‘The Impotence of All Governments…’

A provocative phrase used by Jeremy Paxman last night to describe the inability of any government to effectively manage an effective path through the current economic crisis.

But we could extend it to many other areas of our lives.  The impotence of governments to:

  • build the affordable houses that we need
  • provide the stable macro-economic climate in which trade can thrive
  • keep significant numbers of our citizens, young and old, out of poverty
  • equip people with the skills and attitudes required to thrive in the 21st century
  • reduce carbon emissions to a level that mitigates the risk of significant environmental trauma
  • provide affordable, sustainable and efficient mass transit systems

Here in Leeds we have got to the point where all political parties see the construction of a new station at Kirkstall as some kind of triumph.  Building one station that will serve a few thousand people in a city of nearly 800 000.  A new station that will provide the key infrastructure link to enable further private sector development in that area of the city.  I just hope that any future planning application gets the balance of affordable housing right, otherwise I suspect we will see the poor once again displaced in the failing policy of economic cleansing that provides the blue print for so much of what passes for ‘urban renewal and regeneration’.  The ‘partnership’ between the local authority and the developers will no doubt be tested as one side pushes for more affordable housing and community amenities while the other pushes for a more profitable plan, while holding their twin political jokers of ‘job creation’ and ‘development’.

I suspect the only people that should really be rubbing their hands are the directors and shareholders of the construction companies and to a much lesser extent, perhaps mopping their brows with relief, will be those get to pick up their shovels on yet another construction hurrah.

So if government is pretty impotent then what are the alternatives?  What might work to help us tackle some of these long  standing and seemingly intractable problems?

Well, for me the future is ‘Bottom Up’.  It is about the engagement of large numbers of people in figuring out what really matters most to them and then forming associations around common cause.

The challenge will be to form associations rather than factions, but this is the process of ‘civic enterprise’ and done well strengthens democracy while building a much more powerful citizenry.  The role of elected officers and other public servants in working with these civic associations, enabling them and supporting their work wherever possible and helping them to add value to the democratic process may be crucial.  Representative democracy is creaking.  Perhaps a more participative democracy where different associations learn to creatively negotiate their collective futures provides a way forward.

It is about governments, national and local, no longer pledging to lead us to the promised land through judicious policy development, 15 year Visions and glossy manifestos tied to the electoral cycle and recognising that now their job is to help all of us to build the kind of communities that we want to live in.  The job of community development is our job and not theirs.

Bottom Up Is The New Black!

Think this is all hopelessly naive?

Then pop along to a Friday Picnic, A Cultural Conversation, Latch, Canopy, Progress School, Elsie, TEDxLeeds, LDF2011, Simon on the Streets, Ideas That Change Lives, PACES, Innovation Lab to name just a few where bottom up is becoming the new black.


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