Developing a shared framework for a hopeful future
by Hugh Eliis
In November 2021, a group of ten people gathered together in Letchworth Garden City for two days of conversation. We began with a clear sense of our collective failure to address systemic poverty and inequality. We concluded broadly that we need to develop a shared framework for a hopeful future. The lack of such a framework has led to a fragmented and often competitive approach to addressing the major social problems of our time. Even if organisations that share progressive values continue to work separately, it would help if they had a common point of departure.
Where we are now
We have lost sight of shared and practical pathways to better lives. For five decades, those who might loosely call themselves progressives have been reduced to making the world slightly less bad through a series of fragmented rearguard actions. There was general agreement at Letchworth that the progressive project in politics has stalled and there was frustration and bewilderment about our inability in all our various organisations to tackle the severe challenges around inequality and climate change that scar our society and to cooperate effectively to make change. The result is that there is no credible alternative to a system that doesn’t work either for people or for the planet upon which we depend. Put simply, life doesn’t work for most people most of the time.
Yet the components of a hopeful future based on human thriving are all out there. There are so many excellent ideas and local projects, from local food to foundational economies. But they are not leading to wider change. We are not collectively telling a story about hopeful and sustainable lives in ways which make a difference to communities in desperate need of a positive future.
For all of us at Letchworth, this was not a negative realisation but a healthy recognition of the need to do things differently. Many of us believe we have only one last throw of the dice both personally and in terms of the critical issues, such as climate change, affecting our society.
Cooperation is key
Without significant resources or political influence over the current government, our project rests instead on the idea that cooperation is the key to developing a new approach. There is a whole industry of organisations working to identify the problems that communities face. But we lack practical solutions and there is often a damaging and wasteful competition for both funding and media time that dissipates the message about the need for change. At the same time, those working on successful community projects at the local level are frustrated that they cannot achieve the systemic change necessary to grow and spread the ideas that are making a real practical difference to people’s lives.
Our hunch is that cooperation could lead to a much more successful alignment between analysis of social problems and a compelling story about practical solutions. There is a real tension between the urgent need of community activists for practical tools now and the need to work out, often in the academic and intellectual tradition, how those tools can address the underlying political economy of our society. Bridging these two legitimate needs implies, for example, both a detailed understanding of poverty and immediate solutions to hunger.
We are not yet sure what the outputs of this project will look like. We began with no fixed view except that we need a new approach. Our most significant contribution so far has been to listen to all the participants in our conversation and to realise that we all have various pieces of the jigsaw. There is as yet much less agreement about the overall picture that these pieces might lead us to. So, this project is not about inventing a clever new solution but about trying to align these elements.
Aligning three ‘magnets’
The Letchworth conversation can be seen as fitting into three themes. We can also describe these as three magnets because each can attract our attention and this is often at the expense of the others.
- The problem magnet: what’s wrong with the world? Most of the effort of the larger charitable trusts is devoted to problem identification. Setting out the problems and their causes has become a powerful industry and is often conducted in isolation from any narrative around solutions or change. As a sector, we get stuck to the problems magnet partly because identifying problems is much less politically risky.
- The solutions magnet: how we can practically solve these problems? The practical solutions magnet is relatively small in the wider civil society debate about change. It is often represented by individual beacons of brilliant community activity but this rarely aggregates into a collective proposition for systemic change. There are other actors in the solutions game but interestingly these are often presented as almost ‘trademark’ approaches by individuals and organisations.
- The change magnet: how do we influence established political institutions and wider civil society? The making change happen magnet is obviously attractive for many progressive organisations, although current approaches rarely result in lasting change. It’s interesting to note, however, that this magnet is often disconnected from a holistic sense of what change would look like. It often focuses on one-off moments around a single issue (like free school meals or Brexit).
Aligning these three magnets could lead to more effective change. If change is a three act play, then each act has to be part of a compelling whole. That implies the need for an overall framework or story, which we don’t yet have.
The purpose of this framework would be threefold:
- To generate consensus about a shared approach to a positive future
- To bring coherence to a range of solutions by providing a simple story about holistic change
- To bridge the gap between those thinking about systemic change and the needs of communities for urgent and hopeful pathways by communicating solutions in a practical and useful way
The garden city legacy
In thinking about the elements of this framework, we used the original garden city ideas developed by Ebenezer Howard as a starting point – an approach that proved to be surprisingly robust. In doing so, we explored three broad elements of the garden city:
- The promotion of human thriving as the core objective of how we organise society
- A vibrant democracy which both supports human thriving and provides the basis for social organisation
- A mutualised economy organised to support human thriving and democracy
What follows is just a sketch of each broad element. The next stage is to develop a more detailed background paper on each.
1 Human thriving
Our shared task was to construct the conditions of a life which enable human beings to thrive, to be human. So we began with the welfare of human beings. This means accepting people as diverse and complex as well as creative and cooperative, and seeking to organise communities to enable (but not force) people to meet these complex needs. This point of departure is in stark contrast to our current approach where we begin with a rigid economic model and force most people to live off the leftovers of a system that extracts values from communities. For example, we are much more concerned with upholding land values than with organising places that support basic human health.
