Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Garden Times

Now that season of the sun is upon us and we are all basking in the opportunities of summer it is appropriate timing to consider the role and functions of gardens in contemporary life. If ‘an ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ his [sic] garden is something else besides. Gardens tell us something not only about the people who have and keep them but also something more about society in general. This is not as easy as it first seems. The private garden is a complex of competing ideas, ideals and uses that reflect different class as well as tastes, aesthetic preferences, penchants and predilections, not to mention sizes, forms and functions.

The history of the private garden includes the development of the landed gentry’s country estate in which the view and perspective f the surrounding countryside was moulded and shaped to meet an ideal of an Elysium field in which order and beauty could be arranged (including suitably dressed and posed peasant farm labourers). In this the role of landscape gardeners and architects such as Capability Brown came to the fore to design and build new estates and gardens for wealthy landowners in the 18th century. Such private parkland surrounded the mansion and houses and country retreats not just of a landed gentry but also increasingly the new moneyed classed that began to appear in the 19th century. Humphrey Repton, Brown’s successor was to develop the idea of the English Garden that not only was exported to the countryside but also to bring back ideas of landscape design and aesthetics to Britain. During the 19th century as urbanisation and industrialisation turned Britain into the first predominantly urban society the need to provide access to nature in the city for healthy leisure and rational recreation for the increasingly populous working classes was eventually recognition and commitment to the provision of publicly owned and maintained urban public parks. One important figure in the 19th century was Sir Joseph Paxton who was responsible designing may of the great urban public parks in Britain that provided much needed green and leisure space for the industrial urban working class to gain access to nature, relatively fresh air and amusements, recreation and leisure in the overcrowded and polluted industrial cities.

The development of the private garden as a more commonly accessible private green space was associated with changes in residential housing design and the development of both a move to privately owned suburban urban development and working class housing with an attached garden. For many rural labourers and those who lived in tied cottages associated with some industries as well as the more large scale development of social housing in the 20th century the provision of a small garden allowed many to have a small piece of land to cultivate. This led to the ‘cottage garden’ now known as a distinct informal style of dense planting use of traditional plants and materials but which also had more pragmatic uses. Originally the cottage garden provided herbs and fresh vegetables as a necessary supplement for wage labourers as well as the opportunity to spend some leisure time in the fresh air after the working day in the factory, mill or mine.

Nowadays, the idea of the garden has evolved and changed over time as new fashions in planting and uses have developed. Take a walk along any street and observe the choices and judgements, the time and money invested in creating the front garden that presents to the street and the world an idea or representation of the house-holders public face. Or not as the case may be given that so many urban terraced streets have replaced the front garden with a paved, concrete or mono-blocked parking space for the all pervasive culture of the car. Better still, spend some time on a train or a bus, along the canal or river towpath peering into the back gardens of the houses one passes and one will see a variety of uses, styles, functions, forms as well as fads and fashions. If one takes a critical investigation over the back walls and fences of the various styles and classes of areas you pass along you can make fairly accurate assessments of the people whose gardens one can see.

In countries where the climate is more consistently warm an outside culture is lived out in which all sorts of everyday activities take place in the outdoors as a matter of course. In Britain, the garden, for those of us fortunate to have one, takes on an extra dimension as it comes in to regular use only at certain times of the year. It is very much used and viewed as an extra room in summer, (lebensraum), an outside living ‘room’ providing the opportunity not only to take a break from the inside months of weather enforced internal imprisonment that our climate imposes on us but also provides much more. In this, it gives an opportunity to study and think on how we relate not only to the (self) created nature that gardens provide but also how we act and interact, represent our identities and selves, in the outside spaces that we inhabit.

The garden is a multifunctional space that can and does reflect the aspirations, status, ideals as well as life course of those who have them. It also tells us something of the way we live and how in the garden as much as in the home or in other more commonly considered consumption and life-style spheres (clothes, music, film, TV, cars, etc.) fads, fashions and trends have become part of a huge industry. As we peer into the gardens of others or perhaps think of our own we can sketch this multiplicity of uses as well as lifestyle and identity statements that are represented in the enactment and landscape of the domestic garden.

The garden when the weather is clement is not only a place to hang and dry washing, to sit with a beer or chilled glass of wine at the end of the working day or in the permitted leisure time of weekends and holidays. It is also a ‘safe’ space for children to play, exercise and let off the boundless energy of children. In fact, we can not only glean whether or not a family with children resides in the house by the presence or absence of play equipment we can also make assessments as to the ages of the children and even their genders. If there is a sandpit, paddling pool, the ubiquitous plastic play-equipment and tricycles we can guess the presence of the pre-school age-group. Swings may be stereotypically for girls to use whilst football goals are designated male, whilst a swingball, climbing frames or trampoline is more gender neutral. There may also be play houses of all sorts, sizes and costs as well as well as enclosures and homes for pet rabbits all of which are indicative of younger children.

