Thursday, 03 February 2011

Eric Pickles, monstrous epitome of the disposable generation I remember my mother expressing disgust at the amount of unnecessary packaging that came with the shopping she brought home to feed the family. This would have been in the late sixties or early 1970s (I know, not much has improved). And I recall my dad explaining the concept of built-in obsolescence in manufacture; that would have been some years before. I grew up in a comparatively affluent social system in which people were expected to just throw things away if they were surplus or didn’t work properly. The consequences of disposing of stuff were not something anyone needed to concern themselves with. The principles here are, first, that the tax-paying citizen has the right to consume whatever they want to if they have legally acquired it, and dispose of it whenever they want (this principle is sometimes called 'america'); and secondly, they have the right to fiercely condemn their council for not going along with this culture in every respect, and cleaning up after them (this principle is sometimes called 'the daily mail'). Now this monstrous culture has grown large, bloated and out of control. How ironic that, as Janet Street-Porter points out, we have a Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who seems to be obsessed with wheelie bins, at a time when some of us would like him to be pre-occupied with helping to maintain services like elder care, youth work, child care, bus services and libraries: 'Pickles has ordered councils to make huge cuts to balance their budgets. You would hope services that are of particular benefit to the elderly and vulnerable such as mobile libraries, meals on wheels, and home help for the infirm and disabled might be protected. You'd hope that Sure Start nursery centres for the young, which enable lower-income mothers to go out to work, might be ring-fenced. But you'd be wrong – charities say 250 are set to close. In the mad world of Eric Pickles, the wheelie bin is king, more important than library books, local transport and childcare.' Mr Pickles epitomises a culture which believes that because some parts of the public sector are malfunctioning, they should be thrown away. Apparently the consequences of that wanton and irresponsible disposal are not something he need concern himself with. It’s deeply unfortunate that such a person has any power at all, considering the social damage already being caused. The question is, how soon will the built-in obsolescence in this political approach begin to take effect?
Over here: big society. And over here: funding cuts Here (from about 53 mins) is Philip Blond on R4 last night telling us that big society has to be separated from the public sector cuts agenda: 'they're not related and they come from different places.' Today we have the leader of Liverpool City Council withdrawing the city's involvement as one of the four national pilot areas for big society schemes, because government cuts have threatened the future of many voluntary organisations, hence jeopardising, entirely predictably, activities carried out under the aegis of big society: 'How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?' In the past week or so I've run two workshops with voluntary sector organisations in a crisis context. These are rugged organisations accustomed to working on the edge, they don't squeal easily; but this crisis is different. And these are people who have put passion, energy, values and skills into developing services for people in need - the kinds of people for whom the government shows contemptuous indifference. You can try telling them that what they're doing is a crucial, valued part of big society. And/or you can try telling them that no no, the big society ethos (polite coughing) is not at all related to the public sector funding cuts. It's ok, go ahead, you won't get howls of derision or abuse. They won't take you that seriously. Because the part of big society rhetoric that is meaningful - like the importance of association and 'community' - they already know, they're already familiar with it, most of them are expert at it. The rest is perceived as vacuous and, believe it or not, they're a bit busy right now. Nor are you likely to hear people suggesting that this government might just be making the effects of the financial crisis considerably worse than is justifiable, and effecting cuts in a vindictive and unequal way. Most spotted that some time ago and are reconciled to it. There's stuff to do. Sorry, the conceptual separation of economics from cultural change will have to wait.

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