modern gallery that opened in May 2011. It has proved popular with many, but not all, local residents and has been a big draw for visitors to the city.

Across the Wakefield district, we also have museums (Including the National Coal Mining Museum for England), cinemas, theatres, castles and art galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Nostell Priory. So there’s a lot going on yet, surprisingly, in a recent survey conducted by an independent research company for Wakefield Council, some 41% of local residents surveyed said that they ‘never take part in art/culture’.

I personally find this statistic astonishing but it did get me thinking. What was the definition of culture used in the survey, I wondered? And did respondents’ own perceptions of what counts as culture affect the way in which they answered the question? What were the barriers to entry that put people off taking part in cultural pursuits?

Now, for what it’s worth, my view is that the definition of cultural pursuits should include things such as reading, doing family history research, taking part in guided walks and so on. I’d even include watching some television programmes such as documentaries, plays and so on (but we could have an interesting discussion just around that, I’m sure!).

There’s a Facebook page called the Wakefield Historical Appreciation Society which has over 13,000 members: that’s 13,000 people who share an interest in Wakefield’s architectural and social history. There’s a lively Historical Society in Wakefield (and others elsewhere in the district), six civic societies across the district and no doubt dozens of community and church groups, Rotary Clubs, WI associations and so on. There’s a burgeoning art scene in Wakefield, including performing arts, and at least one concert society; even the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir is based in Wakefield! I’m sure there are many other societies, organisations and individuals contributing to the cultural mix that I’ve overlooked or am not even aware of.

All this cultural activity is made possible by people who work in the arts – whether they be the creative artists and performers or the management and enablers, the support staff both ‘front of house’ and behind the scenes. Also important in enabling cultural activities are the people who commission performers, writers, artists and so on and, of course, the people who provide the funding, either through grants and paid commissions or through audience participation and the purchase of tickets.

So, why is the relevant to us? Well, I often find that when I talk to people about what’s happening culturally in the city, the work of the civic society doesn’t usually get a mention and I have to keep asserting that we are a ‘cultural organisation!’. OK, we’re not a big player, we don’t have the money, but we are a frequent and reliable provider of talks and walks, occasional film screenings and blue plaque unveilings. We’ve written booklets and even occasionally commissioned creative work from others. But have a look at our constitution and you’ll find no mention of culture! There’s mention of architecture, design and town planning, but nothing specifically about culture. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t actually market ourselves as a cultural organisation – and if we don’t think of ourselves as a cultural organisation then it’s not surprising that others don’t either.

I think it’s time for us to think hard about how civic societies position themselves. I appreciate that some smaller societies won’t have the resources or capacity to organise the events and activities that we are able to put on in Wakefield, but many societies will and some may even do more. If we start seeing ourselves as part of the cultural offer of the place where we live, it might just open up opportunities to work with others, to establish new partnerships and maybe even open up new sources of funding. If nothing else, it might bring in more people to our events if we shift our traditional mindset of how we market the things we do.

Let’s bring a bit of show-business pizazz to our programming; let’s turn down the house lights, raise the curtain and put on a show!

On Beauty

Warwick

According to Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness”.

We all need some beauty in our lives. Beauty, in whatever form, can make us happy. It can improve both our mental and, indirectly, our physical wellbeing. It can cause the spirit to soar and the heart to quicken. No wonder we seek it out. But how do we know that something is beautiful in and of itself? Is our appreciation of beauty something that we learn through others or is it something instinctive, something innate? Does my view of what is beautiful consist with yours? Is it possible to agree universal criteria for what counts as beauty – and would such criteria persist over time and across cultures? Or is an appreciation of what is beautiful entirely idiosyncratic and no more than a matter of personal taste?

I’ve been asking myself these sorts of questions for some time, (not altogether altruistically as I’m preparing a new talk on the subject) but with the government announcing the setting up of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission last year, trying to find answers to these questions has taken on a greater urgency. One of the aims of the Commission is “To advocate for beauty in the built environment”, in effect to test whether or not communities will be more likely to accept new housebuilding on their doorstep if the resulting developments can be said to be beautiful.

One of the ‘occupational hazards’ of civic society membership is to find oneself drawn into discussions about new developments and whether or not they are of good design. If your society is engaged in giving out design awards, then those discussions will be particularly relevant because you will probably need to justify your society’s conclusions to others: something I am very familiar with – been there, done that, and on an annual basis!

As I’ve argued before, I think that good design is something which can be assessed using objective criteria but can such objective tests be applied to a definition of beauty or is beauty very much in the eye of the beholder?

When we talk of beauty, we are really talking about aesthetics, not just visual but about the appeal to all our senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We might also conceive certain behaviours such as self-sacrifice, kindness, generosity or bravery to appeal to our sense of ‘moral beauty’, while a poem or a piece of prose might be described as having a form of ‘intellectual beauty’.  Even the love of one person for another can be described as beautiful.

“How do you spell ‘love’?” asked Piglet.

“You don’t spell it,” said Pooh, “you feel it.”

A.A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

It is clear then that, in our search for the meaning of beauty, we have to go wider than just visual attractiveness. My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1988 – yes, that old!) defines beauty as:

“That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to the senses, [especially] that of sight, or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties.”

