Monday, 8 September 2014

...go and make where we live even more fantastic than it is already

A while ago I wrote about the little boy who built a little library in his front yard (it was America where the word 'garden' presumably has another meaning). Well the blogger who brought that story to my attention has another story of the busybody - this time about that quintessential institution of US suburbia, the lemonade stall:

This time, it’s a more timeless marker of community that’s emerged as the source of conflict. Specifically, it’s 12 year old T.J. Guerrero and his Dunedin, Florida lemonade stand.

T.J. is, by all appearances, a pretty savvy young entrepreneur. Toying with and measuring the performance of different hours and locations, he ultimately settled on 3-7pm and secured permission to operate in front of a neighbor’s house with desirable, intersection proximity — something that didn’t sit well with nearby resident Doug Wilkey. Wilkey calls the stand an “illegal business” and has contacted the city on at least four occasions in an effort to get it shut down.

Now to give the local council its due, it has made clear it's not in the business of shutting down T.J.'s enterprise (although the local planner's response suggests this is a 'won't' rather than 'can't' decision). But, as I'm sure my fellow councillors will appreciate, there is a sort of person who wants that perfectly ordered, directed and controlled garden city environment free from anything enterprising or unusual and certainly anything noisy or involving children.

The blogger here - Scott Doyon - makes another interesting observation:

Politicians, especially local ones, tend to require some level of political cover when it comes to taking on new ideas. They need constituents organized in support of shaking things up. 

The big problem here is that people like Doug Wilkey are the people us local councillors hear most from. They're at the neighbourhood forum, they attend the parish council meetings (indeed their enthusiasm for attending means they often end up as members of that parish council), they write letters - these days emails, even tweets - of complaint to local politicians and officials. As local councillors we can always get that 'political cover' Scott describes by opposing things, by saying 'no'.

A few days ago I went to Bradford Council's Regulatory and Appeals Committee at the conclusion of a fairly long process. And, for the first time ever, spoke in favour of a major housing development - not because we're all ecstatic in Cullingworth about 238 new houses but because supporting the development meant we could get a new village hall and pre-school some time ahead of hell freezing over. The balance of benefit for Cullingworth was better with the new development than without.

But doing this was only possible because the existing village hall charity has provided that 'political cover' - doing the community survey, collecting names for a petition and raising awareness about the need for a new hall. Without that 'cover' I would either have been stood there opposing the development or else sat at home with a cup of tea and a good book.

This may be very different from that lemonade stall but the truth is that both situations are about how we respond to initiative and how just a few people can have a disproportionate impact - good or bad - on a community. And it seems to me that, if we want the few people to be positive, innovative and fun, then we have to look for those in our communities that want to do something rather than those who want to stop something happening. We need people who respond to what others want to do by saying something like, "how do we make what you want happen without causing a problem for other people", rather than the more commonplace, "the rules don't allow that to happen so you can't do that".

Parish and town councils illustrate this problem perfectly - for every parish that's embracing neighbourhood planning, promoting new initiatives and dragging the district council into acting for the community's good, there's another that sees its job as turning the regulatory wheel, stop change and seek to control individual initiative. Sadly 'not invented here' syndrome is all too common in local government and we see that too often the first response to any proposal is 'no'.

In the end, communities are made worse by people like Doug Wilkey and better by people like T.J. Guerrero. Yet many of our suburban communities are filled with and dominated by Doug Wilkey sorts - described so well by Jane Jacob's in her criticism of 'garden cities':

His aim was the creation of self sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.

Where councils - at whatever level - adopt this outlook, they create lifeless places where the interpretation and enforcement of the rules dominates, where communities are more concerned with policing their neighbours than with creating something with those neighbours.

Although Scott Doyon talks about 'shaking things up', I'm not really sure that's what its about either. You probably like your house but that doesn't mean you've no plans to change things - some new curtains, a speaker system for the telly, some new kitchenware or a makeover for the front bed in the garden. What you don't want - or need - is some sort of comprehensive regeneration, a massive change making the place completely different.

Take this into the community and it becomes a case of making the place even better not some sort of abstract 'change'. Maybe the War Memorial's looking a little in need of attention or the high street could benefit from flowers, flags and bunting. Perhaps the recreation ground needs better drainage or the football club new kit. A hundred little things that make the place that little better, more of a place, more of a community.

So if you want to know what your parish council should be doing (and how to get your district councillors involved) it's a load of little betterments that show the place is loved and cherished. The neighbourhood plan isn't just a grand thing for the planning authority to use, it's a set of ideas - changes, initiatives, actions - that the community can get on with doing. It should gather together all the T.J. Guerrero types and say to them: "here's a list of stuff to do, it's not definitive, go and make where we live even more fantastic than it is already and have some fun while you're doing it."


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