Friday, 10 June 2011

The assault on the public When I was in France recently I was a bit shocked at the prevalence of private beaches, in a country which I had thought took liberté and égalité seriously. Perhaps it will get as bad in the UK before long. I vaguely recall, but cannot find evidence of, an early Thatcher attempt or threat to sell stretches of the British coastline. And I've been wondering, what will it take eventually to spark a serious debate about the nature of 'public' in this country? The government's determined assault on what is public encompasses a scary disinterest in formal care services for vulnerable people; spiteful bullying contempt (especially from here) for local-elected bodies almost by definition; the washing of hands on policy for public libraries; the idea of selling off nature reserves; and the outrageous attempt to sell off publicly-owned woodland. And we have a London borough apparently serious about charging children to use an adventure playground. That should get rid of the riff-raff. I daresay there are plenty of similar examples, as the Haves seek to drive home their advantage and accentuate what Geoff Mulgan described as the 'evident imbalance between private affluence and public poverty.' The other day I was in a London square where I was told that you weren't allowed there if you were wearing overalls. Presumably if a worker is needed to fix something, he or she has to be brought in behind screens or under cover of darkness: the leisure of the wealthy should not be spoiled by the risk of catching sight of hoi-polloi. It was, presumably, pseudo-public space - privately owned, the developer having extracted from the local authority pretty much whatever they wanted in return for providing pavements and conditional access. Bless them, the London Assembly recently published a report which 'identifies a number of concerns relating to the shift in the ownership and management of public spaces from local authorities to developers, and recommends solutions.' But last month's BBC programme about the street without services suggested to me that there is a lot to be done before people will join up the evidence of these various little skirmishes and recognise them as a war. How late is too late?
Let there be strong networks Here’s another report calling for policy to bolster social networks – this one is from the International Longevity Centre UK, Can localism work for older people in urban environments? In this case the call is ‘to strengthen interpersonal, intergenerational, and multigenerational networks, particularly in urban areas.’ This accumulating acknowledgement that our dependence on institutions has left us vulnerable, as a society, is not misplaced in my view. The echo is familiar, as is the echo of the echo. Network poverty was worthy of more research attention than it got in recent wealthier times. Now that we really need some data on it, I suspect we’re going to be leaning heavily on the RSA study because I’m not sure there’s a great deal else to go on. So what does it mean, to a policymaker, this call to help strengthen social networks? How should policy respond? I’d start with a requirement that local policies should avoid doing damage to existing local social networks, a bit like the duty to involve. Vicki Nash suggested something similar, ‘community proofing,’ some years ago. It would mean for instance that a new supermarket or road widening or library closure could not be approved without an intelligible analysis of its impact on local social networks, an analysis that in turn would inform public consultation. It wouldn’t take us long to develop the methodology, once we had to. I’ve suggested before, the reason we don't have the methodology to demonstrate the social value of local amenities that stimulate social networks is because no political value has been placed on human processes that are informal and organic. Will that change, with all these calls to strengthen networks? Is there the political will to acknowledge that local social interactions have value which plays out in, and profoundly affects the costs of, other social provision? The requirement to avoid network damage does not have to be accompanied by a given standard of social network strength, to which all neighbourhoods should be expected to aspire. Wrong approach, don’t go there. But yes it should set us thinking about other ways of enhancing informal interaction, for example through the design of local spaces and dwellings; placing more than crudely economic value on local third places; support for local online networks; policies that discourage unnecessary car use and encourage walking; promotion of the principle of local (walkable) services and local (walkable) schools… All these will seem eminently sensible, if they don’t already, once there is government-level recognition of the essential value of informal interactions and the local social networks that they represent. All this has drawn me back to a book chapter I wrote on policy and local social relations, here, in which I noted that ‘social relationships in neighbourhoods are organic, requiring a healthy ecology that reflects informality and also requiring that most of the time formality keeps its distance.’ And in which I quoted Robert Ellikson’s observation that ‘…lawmakers who are unappreciative of the social conditions that foster informal cooperation are...

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