So, when we search for beauty, we need to explore all the world around us; from that which occurs naturally, as in a flower, a face, a sunset, a landscape, via that taken from nature but which is crafted and improved by man (or woman), such as a precious gemstone, cut and polished and perhaps set into a piece of jewellery, or a landscape shaped and perfected by the likes of Capability Brown, to that which is entirely ‘man-made’, an artefact such as a painting, a sculpture, a written work, a piece of music, or a building, and not forgetting the behavioural forms of beauty already mentioned.

If these then are at least some of the various the types of beauty we might find in our lives how do we recognise such beauty when we come across it? In his The Analysis of Beauty published in 1753, the painter William Hogarth distils the essential visual aesthetic quality of beauty down to the serpentine line, the S-shaped curve line found both in nature and in art as well as in architecture (for example in the ogee arch). Such analysis attributes the property of beauty to being an intrinsic quality of the actual object itself whereas other theories suggest it is in fact the pleasure response in ourselves that confers beauty onto something. If we accept that an object can be beautiful in itself, even when it is unobserved or unexperienced, then it might be possible to derive certain formulae that will allow the objective assessment of what beauty is. However, if we think that beauty exists only in the relationship between the thing observed and the person experiencing it, then it will be much harder to agree that X is beautiful but Y is not for we are entering the realms of personal taste with all its variety and mutability.

Let us assume that a state of beauty only exists when something is experienced and that the appreciation of beauty is something we can learn and, therefore, something that we can be taught. We enter life with the capability of recognising what is beautiful but we need to be guided by others to interpret and value beauty when we encounter it. Our parents and teachers will have a role to play in helping us to see the world through their eyes and to formulate our own responses to the natural and artistic world. They will help us to hone our critical faculties. As importantly, experts and opinion formers will also guide us in our pursuit of beauty; they will direct our gaze to what is delightful and help us to evaluate what is good. It is important though to keep a grip on our critical abilities and not to follow others blindly for fear of being considered uneducated: it would be at best disingenuous to claim to perceive beauty when we don’t feel its existence just because others tell us that something possesses the quality of beauty – shades of the Emperor’s new clothes and all that. Nonetheless, when there is critical acclaim, and that acclaim endures over time, it becomes ever harder to justify a contrary stance.

Perhaps this helps to explain why traditional architecture is valued more highly than more recent styles. Georgian and Victorian buildings have just been with us longer. We’ve grown used to them and, crucially, they have had time to accrete a reputation for excellence and beauty through the eyes of generations of experts and critics, whereas modern buildings just haven’t yet been around long enough to amass such critical support.

On the other hand, what if beauty is not something that we learn but is something that is innate: we are born into the world with a natural ability to discern and discriminate; to recognise the presence of beauty and know when it is absent. We don’t need to be guided – we just know. This suggests that our appreciation of beauty is an evolutionary response. Why might this be? Well, how about sex?

For the human race to survive, reproduction in necessary and for reproduction to take place, the laws of attraction apply. This is true throughout much of nature – think of birds whose colourful plumage, usually found in the male, serves only to attract a potential mate: those exotic colours serve no other purpose – you certainly don’t need colourful wings to fly. Even plants which rely on insects for pollination display colourful flowers (offering sweet treats) to tempt the bees towards them. Human beings are much the same although we tend to think of beauty as being a feminine trait whereas the male of the species is more usually described as handsome, good-looking or, perhaps, ‘rugged’. But beauty also plays another role in the continuation of our species: why do you think babies are so cute? Why are puppies and kittens so loveable? Arguably, it’s part of an evolutionary response to ensure that offspring are cared for and fed so as to guarantee their own survival to breeding age.

There are implications here for our discussion about beauty in architecture.  If our appreciation of beauty isn’t a learned behaviour but is in effect bred into us, then our apparent fondness for traditional architecture might somehow be a natural response. The original architects sought to create perfection in their work and we instinctively recognise that perfection in the inherent beauty of that work. In an equal and opposite reaction, our aversion to modern architecture might be a survival technique of its own: be wary of the unknown, let others experiment while we sit on the side lines to see whether the modern stuff stands the test of time and that is safe to live in. We know that, although not without its proponents, modern architecture has fewer adherents than for traditional and classic styles.  

Now, I’m not immune to the charms of traditional architecture myself. The architectural hierarchy epitomised in a Palladian mansion, or a finely proportioned Georgian town house, or a Victorian villa property, show just how beautiful traditional architecture can be. I can understand why people would want to live in such properties with their elegant façades, high ceilings and spacious rooms. Such aspirations are, however, probably outside what most of us can afford: not least because there simply are not enough period properties surviving to accommodate everybody who wants to live in one. This means that original examples hold their value well, making them both desirable and expensive. The closest most of us can get to this would be to live in a modern house but built in something approximating to the styles of the past. Fortunately, many of the mass housebuilders are apparently catering to this need: if you want period features, there’s plenty of choice!  

Except that the choice is illusory. To do traditional styles well, you need space, good materials and craftsmanship and these are all expensive, so the housebuilders compromise. Plot sizes are minimised and in consequence interior space is limited. Rooms are often small and ceiling heights low; standardised materials and components are used and the detailing found in the original is usually missing so what we end up with is a sort of pastiche in a somewhat bastardized style. They are perfectly all right: in fact, they are probably easier and cheaper to run than an original period property would be and will come with all mod cons built in. But I don’t think we can call them beautiful. One unfortunate effect of this trend is that we see similar house types spreading right across the country. (Anyone remember “Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same”? What we might regard as local vernacular styles giving way to what we might call national piacular style?

