Seldom are regeneration measures designed to benefit the community and are normally the result of backdoor discussions between big business and local authority apparatchiks.
Think I’m being too harsh or conspiratorial?
The place in which I grew up, Pitsea, a small town in the east of the Basildon district of south Essex, has recently seen the approval of a £30 million scheme which will knock down an aldi supermarket, a pound shop, a fish and chip restaurant which doubles up as a entertainment house at the weekends, and the local swimming pool which has been there for as long as I can remember.
In its place will be a Morrisons supermarket and a large car park. This will accompany the large Tesco superstore 10 minutes away – which when it was first built was the largest in Europe – with its large car park and 24-hour opening times.
The area has a Lidl and various small chains – it is very well served by shops already, but not a swimming pool, for which a train or bus journey is needed to Basildon, that is until it is used during the Olympics when I gather it will be near-impossible to use.
Opposing the regeneration measures were 1,600 signatories – but they were ignored. For perspective, in this country if an e-petition receives 100,000 signatures a Commons debate is guaranteed. That is 100,000 inhabitants in a country of around 62,000,000. Yet, in a town with a population of around 25,000, a signature count of 1,600 is too few for consideration. Farcical.
Recently a block of luxury apartments have been built to serve weekday commuters going to London for work, who are most likely to have homes elsewhere in the country, and plans are being settled to knock down the remains of the Railway Pub which was housed in one of the few landmarks in Pitsea – a house built by Harold George Howard, a local businessman in the area operating in the early 1900s, who wanted to make Pitsea “something special”.
But today Pitsea is a design of community destruction. The social capital accrued with the swimming pool will now be lost, replaced by another supermarket. People living together in the ‘big society’ dream is under attack from building apartments with the sole intention of serving those who are never here.
No conspiracy then. While the government, rightly, wants us to participate more in our local communities and curb reliance on the state as a co-parent, under their noses regeneration measures seek only to make this harder, in working class towns like the one I was raised in.
I’m sure this is the case in other areas too, and I’d be delighted and horrified to hear such stories. But is it the case that this government will end up looking more like the enemy, than the facilitator, of the big society?
Continuing what seems to be this week’s Economist-watch, there was an article on Cameron’s Big Society ideas, and how, despite myriad flaws with the concept, this part of the Tory manifesto simply wasn’t going to go away.
What the Economist doesn’t note, of course, is that with regard to public institutions such as libraries, this ‘renaissance of voluntarism’ (I kid you note – that’s a direct quote) basically means trying to replace paid experts with ‘volunteers’, to do the same job – thus killing jobs and strong unions in one go, and getting rid, incidentally, of the one way in which anyone other than the government could determine how our libraries are run – by trade union action.
That’s by the by.
What interested me was the way in which the Big Society is presented as regards democratic theory. Everyone knows how representative bodies work. We elect people on the basis of what we think they will do. The Economist presents Big Society as aiming to push one step past this, devolving power to “nano” level.
“Traditionally, [giving powers away] meant beefing up Britain’s important local authorities. But Mr Cameron wants to push power further down, to the ‘nano’ level. This vision sees parents helping to set up new schools, public-sector workers running their own services as co-operatives, and small groups of people volunteering on local projects.”
I would like to take a shot at arguing that this method is far from more democratic than the alternative of strong local authorities. Tory Co-ops and the small groups (or large groups, as Paul has taken to pieces the Tory ‘5000 community organisers‘ policy, billed before the General Election) of volunteers, this blog has dealt with at length. What about the parents helping to set up new schools?
Beyond basic educational concerns (e.g. the integrity of the scientific method, or preventing History relapsing into a paean to Empire, with the concomitant racism), I fail to see that allowing different sections of the community to hive off their children is especially democratic. Certainly in theory it gives a great deal of power to the parents, though as Fiona Millar rightly said in a recent Guardian debate, in reality this usually translates to devolving power to some charity or private provider, with parents unlikely even to be involved in choosing or supervising the headmaster.
But in order to do this, it’s directing resources away from other state schools in the area. So the plan risks creating excess capacity at the expense of other children. There’s also the point that each school has an optimum number of pupils; enough to make economies of scale, few enough to render the school environment safe and manageable. Free schools make this impossible to plan for.
The argument, made by Anders Hultin, chief executive of Gems UK, a private company intending to step into this scheme to start opening schools for profit, is that if the market was allowed to handle the Tory policy, schools would only open in areas with pre-existing demand. I find fault with this argument – demand doesn’t just exist, it can also be whipped up artificially. This is what advertising is for.
So there are ‘externalities’, if you like, to allowing for the willy-nilly creation of new schools (and Cameron’s talk of the actual buildings these free schools might use makes my toes curl). There’s also the more vague externality of permitting further segregation of the school-age populace. Further privatisation of education will be felt in the opposition created between the success of ‘my child’ and the success of every child.
Rather than fix the state system, which should also be much more accountable, via elected school boards and local education authorities, there’s the impetus to simply jump ship. Better education requires more money, intelligently spent, and high-quality teaching. But no more money is being offered and it should be a warning bell that the Dept. of Education is advertising free schools in the same way as Academies: as being exempt from the national collective bargaining agreements with NASUWT and the NUT.
If democracy is the theory that every person should have a say in decisions which affect them, then allowing people to hive themselves into free schools or, or be scaremongered into hiving themselves off, violates that principle. The effects of that decision run far beyond any parents who might be involved, to the whole teaching profession, to the whole of the education system and to whole local areas where allocation of funding must be altered.
In fact, if Academies are anything to go by, and Gove seems to think they’re a useful parallel, then the very parents and teachers responsible for free schools might end up feeling just as excluded.