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The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Beauty and influence in the new local paradigm

19th August 2015

It is brave to speak of beauty. It is doubly brave to do so in a public policy context, where there is suspicion of abstract notions, and where austerity can push aside almost all impulses other than immediate utility.

The emergence of a new paradigm of a permanently smaller public budget that makes the discussion of a public right to beauty not just brave, but urgent. The traditional civic actors – local authorities, conservation bodies – and newer ones such as the Heritage Lottery Fund – are becoming weaker. Local authorities have traditionally played a great part in defining local planning policies (although the Government is prone to nationalise aspects of planning when it suits it). In their place we see some control of public realm passing to developers, with local authorities bargaining away ownership and diversity of access and use, in exchange for order and maintenance.

A new paradigm cries out for new civic actors. ResPublica’s report points to Neighbourhood Planning as a key new framework for civic action, yet soberly documents the relative scarcity of successful neighbourhood planning to date. Faced with the redrawing of civic capabilities, the time has come to establish a wider category of local civic actors whom I call “Publicteers” – a play on the “Privateers” who equipped a ship and were licensed to sail alongside the official Navy. “Publicteers” are community groups taking over management of libraries; exercising the Community Right to Bid for local public assets; or contracting with local authorities to maintain parks. More controversially (due to the availability of generous funding), some Free School initiators could also be seen as “Publicteers”.

How do we create a political and public climate in which the “Publicteers” are legitimate and supported? For this to happen, we will need to look closely at the relationship between grassroots activity and elective democracy. The tension in this relationship is one of the factors inhibiting neighbourhood plans – some councillors may be reluctant to allow new loci of power, and (rightly or wrongly) see vanquished political foes come to life in Neighbourhood Planning Forums. It will be communally beneficial to allow in “Publicteers”, but the political comprehension of this is not as widespread as it should be, nor are the mechanisms to make it work. We will need to reassess the traditional role of local government, which if cuts continue at the current trajectory could be reduced to delivering social care and, for the rest, mostly just articulating of a framework of “local sensibilities” in which it can barely invest.

The internet has a role to play in the new paradigm, and tools are emerging to help citizens participate, mobilise and fundraise. Our set of web-based tools for engagement, “Commonplace”, is based on maps that are generated through public comments and are placed in the public domain through open internet addresses. Commonplace is helping to communicate local plans and engage people in shaping them transparently – crowdsourcing local opinion on what features in the public realm are valued and how the public realm could be improved. Some of our clients are also looking at Commonplace as a mobilisation tool, bridging the gap between visual engagement and physical involvement . And alongside new forms of representation, we are seeing some aspects of the “Sharing Economy” starting to impact on civic spaces – Spacehive (www.spacehive.com) is an excellent example. We should encourage this emerging ecosystem of web tools for civic spaces and causes and extend to how these spaces are maintained day-to-day. ResPublica’s research is clear – maintaining the quality of existing environments through removal of litter and general upkeep is critical to how people perceive the quality of their localities, and impacts on a sense of self-worth and hence capacity and willingness to engage.

Engagement is critical – not only to provide resources and legitimacy A fundamental challenge in the fragmented delivery system based on “Publicteers” is that of equality – preventing advantage mirroring advantage. The Report rightly highlights the link between higher income and greater access to beauty. Addressing inequality when central social institutions that are capable of redistribution are becoming weaker is a major challenge. The Report points to some of the answer being in improving regulation and fiscal mechanisms, to embed a drive to beauty more securely in local development and apportioning of resources. Tackling local governance so that it partners with “Publicteers” for achieving wider social goals is the corresponding democratic challenge.

“Publicteers” are not new – they have existed for decades if not centuries in the form of a myriad of social organisations and private charities. What is different now is that we need to re-invent their role after several decades in which they were eclipsed by activist and expanding central and local government. This rebirth will happen in an era of unprecedented openness and communication. Turning the openness and communication – much of it facilitated through the internet – to advantage and to shaping the new paradigm is a key challenge and opportunity. Expressing preferences about beauty, and moderating different options for the public realm, is a key test of the tools for the new paradigm. At the launch of “A Community Right to Beauty” last month, ResPublica promised to seek local government partners to conduct just such a test in the real world. Bring it on!


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