And this is where I return to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. I have been asked by Civic Voice to join the panel pulling together a response to the Commission on behalf of the civic society movement. Should the panel argue that we need more homes built in the traditional style, albeit with more thought given to choice of materials and individual design based on local context, or should we be saying that to meet the housing needs of a rising population, housebuilders need to build in a more contemporary style that maximises the efficiencies of modern construction techniques, possibly through prefabricated designs created on a factory production line and which can then be rapidly, and hopefully cheaply, assembled on site? Does modern housing have to be beautiful to be acceptable to the local community or is it more important that it is functional and affordable?

And if people are naturally resistant to modern schemes because of their design and, to some at least, an apparent lack of aesthetic appeal, is there anything that we, or anyone else for that matter, can do to help change perceptions of what beauty really is (and needs to be) in modern housing developments?

Of course, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing that can be done to change individuals’ perceptions of what is beautiful and what is not, then it’s just possible that we are wasting our time even trying to change people’s minds. Perhaps the question we are asking is the wrong one and no more than a distraction from the real issue. We should forget about beauty, and focus on design? (For which, see my previous article….) 

Natural Beauty?

Good Design Rules!

Design is my theme and I’d like to ask you to consider the subject from the perspective of four different quotes that I shall introduce to you shortly. For me, there is a difference between matters of design, which I think it is possible to assess using objective criteria – design rules, if you like – and matters of taste, for which there’s really no accounting! We often talk about our favourite books, music, food, colours, cars, holiday destinations and so on but when it comes to favourites, these are matters of personal taste. Good design might in some cases have led to something being a favourite, and, indeed a favourite of many, but taste and design are not the same thing.

Before I start, I should make clear that I really writing this for fellow civic society members. I’m not an architect or designer but, like many lay people who volunteer their time to serve on the committees of civic societies, I often find myself drawn into debates about good design. For civic society readers, it is the design of the built environment that will be your main priority, but when it comes to design, some rules are universal in their application.

Let me frame this article by reference to four quotes I’ve selected (not quite a random) from the internet:

Quote 1: “Form ever follows function, and this is the law” Louis Sullivan

Sullivan (1856-1924) was an American architect sometimes referred to as “father of skyscrapers”. The design of any item should take account of its function – there is no point in designing something, no matter how beautiful, if it doesn’t work well. The stylish shoes that give you bunions; the smart alarm clock that is so quiet when it goes off that you have to be awake already to hear it; the  boutique hotel room so over-designed that you can’t find the light switch – I could go on….. The same considerations must surely apply to buildings and to public spaces. Is a building ‘legible’ – as you walk up to it, can you tell where the entrance is? Is its purpose obvious – or do you have to work out what it is from the written signs? Are streets safe for pedestrians as well as vehicles to use? Do buildings have active and interesting street fronts that make them pleasant places to walk by? Are public spaces laid out in such a way that they invite people to tarry and wander, or are they unpleasant places that make you want to scurry through as fast as you can?

Quote 2: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Eliel Saarinen

People often criticize new buildings because the design doesn’t “fit in”. The concern here is that the new development takes no account of context. I remember someone telling me (although I can’t remember who it was) that when the designs for St Pancras Station in London were first put forward, there were people who complained the new building wouldn’t fit in. Arguably, it still doesn’t but it is majestic enough not to need to fit in: it makes a statement of its own that is aesthetically appealing and a delight to see. There will be times when new buildings will work better if they blend in, but there will be occasions when gateway, or landmark, buildings are required to stand out, to make a statement and to shout about local distinctiveness. Which is right will depend on … er … context.   

Quote 3: “Decisions on artwork by committee end up being made on the premise of not turning people off rather than turning people on.” Paul Attwood

For ‘artwork’ in the above quote, you can also read ‘design’. The planning sub-committee of my own society met a while back to look at a new proposal. We were happy enough with the concept but it was rather ‘safe’. We felt that for what was quite a prominent site in the city centre, something a bit more exciting would be better. We went to see the architect and explained how we thought the design could be improved. He listened patiently then reached for a folder from which he removed his original drawings for the site. Guess what, they were almost exactly what we were looking for! We asked why he’d toned down his original scheme for the rather bland design that had been submitted for planning. He said he had compromised because his clients had made some changes and then the council’s planning officers had asked for further changes to be made.

In effect the vision of the architect had been watered down by a committee of first the clients and then the planning officers. This must have been frustrating for the architect but it also short-changed the people of Wakefield who are perhaps more willing to embrace bold new designs than the planners allow. As a civic society, we sometimes have to campaign for innovative design, something that might just upset the applecart, and developers and planners, as well as members of the public, are sometimes surprised about how adventurous we’re prepared to be.

Quote 4: “We are all designers, the difference is that only a few of us do it full-time.” Sabo Tercero

And this probably sums up why we, both as individuals and organisations, are so often dissatisfied with the new developments going on around us. Rather like when it comes to questions of how to run the county, we all have a view – and we all think we could do better!

When I lead guided walks around Wakefield, the design of the Hepworth gallery often crops up. Some people love it, others hate it. Having met the architect, David Chipperfield, and heard him speak about the design and how he arrived at it, I think it is quite an exceptional piece of architecture and one that is perfect for its purpose.

