Brixton Advice Centre at 167 Railton Road may not be a person, but it has a fascinating personality behind it taking it forward as it looks towards its 50th anniversary next year in the shape of new director Patrick Torsney. Well known in advice circles as someone with years of experience as advisor and director and as one of the team behind social welfare site ilegal.org.uk, he joined Brixton Advice Centre last month and Brixton Blog went along for a chat.
Our conversation started with mention of the Save Brixton Arches campaign which neatly sums up much of how Patrick feels about community on a micro and macro level, reminding us that a community needs every member to keep it going, not just the ones seen as most important or powerful. He’s a big believer in allowing people to speak for themselves and providing the amplification for them to be heard when they do. Social connections stop people being insular.
On the most basic level Brixton Advice Centre offers free and impartial advice to local residents on employment, housing and benefits issues amongst other things. It attempts to tailor its provision to what people in Brixton need with a mix of pre-booked appointments, drop in clinics and short or long term casework that takes into consideration the socioeconomic and ethnic mix of the area. On a more complicated level it offers a way for people to access information, help and support to function in a unique local community within a constantly changing global city. It must do this without losing anyone’s trust or showing bias.
The centre does this with a mix of experienced advisors, locally based trustees, council funding and a receptionist who knows the area so well there’s few people she doesn’t know by name. Patrick has come onboard at a time when Brixton is changing rapidly, London is changing even more quickly and the political climate of austerity is putting pressure on the traditional pillars of social welfare such as legal aid, employment rights, the welfare state and housing provision.
It was hard to know where to start to ask him how the advice sector is changing in the face of all these aspects but he was keen to emphasise that both Brixton Advice Centre and Lambeth are continuing to provide advice services to Lambeth residents no matter what else in the borough is changing. He is keen to make these more accessible and open to people in future, noting that once you’ve realised you need advice and are ready to ask for help it shouldn’t be a struggle to actually access it. There is a new website and a change to opening hours to help this along.
He’ll be focusing the Centre on advice provision rather than campaigning, believing that while campaigning can be effective in the long term, it’s just as effective to change the here and now with advice and help that can allow people’s lives to function more easily whether it be on advice on an eviction, employment issus or benefits for a disabled child. His way of thinking is “do good things and do them together.”
Having managed to discuss all these points from our original starting point of the Save Brixton Arches campaign, it transpired that Brixton Advice Centre needs some community interaction of its own if it is to manage all this. The building is in need of widespread renovation both inside and out if it is to keep up its aims. There simply hasn’t been the cash to attend to the bricks and mortar for the last fifteen or so years and there is a huge amount of work needed from new windows and external painting to fixing cracks and holes inside. They plan to launch fundraising in the community in the next months to help this along.
Patrick however is keen to involve local people in other ways too by adding new trustees and friends of the Centre to keep it fresh, innovative and forward thinking. He’d welcome the input from people with skills they think would be relevant from financial, fundraising, social media, BAME or disability expertise or anything else that helps link its work back to the community it serves. Anyone interested in volunteering their time can use the contact form on the Centre’s website to get in touch.
It’s clear Patrick wants to nuture the balance between the Centre and its community and concentrate on developing the social currency that has long since made Brixton the place it is. They say ‘good fences make good neighbours’ but if Patrick and his staff at the Centre have anything to do with it, it’ll be ‘good advice makes good community’ instead.
Brixton Advice Centre: 167 Railton Road is open 10am-3pm Mon to Thurs for advice for Lambeth residents. Phone 020 7733 7554 for more information on accessibility.