Fifteen years ago, when I lived in W2, I was sent a leaflet from something called (I think) the Bayswater Residents Association. As is common with anything produced by self-appointed volunteers, the leaflet proposed an exclusively geriatric vision for the postal district in which we lived, one completely at odds with its population. The organisation boasted it had ‘successfully campaigned to prevent the area becoming a centre for nightlife second only to the West End’, a claim that incensed the 29-year-old me, who had moved to the area in the hope of that very contingency. Its membership seemed implacably opposed to any human activity which involved being awake after 6 p.m.
In one sense, it seems, the Cameronian idea of the ‘Big Society’ is already flourishing in Britain — with groups of people voluntarily grouping together in order to stop things happening or to keep things the same (including that annoying group in my village who petitioned to prevent an admirable fish and chip van visiting once a week). The member organisation for this tendency seems to be the National Trust, a vast, slightly fascist entity with over a million members that imposes a banal, uniform and static idea of good taste on everything it owns.
So here lies the central challenge of the ‘Big Society’. In Britain our spectacular capacity for collective action in opposing things (Nazism, new housing, nightclubs) is matched only by our inability to harness any will or consensus when it comes to doing something new. Worse, our resistance to change is often self-defeating, since the only people not defeated by the bureaucratic hurdles are huge organisations like Tesco — while those traditional smaller cafés and shops that traditionalists claim to love cannot summon the energy to clear them.
So here’s the big question. Is it possible for that same collective energy which drives Britain’s nimbys to be harnessed towards other ends as well? Can we create Imbyism? Are there templates for local decision-making that allow for far more intelligent give-and-take between individual and shared interests? One way it might work is if better technologies can foster local voting and debate — preventing discussions being dominated by an obsessive, petition-writing, chip-van-hating few.
Let’s take one obvious example — one the government seems not to have considered: planning permission. In southern England an acre of agricultural land is worth about £5,000; an acre of land with planning permission is worth around £1 million. At present, if planning permission for housing is granted for 100 acres, some farmer walks away a multimillionaire, while his neighbours (who must tolerate the new development) get nothing except an ugly view. An alternative would be to allow the neighbours to decide what they might accept in return for approving a development (nearer neighbours being given proportionately more sway). A new local school? A bypass? Conditions imposed on the architectural design and size of the homes? No council tax for ten years? In short, Facebook democracy would allow the wider neighbourhood to decide what permission is granted and on what terms.
A large force behind the aversion to change is actually not fear of change at all — it is fear of loss of control, and fear of the irreversible. If technology allows people to instigate change without losing control of it, we may see Imbyism yet.