When people criticise it, I offer to give them a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to draw me the gallery they would have designed. It would have to allow light into rooms that could be controlled to avoid direct sunlight falling on some rather valuable artworks. It would have to provide hanging space for paintings and floor space for sculpture and circulation space. You’d have to avoid lots of pillars as they obstruct sight lines, prevent free movement and make it more difficult to place and exhibit work. Rooms and openings would have to be high to allow for larger works. And you want people to flow through the gallery without having to double back on themselves to reach the exit. Oh, and if you are going to build it next to a river that sometimes overflows its banks, take account of the potential for flooding in your design. Finally, have some regard to context, please, whether that be the adjacent buildings – do you want to stand out or blend in – or topography and landscape – do you level the ground or work within its contours?

Interestingly, no one has yet accepted my challenge! But what if they did? Would they come up with anything radically different, bearing in mind there would also be budget limitations to work within? In fact, if I press people a bit harder about what they don’t like about the Hepworth, it often boils down to the colour of the external walls: they don’t like grey! (“Which colour would you paint it then?”) In other words, we’ve distilled the argument down to one of personal taste rather than whether the gallery is a good design, which is where I came in.

Design is a fascinating subject: for an easy-to-read but thought-provoking study, I’d like to conclude by recommending a book by Matthew Frederick – 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

All Civic Societies need an ‘Elevator Pitch’

So, imagine the scenario. You have a chance encounter with someone who could help change your society’s fortunes for the better. They don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your society. You have their attention, they’re looking you in the eye, they’re ready to listen but you don’t have long. Fluff this moment and you’re history. What do you say that will capture their attention and make them want to learn more? This is where your ‘elevator pitch’ is vital.

Coined in the USA (hence elevator rather than lift), the idea behind the term is that, to succeed in business, you need to be able to encapsulate in no more than a few sentences who you are, what you do, and, most importantly, why the conversation should continue. As a lift journey can last as little as 30 seconds and even in the tallest buildings is likely to last no longer than around two minutes, you have to be cogent, articulate, and to the point. With luck, you’ll engage the attention of the person to whom you are speaking and they will be curious enough to want to learn more, to continue the conversation over coffee when you step outside that lift.

This sort of scenario isn’t that uncommon. OK, it might not happen in a lift, but it could happen at a business event, a networking opportunity, or just in the street where you bump into someone, and it can happen at any time. You need your elevator pitch ready and to be willing to use it at the drop of a hat.

When I first became president at Wakefield Civic Society, I had to represent the Society at all sorts of meetings and stakeholder events. Often, having introduced myself as the president of the Society, I’d be confronted with the question “What’s that then?” and it was clear that many people outside the Society’s own membership had never heard of us. Being asked this question so frequently really made me think about what the Society did and how best to describe it in the proverbial nutshell. Much to my surprise, and consternation, it was actually quite difficult to summarise the essence of the Society, its values and its activities in just two or three sentences, partly because, at base, the Society’s activities are centred on a number of different concepts.

Reflecting on the question and how to answer it also started me thinking about why anyone would actually be interested in what we do. How do you sell an idea and captivate an audience so that other people can see the value in what you do to the point where they actually want to engage with it and support your work?

I began by writing down the sort of things we do in bullet points, starting with the charitable aims described in the Society’s constitution. Like most civic societies, our principal interest is in the built environment. Our aims say that we exist to “promote high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield, to stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the city and its surroundings, to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest and to pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature”.

That’s quite a mouthful! And if we go back to the elevator pitch, it won’t work because it’s actually a list of things: connected yes, but each part of that list conveys a different idea of what we do – and what if the person you are speaking to isn’t interested in architecture, planning or preservation and development? Even if they do express an interest, these terms have a wide range of possible interpretations and spin-off implications so it would be easy to get side-tracked while narrowing down the points on which you want to focus.

In the end, I decided to think about the value we add to the city and to find something which would (or should!) grab the attention of anyone with an interest in Wakefield. This is what I came up with: Wakefield Civic Society is an organisation dedicated to making Wakefield a better place in which to live, work or relax – or do business.

You may or may not like this – but it’s easy to say (and remember) and, sometimes with slight variations to wording, can be used in printed documents, on line and in presentations. In other words, the phrase has become part of our brand.

When I tell people this is what we are about, it piques their interest and, if they really do care about Wakefield, they quite naturally want to know more about us. Using this phrase tends to open up a different sort of conversation from the sort I used to have when I spoke of our charitable objects related to architecture, planning and design.

You might not think of your charity as a business but when it comes to marketing and branding, there’s nothing wrong with stealing a few ideas!

Do members add value for civic societies?

Members
Let me be provocative (again)…..

Members, eh? Who needs ’em? No, seriously, who really needs members?

If you’ve read my article on how we can measure the success of a civic society, you’ll know that I have questioned the idea that membership numbers should be used as an indicator of a successful civic society: we tend to think that the more members a society has, the more successful it must be and most if not all of our civic societies region probably spend some time and effort in trying to recruit and retain members.

In my previous article, I posited that it is actually reputation and trust that really count: how others see you, and whether or not they trust your judgement and advice are the real markers of a successful society. If you agree with me, then the natural conclusion is that the size of membership is not really that important. In fact, dare I suggest that your members are holding you back? Let me explain.

