Defending her area against the soulless and the expensive - Peckham Vision's Eileen Conn is a hero of localism
Get off the train at Peckham Rye, in London’s East End, and you’re two minutes away from their cultural quarter - titled Bussey Building and Copeland Park. The website shows it to be a hive of young creative activity. But as the areas delightfully named news magazine the Peckham Peculiar notes, this wouldn’t exist without the efforts of a septuagenarian Peckham resident.
Eileen Conn’s commitment to her community often meant defending historic old buildings like the Bussey from being knocked down, according to council development plans. (Her vehicle for that is an association called Peckham Vision, with its tightly focused strapline - “For an integrated town centre”).
Eileen’s a great example of the essential characters that local empowerment needs - intelligent, sociable, determined. And very often women!
The Bussey Building is where Peckham Vision is based, an apt location if ever there was one, considering Eileen’s key role in the 2005-09 campaign to save the Bussey Building from being demolished and replaced by a tram depot. The fact the Bussey is now such a hub of vibrant community activity is due in no small part to her.
However, she admits that her quest for human understanding has never – and will never – be complete.
“I’ve answered a lot of the questions I formed in my teens and 20s but it’s been a slow, long process,” she says. “It’s a bit like getting to the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, only to discover there are more rainbows with pots of gold to look for.”
…It’s an education that Eileen has put to good use, with Peckham Vision being one of the direct results of her community work and activism.
A resident-led group of local citizens who live, work or run businesses in Peckham, the organisation’s stated aims are to promote and encourage citizen action to help Peckham town centre become thriving and sustainable, as well as to create and nurture ways of connecting people in Peckham who want the area to realise its potential.
“The roots of Peckham Vision started when I discovered how exciting email was as a way of connecting people,” Eileen says. “I’m instinctively interested in connecting people. Then I began to take an interest in how the council was planning on turning this vast area of land in Peckham town centre into a tram depot.
“Soon I had a network of contacts and people and email addresses which I could put to good use. Our strapline since the beginning has been ‘for an integrated town centre’ – that has never changed and all our work is informed by that idea.”
Over the years, Eileen and other members of Peckham Vision have been involved in countless community campaigns and activities that are too numerous to list in full here. Some of the group’s most high-profile work has seen it helping to save the Bussey Building and its surrounding area from demolition and challenging redevelopment plans around Peckham Rye Station, Peckhamplex and the multistorey car park.
“In each of our big campaigns, we relentlessly exposed and publicised the potential of these spaces in a way that the big institution [ie Southwark Council] in the end could not ignore,” Eileen explains proudly.
“I think we have achieved something through several of our campaigns by enabling spaces we inherited from our predecessors – I get emotional about this – to show their life again.
“And how much better is that than these soulless and expensive 21st century buildings that we otherwise would have been left with?
“Peckham town centre is like a living museum, we’ve got buildings from the end of the 17th century right through to now and it’s beautiful. If you look up in Peckham, it’s amazing what you see above the noise and bustle and shopfronts.”
If one quality of Eileen’s burns brightest, it is undoubtedly her passion, most significantly her passion for changing the way the world works, and improving the outcomes of interactions between large institutions and local communities.
“The dominant experience of all the people who work in corporations and institutions is a form of organisational relationship that is very different from that in organised community action in groups like Peckham Vision,” she explains.
“What has kept me going and motivated is the feeling that there is often something not right about decisions that have been made at a higher level. For example, the real, lived-in economy is being neglected across London.
“I’m also passionate about organisation and good order. When people come together they’re more likely to achieve what they want. Helping that to be more effective drives me.”
Given the wealth of her experiences and her long and unending journey towards human understanding, I wonder whether Eileen believes if the battle for more productive connections between local residents and their institutional overseers can be won. So I conclude with a simple question: “are you an optimist?”
With a rebellious twinkle in her eye, Eileen says: “I don’t like the word optimist, I prefer to say ‘hopeful’.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that many things are possible. I’m certainly hopeful that there can be change and I’m a great believer that we can change things if we understand them better. You might say I’m an emotional optimist and an intellectual pessimist!”