But the garden is more than a play area for children. As they grow older the garden matures as the inhabitants mature and take son new or different functions. One can see how different styles of gardening reflect not only individual tastes but also fashions in plants and landscape design. Take as examples how the hardwood decking, patios, expensive brick built or gas fired barbecues have expanded over the land as they have become essential elements of the garden as a leisure and party space, where dry and mud free feet can enjoy not only the al fresco dining of a picnic but also a special type of cooking and eating. The barbecue has become an essential summer experience of contemporary British summers. Similarly what was once essential elements of gardens, greenhouses and sheds (the quintessential place of escape of many married men) the range of architectural features now includes ha-has, summer houses, gazebos, fountains, ponds, arbours, arches, benches, bridges, fences, gates, obelisks, pergolas and planters populate gardens with an architectural element that is more than merely functional.

Gardens and their aesthetic appeal in terms of their planting and appearance reflect not only the individual tastes and proclivities of the owner. They also reflect the changing fads and fashions of the industry that has grown up to serve and inspire the gardener. As the graph below indicates this industry makes a significant contribution to the domestic economy.

UK Garden Products Market 2004-2014 £M
Source: "Garden Products Market Research & Analysis Report - UK 2010-2014"

Furthermore changes in gardening practice reflect and have a correlation to wider socio-economic, political and environmental concerns and issues. An example of this can be discerned from the emphasis this year on grow-your-own. There has been a tradition of the self cultivation of fruit, vegetables and herbs that is reflected in the history of not only the cottage garden but also the popularity of allotment gardening. For those not familiar with the tradition of the allotment it is characterised by the concentration in a limited place of a number of relatively small parcels of land assigned to individuals or families for cultivation. The individual gardeners are organised in an allotment association which leases the land from the owner who may be a public, private or ecclesiastical entity, provided that it is only used for gardening (i.e. growing vegetables, fruits and flowers), and not for other purposes such as business or residence. Such is the current popularity of gardening and the shortage of suitable land for allotments that in some areas particularly in the cities there are waiting lists of sometimes up to 10 years for an allotment.

A variation of this theme has been hugely successful in Cuba since the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, and Cuba lost its food imports and agricultural inputs from which it depended for an adequate supply of food. The US Embargo also created a shortage of petrol necessary to transport the food from the rural agriculture sector to the city. This marked the beginning of serious food shortages that shook the entire country, but most of all Havana where urban agriculture has taken on many forms, ranging from private gardens (huertos privados) to state-owned research gardens (organicponicos), Havana's popular gardens (huertos populares) are the most widespread and accessible to the general public. These are small parcels of state-owned land that are cultivated by individuals or community groups in response to ongoing food shortages. The program for popular gardens first began in Havana in January 1991, and has since been promoted in other Cuban cities. In 1995, there were an estimated 26,600 popular garden parcels throughout the 43 urban districts that make up Havana's 15 municipalities. A wide selection of produce is cultivated, depending (on family needs, market availability, and suitability with the soil and locality. In addition to vegetable and fruit cultivation, some popular gardens also cultivate spices and plants used for medicinal purposes.

The private garden demonstrates not only a complexity in respect of form and aesthetic appeal but also their use value as not only a recreational appendage to the house but also as a more useful and necessary space for physical and psychological health and well-being. The benefits of time spent in the garden or in any green space for relieving stress, promoting physical and mental well-being was recognised by public authorities and urban park designers in the initial phase of municipal park building in the 19th century. The difference with private gardens nowadays is that we have much more choice and control over the style, form, content and use to which we can shape and mould our private green space to meet our own tastes, needs and values. This can reflect the changing habits and lifestyles but can also reveal positive and negative aspects of the state of neighbourliness in modern Britain. Summer in the garden can bring neighbours and friends together for garden parties and get-togethers, for chats and conversation over the fence with seldom seen neighbours and the sharing of plants and gardening tips. However, it can also bring conflict over the noise of parties and loud music, dog barking, barbecue smoke and boisterous children’s games, over the cutting of shared hedges. Patio or garden rage is the term given to the verbal and sometimes violent confrontations between neighbours because summer and sunshine in the garden bring into contact people who would not meet at other times of the year.

Next time you spend sometime in your own or someone else’s garden this summer reflect on its role and place in the social life of Britain and how it reflects tastes and tendencies, lifestyles and habits that tells us something about how we live and interact with nature and with each other through and in the such a taken for granted green space as the private garden.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

What is the Big Society?


