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Why is campaigning so thankless? 

Forget the Big Society — it's more Knackered Society as campaigners take flak from all and sundry as they protest day in, day out

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

‘Quick, let’s slip one in the menu,’ said the builder, taking a leaflet from my handbag after we had paid the bill at the pavement café where we had just had lunch.

As he did that, I put one inside the menu on the next table, which was empty, and the table beyond that. As we walked down the high street, I slipped a bunch into one of those property magazine holders outside an estate agents. Then we passed a community noticeboard on a wall. The builder slid a leaflet through a gap in the glass door.

‘Good one,’ I said. Then I put a stack of them on a cashpoint machine.

This week, I have mostly been distributing leaflets emblazoned with the legend Say No To A New Town At Wisley. Call me picky, but I don’t think Guildford Borough Council should just drop 2,175 new houses on 300 acres of picturesque green belt land in Surrey, ruining one of the most popular areas for walking and outdoor recreation near London.

I don’t like the idea that the shadowy consortium of investors who own the land are based offshore in the Cayman Islands and stand to make nearly a billion pounds worth of profit, tax free. I’m all for low taxes, I just don’t think a billion pounds made from ruining the green belt should be the one thing that we leave completely untaxed, while we’re busy squeezing ordinary families until their pips squeak.

So I’m campaigning to stop it. Cameron is always telling us we should do more of this Big Society ‘get involved’ stuff he invented. So I thought I would give it a whirl by getting involved in the campaign to save Wisley.

The most annoying thing about campaigning against development is not the reaction of the developers, which is entirely predictable. They would make silly, veiled threats telling us ‘don’t fight us, we will wear you down’, wouldn’t they? It’s the reaction you get from the people you are trying to help that amazes me.

As I handed out leaflets to residents in the area, one fixed me with a look of thunder and said: ‘What! But this is absolutely terrible!’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It is.’

‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ That accusatory tone again.

‘This,’ I said. ‘I’m handing out leaflets telling people it’s happening.’


‘But you’ve got to stop it!’

‘Yes,’ I said, trying to be patient. ‘I realise that.’

Even the builder was a pain to start with. We had been in Guildford shopping, when he suddenly spotted the box full of leaflets, fresh from the printer, in the back of the Volvo. ‘This is horrendous,’ he said, reading the leaflet. ‘We better give these out right now!’ And he started scrabbling about in the boot. ‘Quick! Come on! We can hand them out to shoppers!’ And he started thrusting them at random passers-by.

‘Hold on,’ I pleaded, ‘we don’t have that many of them yet.’

‘If you ask my opinion, you need to print more of these…Excuse me, madam, please join the campaign to stop the ruination of the Surrey green belt…’

‘Oh, you reckon?’

‘Yes, you need loads…Save the green belt, madam?’

‘Loads would be nice.’

‘Trust me, you need thousands. One box won’t be enough.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I realise that.’

‘And it’s no good just giving them out here…Excuse me, sir, please join the campaign to save the green belt from greedy developers…You are going to need to put them all round Wisley and the surrounding villages too.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I realise that.’

‘These big developers don’t back down easily.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I realise that.’

‘Why on earth haven’t you put them in the post office?’ he berated me.

It was the same when I stood on the pavement outside my home in Balham to protest about the waste of taxpayers’ money on huge, ugly road signs advertising where the jurisdiction of Lambeth Council began and ended.

Instead of signing my petition against the £1,000 signs they had paid for, residents stopped to shout at me about why I wasn’t doing anything about the cracks in the pavements. Or the lack of zebra crossings.

This is why people who run local campaigns are battered, tired, strung-out individuals.

This is why developers say things like ‘we will wear you down’, because they know that ordinary mortals cannot sustain the endurance test of taking the flak from all and sundry as they protest day in day out for the years it takes to defeat aggressive speculators. Forget Big Society. Knackered Society is more like it.

Mind you, Wisley Property Investments Ltd hasn’t come across anyone as weird and neurotic as me yet.

My capacity to enjoy a fight and make a thorough nuisance of myself is pretty limitless.


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