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David Cameron reckons Dan Thompson is exactly the sort of person that can help make Britain great again. Austin Macauley meets the man behind #riotcleanup

He’s founder of an organisation that has ‘revolutionary’ in its title and describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist. On the face of it, Dan Thompson probably isn’t the kind of guy you expect David Cameron to be holding up as an example to us all.

The prime minister was rallying the troops at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month around the theme of leadership and the spirit needed to revive the UK’s fortunes when said: ‘Dan Thompson watched the riots unfold on television. But he didn’t sit there and say “the council will clean it up”. He got on the internet. He sent out a call. And with others, he started a social movement. People picked up their brooms and reclaimed their streets.’

It’s the day after the PM’s speech when I meet Thompson and he’s still slightly dumbstruck at the namecheck. ‘I couldn’t believe it, I’m just this bloke from Worthing – this isn’t how it works.’ But it’s just the latest in a succession of surreal moments he’s experienced since kick-starting #riotcleanup on Twitter in the aftermath of the August riots.

Sitting in the basement café at the RSA offices in London, his HQ for the last few weeks, it’s not long before a couple more examples surface.

‘It [#riotcleanup] was born out of frustration that no one was doing anything. I just wanted to create a simple activity that would see people get out the next day and take control again. It created the perfect feedback between the mainstream media and Twitter.

‘I thought I’d get 50-100 of my mates helping shopkeepers – something low key. I didn’t expect crowds at Clapham Junction with 500 people waving brooms in the air. I certainly didn’t expect phone calls from Number 10 and the Wombles.’

The iconic picture of #RiotCleanUp at Clapham Junction

The former was someone at the Cabinet Office offering any assistance they could give should he encounter any obstacles along the way. ‘Just the type of help you want from government,’ he says. The latter, rather disappointingly, wasn’t Great Uncle Bulgaria, Tobermory or even Orinoco, but someone from The Wombles office simply saying that if #riotcleanup wanted to use ‘wombles’ as a hashtag that was fine by them.

The Twitter account @Riotcleanup gained 87,000 Twitter followers in the space of one day thanks to what he describes as ‘such a simple idea’.

‘I’d intended to go to London on the Tuesday morning and instead I spent the whole day on my laptop coordinating, getting thousands of people to the right place at the right time and getting supplies to the right place. Everyone got involved in different ways, some people could just tweet, others cleaned up.

‘At about 1.30pm someone on Twitter sent me the iconic picture of the brooms. I might have actually cried a bit at that point, I was thinking what have I unleashed here?’

Precisely what was unleashed is still unfolding. It’s sparked ongoing projects in Tottenham and other areas affected by the riots and plans are afoot to keep the momentum of #riotcleanup going in other ways. ‘I think we will see more of this in future. I’m interested in agile software development and how you take it to other areas, for example agile social activism.’

It’s also put him in the spotlight, although he’s had to laugh off some of the attention. ‘I have been accused of being from an urban elite in one blog post. That’s quite funny when you come from a small sleepy seaside town.’ Being brought up in a council house doesn’t quite tally with being dismissed as a middle class do-gooder either.

The flurry of activity and interest around #riotcleanup has become all-consuming over the last two months for Thompson and many of his friends and he admits it’s been a struggle for all of them.

‘I’m not rich, I’m not paid to do this. I’ve given up two months of work to do this. We are all freelancers, everyone dropped what they were doing. We’ve all found it hard. I couldn’t do this all year round – I don’t have a safety net, I don’t have a rich family to bail me out.’ They are the kind of practicalities that Big Society so often conveniently overlooks. ‘There’s something for bigger charities to look at here – how can they support people to do things quickly and easily, and not necessarily with a big funding application?’

But he’s now finally getting back to the day job – and it’s here that it soon becomes apparent that the roots of #riotcleanup run deep. Far from being a one-off act of inspiration, Thompson believes his worklife to date made him the ideal candidate to react. ‘There was a clear line to it, it wasn’t a radical departure,’ he says.