Mark Featherstone

At the end of March the new Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled the Conservative Party plan for a ‘Big Society’ to tackle the problem of ‘Broken Britain’. Although these media friendly terms faded from view somewhat during the subsequent election, and have been overtaken by events that have taken place since, my sense is that the idea of the Big Society functions as a kind of exemplar of Conservative thought in the UK and also illustrates the essential bi-polarity of politics in Britain that the Liberal Democrats sought to overcome, but have ended up reinforcing in the days after the election when they were effectively forced to choose between Cameron and Brown, Miliband, or whoever else New Labour thought could form a government. However, it is not yet clear what the result of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will be, impotent compromise, deadlock, or the emergence of some new third form.

I think we must remain suspicious of the third option after New Labour and Anthony Giddens’ theory of the third way, which effectively jettisoned Labour’s socialist roots in favour of a limited view of a social state supporting a strong form of individualism and capitalistic entrepreneurialism. As we now know the result of this compromise formation was unfortunately the emergence of a strong bureaucratic state, a left over from Labour’s socialist past, without a commitment to real equality, and a rampant form of individualism in the higher echelons of the class structure, which eventually led to economic collapse, since in many respects the New Labour agenda represented a kind of ‘neo-liberal capitalism with a human face’. In this respect New Labour’s nod to equality was to ensure that Britain was not Brazil, Dubai, or even America, but that was about it.

Unfortunately, history teaches us that the Conservatives have no such commitment to even a minimum level of social justice. At this point I must confess my own bias, as a child of Thatcherism who happened to grow up in city that was wrecked by de-industrialism and became a Marxist Sociologist as a result. But at the same time I want to emphasise that I have no commitment to old style working class parochialism because this leads to closed communities, closed minds, and social, economic, political, and cultural stagnation. Instead, I believe that the evolution of any society requires raising the level of its most disadvantaged members as an absolute priority and that the economic success of those in the higher echelons of that society should be made subordinate to this goal through the imposition of progressive taxation.

This was, of course, the original objective of the Labour Party, before Thatcherite ideology shattered the working class as what Marxists would call ‘a class for itself’, a class aware of itself, since there is no doubt that a subordinate class still exists today, although it is clearly not conscious of itself as such. The turn to New Labour was, therefore, an attempt to catch the attention of the new Thatcherite middle class of aspiring consumers who bought their class identity on borrowed money, and created the problem of spiralling debt now facing Cameron and Clegg.

Thatcher told us that ‘there is no society’ and that the truth is every man and woman for themselves. New Labour adapted this idea, sustained a basic social state, and began to tell us that society was now a meritocracy, where anybody could make it so long as they had good credit. In the process they advanced the cause of the Thatcherite anti-society based on what the American sociologist Robert Merton long ago termed the success theme – that is to say that economic success is everything and that the good life is reliant on money. Merton’s point was, of course, that this creates enormous strain in society, because not everybody can achieve the aim of economic success through legitimate means, and therefore we start to see the emergence of criminal cultures of alternative means and pockets of alienated people who have simply fallen out of the bottom of the success-society. Today we call this class of people the underclass.

Although the Conservatives confronted a problem of law and order in the 1980s, I would suggest this was largely an effect of class and race war. The problem that faced New Labour in the last decade of the 20th century and first decade of the 21st century was very different. They were confronted by the problems of alienation, anomie, disenchantment, exclusion, and criminal adaptation from a money-society that could never include everybody because as sociology undergraduates learn capitalism must have its winners and losers.

Even in the good years, when the economy was buoyant, Tony Blair was unable to solve the problem of what David Cameron came to call Broken Britain. His Respect Agenda, which in many respects preceded the notion of the Big Society, failed because civic responsibility never emerged and what remained was a punitive state that was completely unable to cope with the scale of social breakdown occurring in neo-liberal Britain. This is the problem facing Cameron today – how to manage anomic Britain in the face of an economic crisis that is only likely to exacerbate the original problem of social meltdown? The Big Society is Cameron’s answer, but what is the Big Society and is it likely to work?

The first point to note about Cameron’s idea of the Big Society may be discerned from the front page of the Big Society paper which contrasts the idea of the Big Society to the notion of Big Government, which is associated with New Labour statism and bureaucracy throughout the report. This aspect of New Labour policy, which was a left over from its socialist past, was rooted in the idea that the state management of society was necessary to enable freedom. In this respect New Labour, Labour before them, and socialism in general was always premised on the idea of positive freedom, the idea of ‘freedom to’, the idea that the state should enable us to pursue our life choices.

Against this theory of positive freedom, which in contemporary Britain has been tainted by a state that has become overly restrictive of individual freedom to choose another route through life, the Conservative mode of thought relies on a conception of a minimal state, and a rejection of big government, in the name of negative freedom, the freedom to not be interfered with by government authority. The negativity of the Conservative theory of freedom, that it has no positive content of its own, is represented on the front page of Cameron’s paper – there is no theory of the Big Society without a critique of Big Government that defined the problem of the restriction of freedom under New Labour.

