Opinion

John Bird: If communities flourish today, the rest will fall into place

We could grow healthier communities that grow healthier people

Brackley library Rachel Page

So vast is the potential of today to politically and creatively change the status quo that it can feel daunting. Possibly because the potential is hidden under a heap of threats.

It almost seems wrong to try and do politics and social justice as ‘more of the same’, a version of ‘unsteady as she goes’. Therefore the constant barrage of appeals for more poverty relief, more stop-gaps, more emergency responses, flies in the face of actually doing anything long-lasting and sustainable.

It seems, on reflection, that we can either continuously demand more money to ease poverty, or we can demand more investment in destroying the apparatus of poverty. We seem unable to bring tomorrow into today.  To demand relief from need, yet, at the same, demand that it does not keep recurring.

The poorest among us end up in a perpetual refugee camp called social security that does next to nothing to release people from the hovels of misfortune and governmental ineptitude; or from capital’s insatiable appetite to make money that’s responsible only to the shareholders’ bottom lines.

We have a huge chance of fulfilling our true human destiny, which is to do things thoughtfully. To do and act with knowledge. Not to be blinded by short-term appeals.

We have to combine, for instance, the need to provide adequate funding for those caught in the dungeons of poverty, and, at the same time, prevent tomorrow from being a repeat of today.

Unless we can be in both – providing relief, and killing the things that make relief necessary – then we lose more and more of our future.

Robbed of powers by Thatcher’s centralising government to do things in their community, local authorities are being hung out to dry

Because I get time over the summer months to think, I think about the work we have been doing. About the UK Future Generations Bill we will be bringing to Parliament to get today to make tomorrow more just for us all. It will build on the Welsh model that has been in place since 2015 where their future generations commissioner, Sophie Howe, can look over and scrutinise public policy on the basis of whether it be a plus for today, but a loss for tomorrow.

I also look at our work around libraries, bookshops and literacy that tries to protect the community of education and culture necessary for us to thrive in our communities. Our work is aided by the launch of Chapter Catcher, a new magazine that says unless you use libraries and bookshops, they will shrivel on the vine. And the work we did getting credit ratings upped for people who pay rent; an unjust affair when you look at how just having a mortgage gives you better access to the best credit deals.

But what really excites me is that all of these differing things mesh together. They are not simply great examples of good thinking. They are linked into ways of helping to dismantle the poverty of thinking, spirit and body.

The backdrop for all of this is the community that we live in. Globalisation and austerity have kicked the building blocks out of our communities. Brexit happened because somewhere people’s lives were hit by austerity. Somewhere people were not just feeling the pinch but were feeling that their community, their sociability, was being obliterated.

The appearance of prosperity bounced along above austerity and probably was not greatly influenced by it; yet against this two-dimensional prosperity was this three-dimensional poverty. Mixed in with a deep sense of loss. And a mourning, possibly, for a vanished time.

Enormous potential arrives at the greatest point of threat because we could, out of this damaged community, put it all back together. We could grow healthier communities that grow healthier people. Communities that head off the drifting alienation that millions are suffering from at this moment.

Robbed of powers by Thatcher’s centralising government to do things in their community, local authorities are being hung out to dry. Hence the, at times, draconian choices foisted on them – “Do we cut social care or libraries?” – with libraries, despite being one of the greatest free entry points to knowledge and future self-enhancement, often facing the axe.

“Do I impoverish today or tomorrow?” might be the big question in many councillors’ minds as they implement budget cuts to essential services. And damage the communities of today and tomorrow.

The potential is that we all turn toward the community; not just the appointed and the self-appointed. That we pamper the best things in it and remove the worst.

We’ve been working in Northampton for the last nine months to see if we can help local businesses and charities, local authorities and their brilliant state-of-the-art university, to create ‘Social Echoes’. Buy, trade, support each other; irrespective of what role you play in the community. But use the local as the basis for a renaissance of Northampton town.

All of the divisions thrown up by Brexit will linger long and hard. If we need anything now, it’s the potential to turn our communities into the social mender.

All we need to do now is to create a sense of renaissance where we live. I cannot see any other way of ending homelessness, destroying poverty, killing off injustice, and gelding corporate greed. But for this to happen, the government has to take its boot off the neck of the community and allow it to flourish and grow.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue

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