As I said in my article, at Wakefield Civic Society we organise 30 to 40 events and activities per year, sometimes more. We do that because our members enjoy the events and, if the members are happy, they are more likely to renew their membership year after year. On top of that, a lively programme of events is a great way of attracting new members. In other words, our desire to recruit and retain members determines how we operate: we are a membership-based organisation so therefore we run events for members.

While often hugely enjoyable, these events take a good deal or work to organise and to run but only around a fifth of our membership turn out for them and sometimes attendance is even less which means we are going to a lot of trouble to put on events for a smallish subset of the membership. As well as effort, these events also cost us money – we subsidise at least some of the events we put on from our membership subscription income as part of our charitable mission. Having said that, our members (or at least those who attend) tell us that they enjoy the events and, if I’m honest, I enjoy hosting them!

However, our charitable objects as a civic society are:
(a) To encourage high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield.
(b) To stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the City and its surroundings.
(c) To encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest.
(d) To pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature.

Nowhere in the charitable objects is there any mention of our being a membership organisation (this comes later on in the Society’s constitution) and we could arguably deliver our charitable objects without the need to recruit lots of members. All we really need is enough people to form a committee.

What I’m getting at here is that the society could meet its charitable purposes with just a handful of really committed people serving as a sort of ‘think tank’. Say we had around ten people willing to serve. They would need a mix of skills and local knowledge, including some experience of design, planning and architecture but, with the right mix, they could review planning applications, offer advice, write position papers and even organise the occasional public event, exhibition or lecture.

They would still need money, of course, but not so much. There are certain things you just can’t get away from paying for (such as insurance!). However, there are other ways of raising money than membership subscriptions – donations, grants and sponsorships, for example – but the ten people or so willing to serve on the committee could also offer to pay some of the costs out of their own pockets (anything to make it easier!). I suspect that many civic society committee members already do this to some extent – spending money that they don’t necessarily claim back on the work of their society.

I remember one year when we organised an annual dinner at Wakefield which made a surplus of around £200 – a tidy sum that was paid into our general funds. The dinner had been very hard work and there were some sleepless nights: we’d signed a contract with the venue to pay for a set number of places but then the bookings were very slow to come in and it was touch and go as to whether the event would break even, let alone generate a surplus as a fund-raising event, so it was relief all round when we achieved the result we did. In fact, we were in celebratory mood until one of the committee pointed out that if each of the committee (20 strong at the time) had paid £10 each directly to the Society, we’d have achieved the same result without the stress or the fuss. This was rather deflating but was a point well made, especially when you realise that we had each paid around £25 for our tickets to attend the dinner!

The learning point here, of course, is that our desire to put on an event for the members had taken a toll in time, effort and stress to achieve a result that could have been achieved without any of the fuss and hassle.
Before we all rush to dispense with our members though, we need to remember that we all have our written constitutions to follow and that, for those civic societies which are also charities, care would have to be taken to ensure that the charitable aims were still delivered. While it might even be worth considering doing away with the charitable status – it removes the need for all those pesky compliance issues, after all! – there are advantages to being a charity that should not lightly be tossed aside. These include the impact on fund-raising activities when some donors will only consider giving to charities and, of course, the ability to claim Gift Aid.
Now, I’m aware that some very small civic societies might already be the position of having a total membership of just a handful of people – and they might even feel that they are failing. They look at other societies with larger memberships and spend hours worrying over how to recruit more members of their own, almost to the point that the search for new members becomes a millstone around their necks when, according to my argument here, they should be celebrating the fact that they don’t have to spend time and effort servicing a large membership! Surely, that thought alone should be positively liberating!

I know that having members can be rewarding and there are many positives about being a membership organisation. Members provide income and, to a degree, credibility. They can help to spread the news about what the society is doing and what it stands for. They can act as eyes and ears, reporting back to the society on threats to the buildings and public realm in the area. Members will also usually form the pool from which your future committee members will emerge. Running events brings people together and helps strengthen community links; friendships are developed and networks enhanced. I personally have had a great deal of fun from being in charge of an active membership organisation – but it has been exhausting.

So, there we have it: let’s pause and re-think how our civic societies should operate. Do we really need to be large membership-based organisations running events primarily to keep our members entertained? Can we meet our charitable purposes in other ways – and if we can, do we really want to change the model?

Provocative enough?

Measuring Success: what makes a civic society ‘successful’?

As I travel around the region (and even further afield) giving talks about the civic society movement, I always stress the importance the work that civic societies do. When I give talks about the work of my own society – Wakefield Civic Society – I talk about it in glowing terms as one of the most successful civic societies in the country! Now, that might sound boastful and you may or may not agree with it, but it’s something I believe to be true. But what do we mean when we talk about successful civic societies? What makes them successful and is it possible to measure their success objectively?

One of the advantages of being on the YHACS committee is that I do get to visit other civic societies and, over the years, I may well have met people from just about all our member societies as well as others from outside the region. Wherever I go, though, there’s always one question that gets asked: “How many members do you have?” To be fair, I’m as likely to ask it of you as you are to ask it of me about Wakefield Civic Society. Our fascination with membership numbers does suggest that, rightly or wrongly, size is seen as one of the key markers for success – the bigger the society’s membership, the more successful it must be.

But is that the best measure of success and, if we are to use membership numbers as a measure of success, should we put it into context by comparing the membership numbers with total population? Let’s look at three civic societies, not that far apart geographically.

