Demonstrate don’t dictate: Bournville 125 and a new settlement
by Jack Jeffrey
As we lurch from one unprecedented crisis to another, it’s easy to conclude that the many problems we currently face can only be managed. The best we can hope for is something less bad, not something positively good. Last month, Jack Jeffrey attended two conferences on how we develop an ambitious, hopeful vision capable of transcending and replacing the broken systems responsible for our perilous situation. The TCPA conference, hosted by the Bournville Village Trust on 13 July 2023, emerged out of a two-year process, including a group convened by Rethinking Poverty, to mark the 125th anniversary of the publication of Ebenezer Howard’s ground-breaking book Tomorrow. The Compass event, held a few days later on 17 July, was organised to discuss the big ideas behind what it’s calling a New Settlement.
Imagining a new future often involves looking back. Sometimes for influence – how did they do things better in the past – but more often for reassurance. History reassures us that change is more than just possible, it is inevitable (although certainly not inevitably good). The ideas, priorities and organising principles that shape society are only ever contingent, never fixed, there to be remade and refashioned. It’s in moments where this has happened previously that we look to for inspiration: if they can do it, why can’t we.
Not much else in these polarised times unites people more than the belief that the 1945 Labour government reconstructed and improved fundamental aspects of British life. Paradigms seemed to shift, and, at least for a time, they stayed shifted. Both in the minds of a mostly unpolitical public and committed activists, 1945 is one of the examples we have in a library of what real change looks and feels like. And it was mentioned more than once at two conferences organised recently, by the TCPA (Town and Country Planning Association) and Compass respectively, on the urgent need for political and social change.
For all its achievements, that post-war political project may not be the most useful lodestar for our current moment. As former Labour speechwriter/strategist, Marc Stears argues, ‘Attlee’s governing project was infected with hubris….[It] believed almost anything could be achieved with a bit of expertise, a proper plan, and confident action led by Whitehall and Westminster.’ And that ‘this betrayed a belief that experts, officials and politicians knew what the country needed and how it got there, and ordinary people did not’.
Indeed, it was in this way that some participants, myself included, at both conferences, were left a little uneasy. Who were we – a group of academics, policy wonks, politicians, consultants, private developers and a few community organisers – to decide what constitutes a better future. Despite a proviso that we were not designing blueprints, in the end, the temptation to formulate lists of policies was overwhelming – Universal Basic Income, wealth taxes, a 4-day week etc. The instinct to plan is understandable, but this kind of thinking is also based on ‘an unexplored belief’, mentioned by Sue Goss in the opening session at the TCPA event, that policy ‘levers work, that they are connected to something, and that the state is something you can just slide inside and start pushing buttons.’
In the end, systemic change is always more profound and subtle. Profound in so far as it involves not just policy proposals, but entirely different, sometimes new, ways of thinking and doing. And subtle in that it involves ordinary people, on the ground, actually doing stuff, demonstrating that alternatives are feasible. Proving concepts or principles was exactly what the Tredegar Medical Aid Society did in the late 19th Century when it started providing free health care for local people in South Wales. It evolved from the vast network of mutual aid organisations that had sprung up through working class self-help, and as the social historian Colin Wards points out, was the inspiration for the NHS, not central government.
Citing this example, Imandeep Kaur described the genesis of Civic Square, a community organisation building and investing in civic, social and green infrastructure. First established as a challenge to developers regenerating Birmingham, and after a number of iterative phases, it is now working to share practically how the climate transition can be ‘designed, owned and governed…in systemic, tangible and participatory ways.’ Without suggesting that the neighbourhood was the only scale of change, she talked passionately about how communities, often diminished as groups who need to be ‘engaged and consulted’, are the key element in the process of a wider societal shift. It is here where the ‘deep demonstrators’ or prototyping projects, are rehearsing the future, providing examples of new systems that can be shared and repurposed.
Rather than be told what to do or wait for permission or, God forbid, publish another policy report or strategy document, the trick seems to be to just get on and do it. That’s the approach that Pam Warhurst and a group of local residents in Todmorden took when they started Incredible Edible in 2008. All over the small Northern market town, in the ‘unloved places’, they planted vegetables for everyone to share. Through the power of small action, and admittedly a lot of media attention, the movement inspired a network of similar groups all keen to reimagine our food systems, and our relationship with disused or underused land. Further to the issue of land – who has it? how do we use it? – Gunther Jancke from the London Community Land Trust advocated for taking land off the market. As a response to rising housing costs, the trust was conceived as a grassroots campaign to make sure land is put to the benefit of the community. It provides permanently affordable homes by linking house prices with local wages rather than the market rate. Revaluating our underlying assumptions – the human architecture that shapes what we think is possible – Kate MacDonald and Gill Hughes, describing a formidable programme of community activism, likewise drew attention to the concept of a time bank, a mechanism that enables people to share skills, knowledge and support.
Practice begets principles. And through all of these experiments, and many others, in doing things differently and, importantly, more collaboratively, a bold and radical future, at both conferences, was made to feel entirely possible. Not without precedent, the TCPA was founded, initially as the Garden City Association, with a powerful vision of ‘the good society’ and an emphasis on how ideas can be practically useful in real places immediately. Unlike the Fabian instinct to dictate and manage, the original Garden City movement, following on from the ethical socialist tradition that greatly influenced Ebenezer Howard, was more concerned with questions of democracy and power. Compass, and the many other inspiring partner organisations committed to a better future, similarly converged around democracy, very broadly conceived, as a first-order issue. Rather than being told what to do, this is a vision where people will be equipped to own and lead the future themselves, grounded in practical hope and not abstract ideas.
Jack Jeffrey is developing ideas on a good society for Rethinking Poverty. He can be reached at email@example.com
 Stears, M, (2021) Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again, Harvard University Press, p114
 Ward, C, (2004), Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, p34-35