Having got to grips with a new business plan, new organisational structure and huge changes in the operating environment for the voluntary sector, we are now making changes to our website to reflect all of that. Please bear with us!
Back on health again I’m afraid! This week’s coverage by the media of a national study into health inequalities made for interesting reading. Again, we seem to lapse quickly into intellectually lazy shorthand about ‘deprived areas’. People and families are deprived, not areas; there are a whole bunch of factors that cause people left behind by society to become more concentrated in certain parts of our towns and cities. This does not mean that rural areas are without those who need society’s help.
When it comes to health services the very phrase ‘free at the point of delivery’ rings down the years from the age of Nye Bevan and William Beveridge and sums up what we think of as a universal service. I understand the perception that some people in rural communties can be very well empowered and use this to pull heavily on the NHS’ universal services. It is understandable that at times when resources are in retreat those managing the NHS feel they must push resources towards the most needy and identify urban areas for this approach. However, the very people they need to reach in order to promote better health within rural areas are often isolated and disempowered. The result is that disadvantaged people in rural areas suffer twice, they do not pull as hard on the NHS as some of their more vocal village neighbours but they also do not benefit from the NHS pushing services towards them on their behalf.
A bit of evening up is called for, but pity the politician who openly says that the vocal rural middle classes must expect less. Even if it is in order to enable the NHS to put extra resources into reaching out to those rural people whose health and life expectancy is more akin to the sink estates so seized upon by the national media.
Jeremy Leggett 12 February 2010
Like many others I am having that ‘once in a decade’ experience of carrying a shovel and bag of salt around in the car wherever I go. I find myself wondering why cars are a priority for municipal grit and pedestrians are not and reflecting on how susceptible our dispersed way of life is to travel restrictions. So why not also reflect on something that is perhaps less seasonal? Energy and fuel poverty.
A part of the future for power generation could, and probably should, include a more dispersed approach, in other words: photo-voltaic cells (PVs), local wind power and combined heat and power for villages and neighbourhoods. However, if we can learn anything from other european countries it is that this will not happen without changes to the regulatory framework and new tax incentives. The key is allowing the sale of surplus electricity back into the national grid. Arguably, however, dispersed approaches to energy generation will only really work in rural areas. This is where low value energy sources do not have to be moved too far from where they are grown and there is a greater proportion of square feet of roof space to numbers of people on which to put PVs. Dense areas of population - towns and cities - tend to create the need for centralised power generation because they do not fulfil either of these criteria.
Our gas supplies are under pressure and our highly centralised approach to electricity generation is looking a bit risky. At the same time older people living in rural areas are especially susceptible to fuel poverty because of their lack of choice of fuel source. Perhaps we should take our memories of these early, white, months of 2010 and think very hard about how we can give ourselves, as a nation, greater energy security in the domestic market and create a new income stream for rural communities.
A change of tone for this entry on the BLOG. My guest author is Crispin Moor from the Commission for Rural Communities and I am very grateful for his contribution:
“I spent two days in rural Sussex earlier this week testing the temperature of local democracy at the parish and town council level. I was accompanying my Chairman, Dr Stuart Burgess from the Commission for Rural Communities and also the Chairman of the National Association of Local Councils, Councillor Michael Chater.
It was a contradictory experience. We visited some tremendous examples of parish and town councils doing great things for their communities. For example, in Fishbourne and Kingston and Burgess Hill. We also spent some time at a rural primary school in Birdham and were inspired by its approach to sustainability and learning. We learnt that parish councillors, even of quite small parishes, can make impressive changes for the public good when they want to. For example, having the foresight and confidence to take out loans from the Public Works Loan Board to match fund Big Lottery and other funding to build and refurbish village halls. Or to stop waiting for action from cash strapped Highways Departments; and to pay for local traffic calming themselves. The cost to parish taxpayers was usually a few pounds on the precept per annum, thanks to long back periods and low interest rates. And in Burgess Hill the town council has taken on managing local roads from the county council and local environmental management from the district council. And they’re doing a great job at a good price. And are now delivering the same for a cluster of surrounding parishes. So, there is a lot to celebrate and promote to others.
Yet in our various discussions, with parish councillors and clerks, district and county councillors and officers as well as colleagues from AiRS and the Sussex Association of Local Councils, we were perplexed. We were puzzled why more parish councils did not aspire to achieve more. Why so many parish councillors could still get away with doing very little and representing their communities only when they wanted to stop something from happening (although representation to stop and prevent clearly has an important place).