At the time of writing (2017), Wakefield Civic Society has a membership of around 250, which is very reasonable for a civic society. However, the city of Wakefield has a resident population of around 80,000 so, in broad terms, our membership represents just 0.3% of the population.

Meanwhile, Addingham Civic Society has around 360 members, which is very impressive for a village and, with a resident population of 3,800, it means that nearly 10% of the population are members of the society.

Then there’s Leeds Civic Trust with a membership of 485 out of a population of 450,000, so the membership amounts a little over 0.1% of the population.

On this basis, Leeds, which looks the biggest of the three at first glance, is less successful than Wakefield, but Wakefield is less successful than Addingham. Yes, in percentage terms, Addingham is the most successful of the three societies.

But before we award that trophy, what happens if we use a different metric? What if we don’t use membership numbers, but instead look at overall annual income: in 2016, Leeds had an income of over £200,000; Wakefield just over £12,000 and Addingham around £3,000. Here then, Leeds comes out top and Addingham comes out bottom. As can be seen, income doesn’t necessarily relate directly to membership numbers: it’s more complicated than that. Income comes from many sources, not just membership subscriptions, and subscription levels (and types) will have an impact on the income generated: those societies with an established corporate membership scheme, for example, will probably raise more in membership subscriptions overall than those societies that don’t have one and, when averaged out across the membership, the average take per member is likely to be higher too.

Money isn’t everything, however, and societies might only set out to raise the money they need to cover the things they want to do so perhaps we should measure success by the number of activities that a society organises during the year? Now, I don’t have comparison figures to hand to be able to declare a winner in this category but I’m confident that my own society, Wakefield, would score well. With our talks programme, our excursions and visits, our guided walks and blue plaque unveilings and not forgetting our very popular monthly Dining Club, we probably average close to three events per month – 30 to 40 per year – and sometimes more; quite an achievement for an organisation run entirely by a handful of volunteers.

Of course, a large proportion of the events we run at Wakefield are targeted at attracting new members (while also retaining existing ones) – and it’s not surprising that larger societies run more events, so maybe it would be a little unfair to measure the success or otherwise of a society based purely on the number of events they run. We need some understanding of context, particularly if we are ranking societies against each other: horses for courses and all that.

We could look at projects, by which I mean those practical projects that lead to physical improvements to the public realm (such a litter picking, tree planting, repairing amenities, conservation projects to bring old buildings back into use, and so on). These projects are tangible, often highly visible and benefit local communities directly. I know some civic societies that have done terrific work in restoring, repainting, replanting, etc. My own society did lots of this practical stuff back in the 1960s and 70s (although I wasn’t there at the time and can take no credit): there are photos in the Society’s archives showing our members cleaning off graffiti, picking up litter, and planting trees. However, times have changed. There are now many more agencies and organisations that routinely undertake this work so that often all it takes is a phone call or email to the right person or organisation to prompt some sort of response and the Society doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. But does a lack of practical projects indicate an unsuccessful society? Not necessarily!

So, if we are not going to use membership numbers, overall income, number of events, or number of projects as our overarching measure of a successful society, what are we left with?

Well, how about influence and impact? A successful society will undoubtedly interact with a wide number of stakeholders – decision makers within local and possibly national government, property owners and local businesses as well as local residents. And these interactions will be used by the society to convey messages about planning, heritage and design that will influence stakeholders in their thinking so that the society can point to outcomes and claim it was these interventions that led to the result achieved – in other words, the actions of the society had an impact on the result. However, demonstrating cause and effect in these situations can be very difficult unless credit is given publicly: sometimes, an outcome that chimes with the society’s aspirations may be no more than lucky chance or pure coincidence. We might claim ‘it was us that did it’, but can we prove it?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s no easy way of measuring the overall success or otherwise of a civic society. The successful ones will be firing on all cylinders – doing lots of different things, or perhaps just a few big things, but doing them all really well. Context is important but so is reputation. How do your members regard what you do? What do people outside your membership think of you? (Have they even heard of you?) Do people come to you for advice? Are you the first place people come to for information and support when they need it? Do they trust your judgement?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then no matter how many members you have, how much money you have, or how many events and projects you are running, to be held in high regard by others and to be trusted as ‘honest brokers’ is perhaps one of the true markers of a successful civic society.

Discuss.

New Charity Governance Code – what are the implications for civic societies?

Last year, the Charity Commission consulted on a proposed code of governance. This has now been published and is available on-line at https://www.charitygovernancecode.org/en.

While the new Code is at the moment just guidance, it is based on current legal requirements and recommended practice. It is set out under 7 principles (see above taken from their website) and introduces the notion of ‘apply or explain’ – in other words, charities should apply the code’s principles wherever they can but explain those instances where, for whatever reason, they cannot apply the recommendations of the Code.

Much that is in the Code will be familiar already, this is evolution not revolution, but there are some interesting new recommendations about recruitment and retention of trustees – i.e., your committee members – which will have far-reaching implications for many societies. Not least of these is the recommendation that trustees serve for a maximum of 9 years.