One major part of the next stage will be to define more fully what human thriving might mean. What we already have is a clear acknowledgement that to thrive as a human requires a powerful relationship with nature and with each other. A focus on human thriving assumes that human beings are part of nature and not separate from it. We are dependent on nature for all aspects of our lives so to prioritise human thriving is to prioritise a sustainable planet. The two ideas are indivisible. Thinking about thriving also means understanding that to be human is to be social, to be part of the collective life of a community.
2 A vibrant democracy
We discussed how democracy can no longer be taken as read in our thinking about the future. As a result, we have to say why democracy is important in principle and useful in practice. We came up with two answers to these questions. First, democracy is a vital fulfilment of the basic human need to have agency over key aspects of life and so key to human thriving. Second, democracy is the best practical way of organising human affairs.
The garden city idea was helpful in offering a vision of democracy based on self-organisation. This meant that many aspects of daily life were subject to the democratic control of the community through cooperative and municipal organisation. Because the assets of a garden city were in the hands of the community, local democracy was meaningful in shaping the decisions that mattered to people.
Some complex questions arose about how far community self-organisation can go and the enabling role of the state. Letchworth Garden City suffered from undercapitalisation and, as a result, slower than hoped for development, and there were real disagreements among the personalities involved in the garden city. This led Frederic Osborn, who helped create Welwyn Garden City, to see the state as having a central enabling role in new communities. It was that assumption, influenced by the Fabians, that shaped the new towns programme. In the process, and despite Osborn’s best efforts, postwar new towns lost a crucial element of community ownership. The question about what role the state should play in enabling community development of any kind remains unanswered, but the prospect of a helpful and enabling government supporting communities is a tantalising one.
3 A mutualised economy
Dreaming of utopia is easy but how do we pay for it? In the broadest terms, if human thriving is our focus, then we have to flip the economy so the profits from those activities core to human thriving are not extracted for private gain but instead reinvested for the benefit of the whole community. In that sense the garden city represented a classic mutualised approach closely related to contemporary notions of community wealth building and control of the ‘foundational economy’. These are the broad values of the cooperative movement as applied to a wide slice of local economic activity. In that sense Howard’s ideas prefigured all the contemporary debates about the creation of ‘social value’.
This approach is not ‘anti’ the private sector in any ideological or dogmatic way. The garden city idea is based on a mixed economy, with space for private enterprise, but where the core activities necessary for human thriving are conducted on a social rather than anti-social basis. Profits were to be reinvested in the development process and in a form of garden city welfare state. The early development of Letchworth Garden City, in which all key retail, utilities and leisure activities, along with land and housing, were mutualised, gives a glimpse of the ambition. Many European countries currently have much more diverse approaches to homes, energy and food, encompassing social and municipal enterprise, than we have in the UK.
Taken together these three elements could be the basis for a shared approach to a hopeful future, a common framework to enable better lives made powerful because each element is capable of a practical outcome. We know this because some communities are already delivering these ideas.
A set of important concerns were raised during our conversation about what power this framework for a hopeful future is meant to have over people’s lives. On the one hand there is a real fear that any state-led framework or ‘pattern’ ends in some kind of ideological hell, a dystopia of social control. While no one involved in this conversation wants that to be the outcome, we are still working on how to describe the role of the framework in shaping lives. The aim is to support diverse human needs, so it’s not a set of rules or ethics, or any sort of end state blueprint, but a way of understanding the key foundations of the good life. It identifies the key questions that any society has to answer and recognises that answers will be different in different places and cultures and will evolve over time. Crucially the conversation assumed that communities would have a stronger role in self-organisation and that the state needs to nurture and enable community action, even if this would require a radical rethink of how Whitehall can be useful.
Powerful organic examples of how to talk about the framework came up in our discussion, for example as a trellis upon which people grow their lives in diverse ways. At this stage it is probably best to describe it as a ‘pattern’ for practical hope, a root stock for better lives.
Another important question relates to the role of place. Our hunch is that painting a picture of positive change needs to be done through the discipline of real places. How will people’s lives, homes, neighbourhoods and communities be different? This is a muscle we have forgotten how to exercise but it transforms dry individual questions about the future into a story, a picture of real lives lived in real places.
There are two main objectives for the next phase of this project. The first is to develop the three elements of the framework for a hopeful future, sketched out above, into a more detailed background paper, and find ways to communicate a simple and compelling story.
The second aspect of the project will be to get wider endorsement for this approach. If we can do this, we will have achieved a common foundation for the policy debate in the run-up to the next general election. More importantly, we will have generated a longer-term consensus about the need for a cooperative approach to setting out a practical and hopeful future for people and communities.
Hugh Ellis is Policy Director at the Town and Country Planning Association.