It started when he left school to work behind the scenes at his local theatre and began to come to the fore when he helped turn an artists’ studio into a gallery and exhibition space to make it more outward looking – essentially creating a community space. He and friends set up Revolutionary Arts in 2000 to help bring together artists in Worthing and the surrounding area.

They increasingly found themselves bringing empty shops back into use as space for everything from exhibitions to theatre, leading to the Empty Shops Network being formed to support what is now a fast-growing national movement to rethink town centres blighted by vacated buildings. Arts Council England has just awarded the network funding to carry out research and stage a series of workshops over the next three months.

In short, he had the organisational skills, the contacts and the networks to make #riotcleanup happen – and happen quickly. One of the end results is he appears to have gained a powerful ally in David Cameron. But just how much common ground is there between them? He quips that the prime minister would make a great poster boy for anarchism. One area they do appear to agree on is the need to trim back the state.

‘We’ve got to make local authorities
agile again – to respond and react
when they’re needed.’

‘Bureaucracy breeds bureaucracy – look at councils,’ he says. ‘Central government makes decisions, you don’t get that at local council level. We’ve got to make local authorities agile again – respond and react when they’re needed.

‘There’s an officer in my local council who, if you come to him with an idea, will automatically within half an hour come up with a list of a dozen reasons why it can’t be done. Imagine if he used all that creativity in a positive way.’

It’s at this point that he realises he’s actually starting to sound like David Cameron. While he’s got no problem with the prime minister – or any other politician – jumping on the bandwagon, he’d rather people didn’t draw too many conclusions from the association. Under an excerpt of Cameron’s speech posted on his website he says: ‘David Cameron saying my name out loud doesn’t automatically make me a Conservative Party member. If you want to find out about my politics, take me out for coffee and I’ll tell you.’

While those involved in #riotcleanup helped local shopkeepers in the aftermath of the rioting, the reality is it was local authorities that were mobilised to clean the streets.

One of his gripes relating to local authorities – aside from the bureaucracy – is the vast array of responsibilities they have and our expectations of them. He cites West Sussex Council as example: ‘Look at the huge number of things they do, do we really want to be paying taxes for all that?’ His local council has, he says, been largely unsupportive of empty shops initiatives, although the situation is improving. ‘This isn’t a core thing that councils should be doing, but they shouldn’t be a blockage either.’

He’d like to see residents given greater control over their local area – something the localism bill claims to be addressing – and argues ‘the only way to answer the threat of further unrest is to get people involved in their communities early on’.

But where he disagrees with Cameron and co is the issue of resources. As he himself can testify to, civil activism doesn’t pay the bills. And his work with the Empty Shops Network leaves him in no doubt that broader economic issues such as the decline of many town centres won’t be solved by short-term initiatives supported by small pots of money.

‘Over the past ten years it’s become so apparent that high streets have lost their way. We were doing it in the boom time. What we’re saying is these buildings aren’t going to return to being shops in five years’ time. We need to look at alternatives for them. It’s not the middle of London we’re talking about, it’s those peripheral towns that have lost their way. That’s why people are saying “we want to take local action, we want to do something about this”. It’s about giving local people the tools for local projects.’

Ultimately, Dan Thompson sees #riotcleanup as an example of what can happen when the straitjacket of procedures and rules that come with top-down organisations is removed from the picture. If an organisation had been put in charge of #riotcleanup it wouldn’t have happened, he says. ‘No one was organising stuff, it was more spontaneous and all I was was a hub in the middle.’

He adds: ‘The most fundamental legacy is we inspired people to get up and do things for themselves. We have shown in one day everything the government had been trying to sell with Big Society. And we didn’t worry once through the whole thing about health and safety.’


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Susan Downer
Susan Downer
12 years ago

Inspiring stuff. Keep up the good work.

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