Now, I’m writing this as someone who has served as a trustee on the committee of Wakefield Civic Society for nearly 28 years and who has been president/chair of the Society for nearly 16 years at the time of writing. On top of that, I have been a trustee of the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies (YHACS) for coming up for 16 years and chair of the Association for nearly 7 years. The Wakefield Civic Society committee has 5 members who have been in office for over 9 years and the YHACS committee 3. I suspect that many civic societies (and other community groups for that matter) will be in the similar position of having long-serving committee trustees. I wonder what would happen if the 9-year rule was to be made mandatory?

I’m fairly sure that the Charity Commission is not intending that there should be a mass clear-out of charity stalwarts whose tireless energies and enthusiasm keeps so many small charities running. To mandate that would cause huge problems and possibly lead to the closure of some charities unable to find willing volunteers to take on the vacated roles.

However, I can understand the thinking about the new recommendation; indeed, when I advocated changing the YHACS constitution at the end of 2016 so as to set a six-year time limit on the role of YHACS chair, I had seen the writing on the wall, or at least on various internet pages in which the thinking on charity governance had been widely discussed.

There are benefits and problems associated with having long-serving trustees. Benefits include building experience, local knowledge and contacts – all very useful facets of being an effective trustee. Problems, on the other hand, are trustees being so-closely identified with the charity and their roles within the organisation that others perceive trustee selection, particularly for key officer posts, as something of a closed-shop or done deal. This can be an effective barrier to the recruitment of new trustees – people don’t want to challenge a long-standing post holder for fear of causing upset of embarrassment or because they don’t think the charity would back a newcomer against an existing and no doubt respected candidate.

There’s another problem of allowing someone to serve more or less indefinitely and that is complacency. We’re all so relieved that someone has agreed to serve that we can breathe easy, thankful that the post is filled. While ever there is someone willing to have a go, let them get on with it! Don’t rock the boat! etc., etc. The trouble then is that when these long-serving committee members do want to step down, there are no processes in place, or no candidates in waiting, to allow for a transition, and the results can be fatal to the survival of the charity. A number of civic societies in our own region have folded in recent years because they cannot find people willing to serve on their committees.

Another problem, of course, is that if your committee is predominantly ‘white, middle class and retired’, there’s a good chance your membership will come from this social group as well. Your committee will mirror your membership and vice versa.

The new Charity Code of Governance points us in the direction we need to be thinking about (at section 5.7 on Board [for which read Committee] Effectiveness):

5.7 Overseeing appointments
5.7.1 There is a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure to appoint new trustees to the board, which includes advertising vacancies widely.
5.7.2 The search for new trustees is carried out, and appointments or nominations for election are made, on merit, against objective criteria and considering the benefits of diversity. The board regularly looks at what skills it has and needs, and this affects how new trustees are found.
5.7.3 Trustees are appointed for an agreed length of time, subject to any applicable constitutional or statutory provisions relating to election and re-election. If a trustee has served for more than nine years, their reappointment is subject to a particularly rigorous review and takes into account the need for progressive refreshing of the board explained in the trustees’ annual report

You can see from this that applying the rule of ‘Buggin’s turn’ won’t wash in future, nor will allowing someone to run and run be acceptable either – there will only be so many occasions that you can explain away why your society failed to find a new chair or trustee and so allowed someone to continue to clock up the mileage.

As I said above, this is not yet mandatory, but I do think we all need to start thinking about the implications of the new code and its recommendations. Even if the 9-year rule isn’t yet a requirement, it is probably in the best interests of your charity to act as if the recommendation is likely to become mandatory at some point and to start thinking now about how you can improve the processes for recruitment of trustees.

Looking into the Future – how to plan a ‘future’ strategy for your civic society

I recently met with the committee of a long-established civic society to discuss ideas for rejuvenating their society and attracting new members. It was a very enjoyable outing for me: I was able to suggest some ideas that they could incorporate into their strategy and they offered me tea and cake: a fair exchange!

I regularly find myself in conversation with people wondering what the future holds for their societies and how they can keep things going in the medium to longer term, not just for the benefit of their existing members but also as a way of attracting the next generation of committee members.

Now, I make no claims about being able to see into the future but one of the characteristics of successful organisations (and individuals for that matter) is a capacity to consider what the future might hold for them. This allows them to develop strategies to ensure they can cope with whatever the future might bring.

There is a structured technique, sometimes known as ‘Horizon Scanning’, that can be employed by any organisation to plot a course to the future. It’s about looking ahead to see what trends you can identify and how the changes brought about by these trends will impact upon your organisation. There are, of course, books you can buy on management techniques that will cover this concept in much more detail should you wish to read them and they’ll certainly do the subject more justice than I can here in the space available, but bear with me while I outline the principles.

Let’s say you want to work out what might lie ahead for your civic society. Get together a few people who really understand what your society is about – this is most likely to be your committee but could also include people from the wider membership or even people who have recently stood down from the committee.

Now, here’s a tough one. How ‘up to date’ are the members of your group inn their thinking and awareness of what is happening in the world at large? Are they trend setters and trailblazers (or do they just tend to wear nice blazers)? Ideally, you need one at least a few people in the group who are knowledgeable or have given some thought to what is happening in the wider world. If you don’t have them, go out and see if you can find them.

Now, ask them to start thinking about the changes likely to happen within society over the next 10 to 20 years. You can ask them to use a STEP (or PEST) analysis (Social, Technological, Economic, Political and add Environmental if you want to make it STEEP, or Legal and Ethical if you fancy STEEPLE!).

