When A Country Crumbles . . .

Resilience of local communities is tested

This story has been on an interesting voyage. Nearly all my writings — rather like bread dough — benefit from overnight proving.

This time around the words have been gently maturing during my 12-day sailing trip in the Northern Ionian. In bread making there is always a risk in over-proving when excessive inflation results in a weak structure. I need not have worried. The events at home in the UK whilst I was all at sea have confirmed that this cookie — unlike the country — will not crumble.

The deep roots of the UK’s national identity crisis have been building for a long time. Like the global climate crisis and, despite the evidence, widespread awareness of this perilous state is still not fully grasped — even as the country falls apart.

When many despair for continuity of institutions for justice, defence, health, trade, education, employment and research, and when individuals feel powerless, it is through local communities that some semblance of sanity can be restored.

The seekers of simplicity — the theorists who aspire to make sense of the world and all who sail therein — have been trying to put their worlds to rights since the ancient Greek Democratis inspired Roman philosopher Lucretius. In rather more recent times their disciples, these advocates of ‘atomism’, may now be regarded by 21st century economists as ancient geeks.

Atomism assumes societies are made up of ‘a collection of self-interested and largely self-sufficient individuals, operating as separate atoms’ but the net effect of top-down atomistic policy has been to enforce ‘a crushing and collective passiveness on the population’.

Sticking Together

The objection to ‘social atomisation’ was that it was wrong to regard citizens as individual units to be treated uniformly because, as diverse, unique and set in different contexts, there was not enough common ground — insufficient society, rather than “no such thing” — to pursue wellbeing.

From a high command perspective this objection to atomisation threatened to be more than inconvenient. The objections might have made national government too complex — even for XL wizards — and was best ignored; hence the increasingly centralised culture of the UK.

When I asked, recently, How Local is Your Local Plan?the responses showed how downgrading Local Authorities to Local Agencies (though not officially articulated as such) was resented, particularly across England. Some would even attribute much of the 2016 Brexit impetus to recent inattention to sub-national economic policy and central ignorance of the ‘left behind’ cast-off people and places.

It is with some irony that the fervour behind muscular ‘on your bike’ individualism is now much diminished with support mostly reduced to a fast-fading tribe of toffs who know their place as superior and are determined to keep it that way.

Simplistic social atomisation could never really succeed except in the minds of an elite with no comprehension of contexts other than their own (oft inherited) pathways to success and with a very narrow view of wellbeing values dominated by wealth accumulation. Hence the scorn they poured on Scandinavian socialist regimes with high taxes to invest in wider community benefits. Ironically, and in glorious contrast to last century’s economic rulebook, it turned out that the best place to become rich is in those very same Scandinavian regimes.

At a time of national identity crisis many despair for continuity of institutions for justice, defence, health, trade, education and research. The common refrain is ‘What can I do?’ and the stock answer, Democracy (free and fair electoral systems), can no longer be trusted in the psy-ops connected world.

When individuals feel helpless, however, it is through local communities that sanity can be restored and the atomising disrupters rebuffed.

Communities are often misunderstood. Each and every one of us may belong to several communities — clusters and networks of mates, workmates, partners, clubs, friends, neighbours — gangs of every persuasion and often, but not always, based on location.

Local communities, bound by proximity, usually have common ground — essential shops, the doctor’s surgery, a school or library, a foodbank, the church or the pub. When all else seems to be falling apart it is the resilience of these hubs that bring folk together and their relevance is refreshed.

Holiday Hunger, Summer Reading And Other Challenges

At the heart of many communities, local libraries classically illustrate the ravages of austerity policies. Some may now only survive with assistance from unpaid volunteers but they provide much more than books. From, tiny tots chanting nursery rhymes to young coders making networks of sensors or discovering new tools in maker-spaces, the great appeal of libraries is their open neutrality. They belong to everyone and their vigour reflects local community cohesion.

Across the UK, libraries are now well into their annual programme for young readers.

For many the Summer Reading Challenge will be their very first library encounter and, hopefully, the start of a regular routine that will serve them well.

Summer is also the time for local volunteers to listen to these young readers and marvel at their perceptions. Although this year’s theme is ‘The Space Chase’ (celebrating the 50th moon landing anniversary) these readers are not all budding scientists or engineers. What they most enjoy is engagement — getting deeply wrapped up in stories, discoveries, adventures and characters — and for some the books are a chance to escape from dull domestic routine.

For their parents, grandparents and carers the local library is also a lifeline during long summer days when distant destinations and activities are often unaffordable or impossible to fit into working lives. Holiday Hunger is also a very real thing and many a household is grateful that Gran’s garden is now overflowing with their annual glut of beans, courgettes and tomatoes. As kit costs rise, libraries can also be great places to host the ‘back-to-school’ uniform swap shop.

At a time when much of the country is burdened with uncertainties, the enthusiasms and insights of young readers are hugely reassuring. We adults may have made a mess of the economy, the climate, trade ecosystems and social policies, but young bright minds are limbering up to make better sense of it all. Some volunteers for the Summer Reading Challenge are still waiting to hear if their exam results will secure university places — and again it is these young folk who’ll be tomorrow’s community leaders and sort the mess they’ll inherit.

Libraries may be illustrative of community action but are only the tip of extraordinarily energised towers of talent set to obstruct the atomisers of passivity.

Unsung by a national media obsessed with the burblings of Westminster bubbles, and regardless of any central direction, all parts of the UK can boast examples of local folk identifying and attending to local priorities. The examples are legion and, no doubt, the atomistic simplifiers would argue against overlapping inefficiencies — and, yet again, entirely miss the point of focusing local fuel on local priorities. Here, in no particular order, is just a very brief selection:

The Good Things Foundation–a network of over 5,000 local community partners who help people improve their lives online.

Community Organisers– providing training for aspiring local leaders across England.

Groop– offering comprehensive administrative services for clubs and voluntary organisations.

Radical Help– Hilary Cottam’s account of her local projects aimed at reform of the welfare system.

Happy City - Their ‘Thriving Places Index’ is designed to provide a robust reporting framework that shows the conditions for wellbeing at a local level.

Knowle West Media Centre– an example (from Bristol) of creative local community action.

None of these are new innovations — it usually takes at least seven years to become an overnight star — but all are busy battling their way to triumph over despair.

It is at the local level that real needs and priorities can be more clearly seen. It should be no surprise how much energy and enthusiasm can be mobilised by community activists. Essentially they owe little or nothing to central government or partisan politicians. They often take pride in succeeding ‘in spite of the system’. Sure, it is not ‘efficient’ but is very effective — umpteen different locally focused organisations active with overlapping missions but rarely contradicting each other in their pursuit of greater community wellbeing.

Courtesy of Leeds University we now have a handle on the extent to which nearly all nations are woefully adrift from the criteria for sustainability at a time of climate crisis. Looking the other way — within countries — hopefully researchers will soon be even better equipped to help local communities identify local priorities.

At a time of national identity crisis, when the whole country is crumbling, many despair for continuity of institutions for justice, defence, health, education, employment and research. When central government seems hell-bent on destroying years of collaborative investment there remains this faint flickering glimmer of light.

When individuals feel helpless, it is through their local communities that sanity can be restored by rejecting the myth that top-down central government can add much, if any, meaningful value.

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David Brunnen on Governance (Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges} PLUS reflections on life in Portchester — the place that he calls home.

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David Brunnen on Governance (Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges} PLUS reflections on life in Portchester — the place that he calls home.