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So now we know for sure. If we had any doubts that
maybe life wouldn't be so different under a coalition government,
David Cameron vanquished them yesterday as he laid out our dire
financial situation in all its hideous detail (although we still
don't know where the cuts will fall!). Cutting the deficit will be
a painful process for all of us. Yet when the Prime Minister says
we're all in it together, you could forgive people for feeling that
some of us are in it more than others - particularly as his speech
came on the same day a Downing Street review into poverty was
announced. Government is aware of these accusations and our new lib
dem deputy prime minister is at pains to refer to 'progressive
cuts' and avoid parallels with Margaret Thatcher's 'sink or swim'
economics. People point to the successful models of liberal
administrations in Canada and Sweden, where massive reductions in
public expenditure were broadly supported by residents, because
they were engaged in the process of deciding where the axe should
For that to work here, we need to make people feel they have
some control over decision-making. Engaging communities in public
sector reforms is something I've blogged about in previous posts,
and it's vital that their involvement is meaningful. But perhaps
there are additional benefits too. Perhaps we can start to make up
for austerity by turning to community. Getting to know your
neighbours, meeting new people, finding a shared interest in the
neighbourhood - these are all really worthwhile activities which we
all value highly when we do get involved. It's a bit of a cliche
too but I predict we'll start to appreciate shared community spaces
like parks, gardens, wildlife areas and woodlands. Places that we
can meet up, go for a walk, take the kids - these will have a new
importance and resonance for communities in the next couple of
The recent announcements from the Department of
Communities and Local Government changing the classification of
gardens from 'previously residential land', ie brownfield sites,
seems to be proving very popular with residents and local
authorities alike. In so doing Government has given councils the
ability to reject planning developments in areas like gardens,
applications for which are massively on the increase from one in
ten to one in four between 1997 and 2008. Despite the 'garden
grabbing' rhetoric designed to appeal to the rural and surburban
middle classes worried about the increasing pressure to find space
to build thousands of desperately needed affordable homes, this
represents real recognition of the importance of green space. In
the past year or so the vital role of gardens and wild spaces has
fallen off the agenda a bit so it's really welcome to see these
areas prized as the assets they are for the whole community.
However whilst it's important to place a premium on
green space we must make sure that the debate is kept distinct and
separate from the issue of housing. It must not distract from
tackling the housing crisis. Within a few days of CLG's
announcement the National Housing Federation warned that house
building was facing a very uncertain future due to cutbacks and
planning changes. The millions of new homes required to tackle the
4.5m people on waiting lists are not currently being built and
urgent carrots are needed to ensure that affordable family homes
are planned as well as luxury one bed apartments. The issue of
green space and all the benefits it brings must not be used as a
reason not to build. Else the communities that are able to enjoy
the greenery will be few and far between.
The Council of Europe has recently released a report
calling for the ban of the ‘Mosquito’ teen dispersal device, which
received very little coverage while the media’s attention was split
between events in Toronto, South Africa and Wimbledon towards the
end of last week. Police Minister Nick Herbert has since rejected
these calls to ban the device, saying it was up to Local
Authorities dealing with anti-social behaviour to decide, but
conceded he may reconsider if it could be proven young people’s
health were being damaged.
For those not familiar with the Mosquito, it’s a
device designed to discourage groups of young people from
congregating together in public areas by emitting a high-pitched
noise audible only to those under the age of 25. This
disproportionate approach to reducing anti-social behaviour strikes
me as being similar to taking a sledgehammer to an ant.
The problem with the Mosquito is that it labels all
young people as potential troublemakers and treats them
accordingly. Imagine how those over 25 would feel if we were
treated similarly. Demonising young people doesn’t solve the
problem of anti-social behaviour - in Groundwork’s experience
building their confidence and self-esteem, while helping them to
understand how to get on with other people of different ages and
backgrounds and develop life skills is the best way to achieve
this. It’s not rocket science - viewing everyone under the age of
25 with suspicion is not the best way of encouraging community
spirit. And it's not the way we will build a Big Society.
The Commission for Climate Change (CCC) have today called for
major policy changes to meet the UK’s climate change targets -
which, given the issue seemed to have fallen down the agenda at the
recent G20 meeting - I feel is very timely. I found Lord
Adair Turner’s comments very interesting. Lord Turner, Chair
of the CCC, commented that the recession has created the illusion
progress is being made to reduce carbon emissions, but a step
change is needed in a number of areas, particularly home
insulation, to secure a low-carbon future.
Today also saw Chris Huhne at the Department for Energy &
Climate Change demand energy suppliers work harder to insulate
lofts and walls to ensure low-income households benefit from these
measures, which can offer significant energy bill savings.
This is welcome news, but I would like to see energy efficiency
advice for the most vulnerable get as personal as possible.
The question is, are energy suppliers best placed to provide
this advice? Groundwork has been helping people on
low-incomes reduce their bills and get more heat for their money
for several years, and have found that
providing bespoke advice from someone they trust is a very
effective way to change behaviour.
As Lord Turner suggests, a lot of people have had to learn how to
save energy because times are tight. If the most vulnerable
are given personalised support to understand how energy efficiency
measures can save them money while also reducing carbon emissions,
then that learnt behaviour is likely to continue when the economy
picks up – and ensure as many as possible are able to participate
in the Green Deal of the future.