Many of those we met thought that the parish sector might be at a collective point of decision. The challenges of the future are great. They included the coming public sector austerity (to reduce our national debt); our ageing rural communities; our lack of affordable housing and also big housing and other development pressures in many parts of the county; the opportunities of next generation broadband (and the dangers of not being part of that); the new South Downs National Park and more generally our complicated local government system. As one councillor remarked, when people complain about the council it would be nice if they knew which council they were complaining about!
So will the parish and town council sector embrace these changes and challenges? For the optimists (including myself) the future agenda for parishes will include many more parishes becoming Quality parishes and many more Parish and Town plans (community led plans), leading to action benefitting local communities. It will mean close links with the local voluntary and community sector; and more qualified clerks and a lot more training and learning within the sector. It will mean, despite some of the practical challenges, more joint and cluster working between parishes and more local management of services. Despite arguments about the merits of two tiers versus unitary local government structures we should look to more genuine co-operation and joint working with principal local authorities (building on the good practice that undoubtedly exists). If we are at some collective point of decision for the future direction of the parish sector, then maybe now is the ‘time to grow up’ time. Parish and town councils, as a whole, must be willing to take more responsibility and leadership for the well being of their local people. And yes, to use the precept and the Public Works Loan Board where there is local need and support.
It’s worth remembering that parish and town councils are the most un-reformed part of our local government system. They were set up in 1894 in pretty much the same way as they remain today. Reform probably lies within the sector itself, rather than waiting for national politicians and Acts of Parliament. So, in which direction lies the future for parish councils in Sussex?
My thanks to Jeremy Leggett for letting me guest blog here.”
Crispin Moor, Executive Director, Commission for Rural Communities
Last Friday the East Sussex Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee started its investigation into NHS delivery to rural communities with a conference at the Uckfield Civic Centre. It was well organised and sparked some very interesting discussion.
AirS had been asked to contribute an initial presentation to prompt discussion and ‘get the juices flowing’. My powerpoint presentation can be found here.
We take the view that resources and initiatives tend increasingly to be focused on the small number of, mainly urban, places where there are a high proportion of disadvantaged people; despite there being many similarly disadvantaged people spread across our more dispersed rural areas. The perception within the Health Service is clearly different: they see the better off and vocal middle classes who live in rural areas tending to demand more from a service that must try to be universal.
Resolving this tension would seem to be about focusing on the needs of individuals and families wherever they live and responding accordingly irrespective of their location. So what might intrude on this excellent solution? There are probably three key barriers to be overcome: 1. Government set targets are easier to achieve in urban areas because the target population comes in big clumps 2. There may not be a ‘travelling premium’ attached to the budget for outreach services for rural areas and 3. Away from urban centres people often look across administrative boundaries for services and this often results in a poor focus on the individual or family.
Overcoming these barriers means taking account of the particular situation of rural people and treating them with the same respect, engagement and lack of discrimination as any other minority group. The NHS in East Sussex is clearly listening, so roll on HOSC’s investigation, it was a good start.
Jeremy Leggett, 30th November 2009
AirS had its Annual Conference last Friday and, as usual, the Norfolk Pavilion at the South of England Showground was packed. It is a little self indulgent to do so but I must record my awe at the organisational skill and dedication of those of my staff who put the whole day together. We heard from Nick Herbert, the Conservative opposition spokesman on rural affairs and from Serena Tierney the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Mid Sussex. Both were polished speakers and appeared genuinely to listen to some detailed points raised about rural community issues.
Nick Herbert focused on three strands of Conservative Party policy towards rural areas: 1. Equity in allocation of resources between urban and rural areas at a national level, 2. Subsidiarity in decision making to the lowest level possible and by this he meant elected local government and 3. Removing the blocks to people and communities doing things for themselves. (He also had some interesting views about the market solving rural areas difficulties in gaining access to fast broadband, but more about this in another thread.)
Question: Are these objectives mutually consistent? Resource allocation is a problem of the urban majority in the UK making decisions at the expense of a significant rural minority. In other words it is an equalities issue for that rural minority. A new government may want to solve this nationally; it remains to be seen whether it can. However, even shire Counties have a larger urban population than a rural one so, without being directive from the centre, how would a new government make this policy stick locally?
What makes for a good democracy? Perhaps one of the most important parts of democracy is the process of cause and effect; the cause is our vote and the effect is the action taken by the people we elect. Of course things are never this simple. Unpopular action is often needed to achieve popular or essential outcomes. Historically, political parties have come into being in order to ‘package up’ a set of mutually consistent policies to resolve these two sides of the coin. Mutual consistency between policies, however, now seems to come a poor second to the need for instant gratification. Policy making by ‘focus group’.
