Tuesday, 08 December 2009

Local markets: spectacle, event, occasion, or just dull? The government, it says here, 'is taking a leading role in protecting the traditional market... Markets play a valuable social and economic role in communities. They offer good value fruit and vegetables, encourage added footfall for town centres, offer new businesses a more affordable way to trade in the current financial climate and provide local jobs with flexible hours for people working part-time.' I didn't realise we have a minister for markets, and you wouldn't know it from her biog. As a job title it may not sound like the pinnacle of political aspirations, and it's curious that the role seems to have been established against the recent recommendation of a CLG parliamentary committee (para 133 here). (But see also para 134, in which they also recommend that the 'clear strategic central government focus' for markets should be reflected in the portfolio of a named Minister). The committee's report has very little about the social benefits of markets, but it does include a note about the way the new specialist markets ('local farmers' markets') have been packaged as events: 'the whole atmosphere is an event atmosphere that all markets historically generated, but which some older markets have now lost... that was what markets were a thousand years ago; farmers bringing their products to market, selling their goods and creating a community.' (para 59 here) It feels like there's something peculiarly contemporary about this tension between the creation of something special or spectacular and the perceived need for occasions around which 'community' can be identified. This is emerging in the essay I'm (still) writing about a community picnic, where I'm tweaking some thoughts about how our instinct remains strong for an unmanipulated experience of being outdoors-with-others. In a recent paper, Sophie Watson claims such attributes for markets: ‘markets have the potential to offer precisely such a space, in their haphazardness, serendipity, physical openness, a typically long local association with a local community and place, the lack of a profit-driven company in charge and an often-limited overarching design or strategy.’ (Watson, Urban studies, 2009, p1590) All very well, but the economic platform is very wobbly and the disneyfication of semi-public space (for mall-minded people) continues to erode it. And when I think of the three-day-a-week closed market in my local town it always seems just plain dull. I don't know what the answer is, but I suspect that climate change and the recession in combination may force widespread revision of views and practice. Perhaps there's a case for more third sector and public agencies to have a presence in markets, developing opportunities from the continuing disintegration of barriers between the sectors? How about the local strategic partnership having a stall just along from the fruit and veg?
Creating greater value: participation in Milton Keynes Back in the summer I worked with Bev Carter reviewing levels of social and civic participation in Milton Keynes. The report has just been published by Citizens:MK - click on the research tab here. For a small study it's quite a lengthy report, because a lot of stuff came up. We based our work on the belief that social participation and informal involvement with others in everyday life underpins and is critical for civic participation. Here are some of the main points: Cohesion and stability among existing groups has to precede participative integration into broader civic structures. If young people feel despised and unwanted, or Somalis feel unsupported and victimised, those claims have to be addressed before we can raise expectations about integrated participation. Perhaps partly because of the town's geography, people seem to be lacking association with a defined, distinctive neighbourhood which offers them something to be proud of, to defend and develop. We noted a shift in the areas where young people can or cannot exercise autonomy; and an apparent general decline in their experience of organisation. We think that most young people have no difficulty understanding the nuances of democracy and the value of participation. The problem is more about policy-makers appreciating the importance of social participation in everyday life at local level. It doesn't help that participation principles are not reinforced consistently in the adult world, and loyalty of any kind appears not to be valued. Popular participation does not just create connections, it also depends on connections - between citizens, agencies and representatives. A healthy variety of connections is of massive, barely-noticed social significance. Without them we cannot develop a participative politics that resolves social problems by involving all kinds of people collectively in addressing them. Previously: Found difficult and left untried? Invisible mutual support at the margins You'd hope they'd be angry

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