I am writing this on the way back from a fantastic day in Todmorden, the home of Incredible Edible Todmorden. I can't say catching the last train back to London from the bleak badlands of Stockport is my idea of a good Saturday night but the journey was certainly worth it.
I'm sure many of my readers will know about IET. It is a fantastic project based on the simple idea of local people growing food. The driving force behind the project is Pamela Warhurst. She told me the idea occurred to her and her friends after she heard a lecture by Professor Tim Lang, so there was a nice symmetry when my trip ended with me introducing Tim at a packed meeting in Todmorden's wonderfully preserved Hippodrome Theatre.
Before the event I had been shown round the IET green route which included Pam's original private rose garden, which is now a tiny public garden full of vegetables and herbs. My guide Estelle then showed me the raised beds planted by the canal, the places where standard issue municipal prickly bushes had been replaced with edible plants, and the health centre which has a border of strawberry plants maintained by a GP who used to grow strawberries in Poland as well as a raised bed planted with medicinal plants. Most of this has been done without asking for permission (or only asking for it after the planting) and all of it by volunteers.
The project is now having impacts across the town. Small businesses are being created including a soap maker who uses IET herbs. All the town's schools are involved, especially the high school where a BTEC in agriculture is proving very popular and where a local sustainable fish farming social business in being developed. And in case IET sounds like it is one of those worthy but achingly middle class green initiatives, its ideas are also being implemented by a local social housing provider.
It is hardly surprising that visitors from all over the world are flocking to Todmorden to learn more about IET. Today, people from twenty existing or putative schemes like IET gathered to share ideas, discuss experiences and develop collaboration.
For me the project packed extra impact for two reasons. The first is that RSA Fellows have played an important role in developing supporting and publicising IET. I met some fantastic Fellows during the day, the kind of people who give the Society a good name whenever they mention their association. The second is that the project fits so well with the idea that we need to close the social aspiration gap (the gap between the future people say they want and the one we are likely to build unless we are willing to change some of the ways we think and act). I have said that closing the gap means encouraging people to be 'more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social'. By getting people to think about food and the impact of our food choices, in encouraging people to grow and cook their own food, and in mobilising volunteers from all sectors of the community IET as well as demonstrable building civic capacity IET is a microcosm of the new ways of living we need.
So, it's ten to ten and we've only just left Stoke on Trent but, for once, I'm not complaining.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.