On meeting our individual and collective needs (part 3)

At their best, then, places create: parks and open spaces safe to walk in, houses to make a home in, businesses to work in, town centres to shop in, groups to participate in, good schools to learn in… they enable citizens to thrive individually and collectively. It is the balance between the individual and the collective and the institutions and our places that is nuanced and different everywhere. What is appropriate and works for Nuneaton is unlikely to be the same as what is appropriate in Newquay or Norwich. How do these issues play out?

In our own lives

What are the core things we need as individuals to have ‘agency’ in our lives – the ability to participate, make decisions, earn, look after ourselves and our families? Crucial elements are the education and skills we gain, both formal and informal. As we will work later into our lives the idea of a single career is becoming increasingly obsolete; how can we keep learning in order to pivot careers or do new things? Not only that, but the nature of employment is changing⁠1 in terms of security and volatility. Our income and wealth supports our ability to meet our material needs, access housing, weather financial shocks, plan for the future and realise our dreams. Yet this future is unevenly distributed: “all of the £2.7 trillion rise in wealth since 2007 has been harvested by those over the age of 45, two thirds by those over the age of 65. By contrast, those aged 16-34 have seen their wealth decline by around 10% over the period. Sensitive to all these issues – individual, community and place – is our health and well-being, as Marmot⁠2 and others⁠3 have showed.  

The role of individual agencyis too often missing from policy and intervention design. Citizens have often been regarded as passive consumers of services based on a belief that experts knew best. A new paradigm for the provision of public services should be predicated on the idea that individuals can take control of their own situation and make positive changes in their own lives. We see the desire for individuals to have greater control not only in the actions of the young people calling for action on climate change. We see it in people who want to access services on their terms and not those of the provider, such as video appointments with GPs or those whose efforts to get back into work are undermined by an inflexible welfare support system. The core questions a new social settlement needs to address include: what is the role of the individual in being able to live their version of a good life, and in what circumstances should they look to the community or state for support?

In our communities

Assets and amenities are important spaces people congregate in and rely on, from community centres and sports centres to churches and shops. These are the physical ‘anchor institutions’ at a micro level that provide the glue to bring people together. We are still learning about the power of our networks and connections as they impact on our day to day lives; from the work of Robert Putnam⁠4 to that of Christakis and Fowler⁠5 we know our health and well-being is directly affected by anyone in our networks up to three degrees of separation.⁠6  The sense of a shared culture and heritage underpins our sense of belonging to a place as well as connecting to people like us – our ‘tribe’.⁠7 They are also places where we want to feel secure as we go about our lives – safety and justice are important human values. The extent to which these are collectively fulfilled in a place reflects the level of social capital and solidarity that people feel (we called these ‘people’ issues in our team’s manifesto). 

The power of shared valuesis often underated. Our communities are where we socialise, work, meet people, play sport, walk the dog. At their best they are places we feel we belong to; at their worst they are places we feel estranged from. Yet the support that we seek as individuals or give to others is firmly grounded in our communities. Our friends, families, neighbours and work colleagues are often our first line of support when things go wrong in our lives. The core questions a new social settlement needs to address include: what is the role of the community in supporting people to live their version of a good life, and in what circumstances should certain issues be the responsibility of the state or the individual?

In our institutions

There are further aspects to the way in which society itself is structured and operates that also vary by geography across the local, regional and national. Crucial elements include the processes of governance and decision-making, how trade-offs and competing interests are reconciled and how funding and resources is secured and allocated. At its best these are achieved through leadership and systems that respond to complexity and actively seek engagement and coproduction of services and solutions working with local people as equals. These are all questions of authority and legitimacy (we called these power issues in our teams manifesto). 

Our existing institutional systems of state and power are increasingly ill-suited to address the breadth and depth of these challenges. Institutions and services remain designed for a world that no longer exists, where the core question was often ‘how much of what we do can we do to you?’.⁠8  The factory model of production that sees fixing broken arms as the health version of the motor assembly line is ill-equipped to handle obesity, multiple co-morbidities and mental health challenges. In some places we do see the emergence of new ways of working and new models of delivery. All too often, however, national government remains fixated on interventions that can be scaled across the UK by pulling the big policy and fiscal levers at their disposal. This relies on hierarchical power alone and neglects the other two: the individual and the community. We suggest that in many cases the concentration of power in institutions needs to be addressed, with more devolution to regions and local areas. The core questions a new social settlement needs to address include: what is the role of the state and institutions in helping people live their version of a good life, and in what circumstances should they devolve to communities and individuals? 

In the places we live

What are the important physical factors that determine how a place develops? Quality and affordability of local housing and neighbourhoods in which we live; transport networks and infrastructure (‘wires and wheels’) that give access to opportunity; a quality local environment and countryside, and in which to connect with nature, as well as planning, development and investment for the future that is sensitive to local character. This might range from new roads and house building to industrial parks and inward investment. Done well and we minimise reliance on the car, maximise green space, build places for people to live. Done badly and we have congestion, air pollution, houses that are not fit for purpose and empty shopping malls. The local resources are what often make a place a place, whether it’s the conditions to make steel in Sheffield or the tourism industry in Devon. Finally, the extent to which the growth of our places is strategically planned and developed will determine just how workable and liveable a place becomes. 

The long-term sustainability of our places is crucial not only to our own wellbeing, deriving from a positive sense of future, but also from the knowledge that we are leaving them to our children in a better state than we found them. 

This is the third in a five-part series exploring how we might understand and maximise our quality of life. Click here for Part 2 and Part 4

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1 RSA report

2 Marmot Review

3 Eg research into UBI

4 Bowling Alone

5 Connected

6 Energy for change

7 Tribes book

8 Mark Smith, Director of Transformation, Gateshead Council, speaking at RSA / Q Community event on 19th March 2019

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