Parish Councils, joyously freed in many cases from the burden of modern party politics, can get a bit closer to the ideal. They are both local enough and practical enough to demonstrate true democracy in action, especially if their members can rise above personal interests and act for their community as whole. For this to happen they must be voted into place - and equally be voted out when the time comes - and they must be clear about what they are seeking to achieve for their whole community. Unlike almost any other elected authority the feedback loop is sufficiently tight for them to be judged on whether they have succeeded. Perhaps it is a form of democracy so good that our urban areas deserve to have a share in it? In Sussex perhaps some of the major towns with the most identiable neighbourhoods would be a good place to start.
What is the issue that most troubles many rural communities in Sussex? You are expecting me to say housing or access to services, perhaps even the recession. All of these are true, but one of the things that most affects people’s quality of life is speeding traffic. Not just those breaking the speed limit, but the cumulative effect of the volume, speed and apparent carelessness of traffic through villages. And, yes, often those who speed the most through villages are those who live nearby and are complacent about their knowledge of the roads. The overall effect of traffic is to restrict people’s willingness to move around on foot and certainly their willingness to let their children out, unaccompanied, on foot or by bike. As a result the quality of life for many has decreased and children are seldom free from their caring parent’s watchful eye.
In effect what we have done over recent years is to transfer all the sense of risk caused by cars away from their occupants and to others on the roads and pavements around them. Cars are modern, quick and comfortable; they feel disconnected from the rest of the world. They are also safe, fully replete with airbags, seatbelts and radar trap detectors. Good, you say! Perhaps, however, the solution to reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured (KSI) on our roads is to put the risk back into the car. A first step might be to ban seatbelts from the driver’s seat and put a large spike in the middle of the steering wheel. Perhaps those driving under these conditions would drive with a little more care and our KSI numbers would start to drop.
I find BT’s current Broadband ads make me more than a little queasy so it is a suprise that I have seen enough of them to notice that the latest two have both been filmed in Sussex, one in Lewes and the current one in Arundel. They are extolling the virtues of BT’s incredibly reliable and fast broadband internet connections! In particular the current one places great stress on the 20Mbps speed that they can provide. I am afraid I have not been quite this fast in trying to spot the inevitable disclaimer to these speeds that must be in the small print on the bottom of our screens.
For the record then, these are the speeds that BT’s own calculator says are available in these places. In Lewes and Arundel it is 6.5Mbps and in outlying parts of Arundel, but still in site of the Cathedral it is 6.0. However, within the rural parts of Lewes District, BT’s calculator tells me that I can get a whole 2.0Mbps on my flaky line from the exchange. In practice it seldom exceeds 512kbps; perhaps one day I will arise at 4.00am, when the rest of the surfing world have slumped in front of their video dowloads, and see if I get close to 2.0Mbps.
The serious point, and there is one, is that BT’s adverts endlessly and very irritatingly give the impression that high grade ICT infrastructure is just around the corner and will help make the rural economy truly competitive in the great knowledge based world of the future. Not on current plans it won’t. Write to your MP about it.
Of course, the thing that we all want is to come out of the recession with a stronger economy. But not at any price. Perhaps the most important things we all want are threefold: 1. for all sections of the population to have the opportunity to contribute to recovery - breaking the generational cycles of low aspiration, health inequality and disadvantage. 2. Recovery of the economy to something that has a firmer basis than just borrowing and shopping and 3. A form of sustained economic growth that has an inbuilt reduction in carbon footprint instead of an inbuilt increase of it. As somebody said to me earlier this week - there go some flying pigs carrying the holy grail!
When it comes to economic development, jam is often used as a metaphor. The argument runs: you will only achieve anything tangible if you avoid spreading the jam too thinly. Presumably this means large, calorific, high GI, dollops of jam are good for economic regeneration. Like binges of sweet sugary foods the high is often followed by a depressive low. Oh dear, we seem to be back to the economy again!
Personally, I prefer Marmite. A small jar goes a long way because it is better spread thin and you get no short term, sugar induced, high. Perhaps there is a lesson here for economic development. Perhaps we can achieve what we want if we spread the investment more thinly. The future stars of the economy are amongst the home based businesses, the small growing firms in our myriad of small towns and in the businesses that are, and want to be, part of the organic growth of their area. And, the big additional plus, this is a small town and home based economy that has, as part of its intrinsic nature, a reduction in carbon footprint and a real commitment to the social progress of its local area.
I can see the flying pigs and, yes, they do seem to be carrying something.