This needs to be done in a structured but uncensored way (we all tend to censor our thinking – or at least what we say out loud, when in groups), by which I mean, encourage people to put forward ideas, however flippant, without evaluating them at this stage. Ask them to think of ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios: from the best of all possible worlds to a dystopian nightmare.

Ask your group to write their thoughts of what could happen — best and worst outcomes — under each STEP/STEEP/STEEPLE topic on separate Post-It Notes, then take everyone’s Post-It Notes and see if you can arrange them into themes. The idea is to produce coherent visions for what might happen to society at large, both good and bad.

So, if for example, one of your participants imagined the possibility that there would be a surge in community spirit over the next few years on one Post-It Note, perhaps inspired by government campaigns and initiatives, and someone else had written that people would have more leisure time (because, perhaps, technology will make working hours shorter), you could group these (four) ideas together. Conversely, someone could have imagined that there would be a growing crisis of community engagement as technology enables us to lead more and more individual lifestyles where we don’t need to step outside our front doors; in fact rising crime would make it dangerous to do so. What are the demographic trends in your locality? What’s happening, or likely to happen, to the high street? Will we still need to rely on privately owned motor cars? Etc., etc. etc..

Then, develop these scenarios, perhaps informed by extra research that these days can be done on line. You only need two or three comprehensive scenarios—one very positive, perhaps, one less so and one outright depressing. The chances are that the middle one will be closest to reality but some elements from either of the other two could also work their way into your selected scenario over time, so don’t throw the others away and keep them under review.

The trick then is to work out what these scenarios would mean for your civic society if the predicted outcomes were to materialise and then to develop strategies to prepare your society to respond to what’s coming over the hill.

For example, how would you cope with a sudden influx of new members who all wanted to join the committee? If nothing else, this should get you thinking and talking.

Have fun!

(If you would be interested in hearing my talk – I’ve seen the future and it’s sooner that you think!, which can also be run as a workshop, have a look at my Talks page.)

Joining the dots: how civic societies can raise their game by thinking about the bigger picture

Looking at a planning application for a major new development without regard to its impact on infrastructure is a bit like planning a big dinner party and thinking about the food but not the context: as well as the logistics of food purchase, preparation and presentation, you have to think about the guest list, the seating plan, the ‘mise-en-scène’ and even the ‘choreography’. If you want to delight your guests and have them judge the evening to have been a success, you have to get the details right.

In a similar way, we should look at new development proposals in terms of whether they will delight the people who will live or work there, the people who will make use of its facilities or even just pass by on a daily basis. What will be needed, not just in design terms, but in terms of the associated infrastructure to make the project viable and sustainable? Thinking about the pipes and cables needed to convey water, power and, these days, data. What will be the likely impact on transport networks? Do local roads and rail networks have the capacity to cope with new development? Are there going to be enough car parking spaces (and now, electrical charging points)? Will there be a need for new shops and community facilities such as schools, doctors, hospitals and so on? And as our towns and cities grow, the greater will be the expectations of local residents, businesses and visitors: are there enough restaurants, theatres, cinemas, hotels, conference centres, green spaces, community centres, and so on, to support the needs and demands of people living and working there? It all takes some planning and thinking through and this is where having a clear vision of what the future will bring should certainly help! Sometimes, it’s a question of scale: a few hundred new houses on the outskirts of a large town or city is one thing – but just a few dozen houses in the centre of a village something else again. They will, however, all have an impact on infrastructure – and that’s an infrastructure that will usually be shared with existing residents and businesses.

Now, all the above is important and I’m sure we are already conversant with the arguments and have a good knowledge and understanding of what is happening, or being planned, in our own areas. Sometimes, though, we have to look over the border to see how developments in neighbouring towns and cities might affect what is happening in our own patch. We need to take the ‘helicopter view’ to work out how the dots should be joined up. With the creation of combined authorities, local councils are working together not only to share services but also to plan infrastructure – the West Yorkshire Combined Authority is, for example “Developing an integrated transport network to support people, business, economy and growth” and this work will provide “a twenty year vision for developing a modern, high class, integrated transport system that supports the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership’s Strategic Economic Plan for sustained and healthy economic growth – especially for jobs and housing”. We are likely to see more of this sub-regional and regional planning in coming years – the proposals for a Yorkshire Mayor rumble on but could well lead to Yorkshire-wide planning decisions being made in the future (anyone remember Yorkshire Forward?). Civic societies will have to be alert to these arrangements because decisions made by such regional and sub-regional bodies will impact on us all at local level and it will likely be more important than ever for civic societies to work together in the future.

Now, one way of achieving this closer working and to build alliances on points of common interest is, of course, through attending our YHACS meetings where you can speak to representatives of other societies face to face and hear news from across the region. While we work hard to find interesting speakers to help stimulate your thinking, it is often that the most animated part of our meetings is when people are networking with each other over coffee. Whether you come to our meetings or not, there is, additionally, our newsletter, full of news and views and which we know our members much appreciate.

One final word on infrastructure: with so much going on around us politically, societally and technologically, it would be easy to forget that civic societies have infrastructure needs of their own. Modern communication tools, effective committee and sub-committee structures, risk management procedures, data protection protocols, programme and event management – the list goes on. How much time you need to devote to the infrastructure requirements of your society will depend to some extent on how big and how active your society is, but we all need to give these matters the thought and attention they deserve.