Experiments in living - RSA

Experiments in living


Local authorities are forever saying they want more powers and more freedom. They often turn out to be less good at explaining what exciting things they would like to do but which they are unable to pursue at present. In a similar vein, a reason for lack of enthusiasm for Mayors is the absence of a story about the kind of transformational change that only someone with the personal mandate of a Mayor would be able to achieve.

Consider these points:

  • Places have different assets and needs and therefore require different policies to thrive
  • People are attracted to, and excited by, places which feel like they have a distinctive identity (unless the distinction is obviously negative)
  • Diverse practices are good for systems as they foster learning and innovation and also provide signals which direct people with particular strengths and enthusiasms to the right destination
  • In many ways, despite social progress, current ways of living are dysfunctional both in terms of social good and individual life satisfaction.
  • Then add some context

    • Public sector austerity
    • Continued support for devolving more power from the national centre
    • In most areas outside the South East little faith that a rising national economic tide, if and when it comes, will be enough to turn their places around.
    • Put these together and the case grows for what might be called ‘experiments in living’. The idea is that local leaders float inspired ideas for how their place might choose to be very different from other places, not just in the policies they pursue, but the goals they set.

      Two small examples are the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma who decided his city would lead American in losing weight and Transition Town Totnes, which is exploring alternative economic models with widespread community engagement and commitment. In both cases the model of change relies on a high level of public commitment to the goal and its delivery; there is no question of politicians being able to do it on their own.

      Writing in the week of local elections I am aware that every Party claims to have a local vision but generally when these are big they are vague and when they are specific, they are small (all three major Party leaders’ speeches at their conference this year will be characterised by this dispiriting big/vague concrete/small dichotomy).

      Instead we need local leaders to start to challenge their communities with big, concrete, long term aims. Here is the kind of thing that might cut the mustard:

      • This place aims over the next ten years to move to a standard 32 hour week along with a commitment to genuinely full employment.
      • This place aims to reduce residential care to a bare minimum and to make caring for our vulnerable neighbours something to which all residents commit and in which all residents play a role.
      • This place aims to make art and creativity a specialism for all our public services and the core of our local economy.
      • This place will abolish child poverty.
      • Just imagine how much more interesting and creative England would be if every major town and city had set itself a significant and ambitious goal of this kind.

        Actually, I don’t think these are the most exciting of ideas so I challenge my reader to come up with her own.

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