But what can we take this from point – the negativity of the Conservative theory of freedom? This theory is not problematic in itself because it simply leaves the individual to make choices and to make their own way in life. However, I think that it becomes deeply problematic in relation to Cameron’s overall programme, which locates the notion of freedom from state intervention within a theory of a Big Society, which will limit, restrict, and police individual behaviour through the imposition of a form of personal, professional, civic, and corporate responsibility. Against Thatcher’s theory of the non-existent society, where there was no limit on individual freedom, it turns out that Cameron’s Big Society is the new brake on self-expression, achievement, or selfishness, depending on how one wants to view the pursuit of self interest.

At this point we should note that the Big Society paper holds America up as an example of a Big Society, characterised by activism and community spirit, noting that Obama is a product of this mode of social integration. Unfortunately, what the paper fails to note is that America is also a deeply divided society, beset by enormous social problems, and that where community has emerged it has emerged largely as a result of the failure of the state to manage the economy in the name of the public good. Here community emerges as a form of damage limitation or catastrophe management to make up for the lack of government intervention in problems that can only really be solved by political action in the economic sphere. The problem occurs, of course, when this will to modify the economy is not there, when the government does not want to interfere with economy because it is committed to upholding the right to make money at the cost of others. But this is, of course, the American way, where the idea of negative freedom dominates social and political theory.

However, even though Cameron’s Big Society idea is problematic, in that it seems to undermine the idea of negative freedom by replacing one limit of individual freedom, the state, with another, society, thus creating a situation where the individual would be limited by something as unenlightened as common sense or public opinion, it is understandable why the Conservatives thought it necessary to move away from the Thatcherite idea of the non-existent society in the context of the anomic state of Broken Britain. Unfortunately though I think that what really undermines and ultimately defeats the idea of the Big Society as a useful theory resides in what the idea excludes or remains silent about. What the idea of the Big Society excludes or screens out by expanding the idea of society is first a consideration of politics, and government responsibility to make positive change at a structural level, and second economics, where this may be related to a consideration of jobs, welfare provision, and public sector funding. The Big Society remains silent on both politics and economics, apart from suggesting that the role of government should be to enable the Big Society and help communities to somehow combat their own anomic condition.

The core problem of this approach is, of course, that economy and politics are central to social conditions. There can be no Big Society without economic change through political intervention. This is what is required today. Unfortunately, the Conservative’s failure to understand the relationship between society, economy, and politics is not in my view a conscious ideological trick, since New Labour where similarly unable to understand why it is not possible to have a social state and a rampant capitalist economy. A classical sociologist would tell you that this is an either or choice, but in our post-modern times characterised by hybridity, bricolage, and the end of ideology nobody believes in contradiction any more.

Beyond the Big Society programme, this problem of the failure to understand the reality of contradiction is rooted in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat agreement on policy objectives for the coalition government. This hastily thrown together document tells us that the new government will reduce the national deficit, but fund disadvantaged schools. Where will the money come from to fund these schools, since we know public funding will suffer in the next round of savage cuts? The answer is a turn to new education providers, who will ensure a new freedom of curriculum. But the problem with this approach is that it refers to a new stage of privatisations, which as we know results in uneven provision, new inequalities, and the creation of an education system characterised by the very advantage and disadvantage the policy set out to combat in the first place. We find the same contradictory thinking in the new government’s vague declarations about higher education. We will apparently see an increase in spending and improved quality in teaching and research. Nobody would disagree that this is desirable, but the problem is that higher education is currently under attack and likely to suffer massive budgetary cuts over the course of next five years.

Apart from this problematic vision of education, it is interesting that the security state is entirely missing from Conservative-Liberal Democrat thinking as a support to freedom. It is almost as though the war on terror ended with New Labour. There is no mention of Afghanistan, the Taleban, or Al Qaeda in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat document. Instead, where the idea of the security state appears it is as a restriction on personal liberty. Here the war on terror and the security state is constructed as an example of New Labour paternalism and the problem of the punitive state. Of course nobody would want to defend the New Labour model, which saw the emergence of a controlling bureaucratic state without the pay off of social and economic equality, but the Conservative model is no better because what it is delivers is freedom from bureaucracy and state control without any kind of attempt to level the playing field, enable individual freedom across the board, or brake the mass production of inequality.

We should conclude then that the third way may be dead, recognising that it was never realistic to combine the social state and capitalism, but point out that the Conservative plan to jettison state intervention and replace it with the Big Society is unlikely to solve the problem of Broken Britain. What is the solution then? My view is that what is required is a modification of economic power relations and an assault on the root causes of inequality through progressive taxation policy because only this will save anomic Britain from social decay. In other words, I think that what is required is a new social contract based on a political modification of economic power relations, rather than an attempt to use the social, and the concept of the Big Society, to screen economic power relations from view and somehow expect our communities to rebuild themselves in the context of a society characterised by economic ruin, massive inequality, economic insecurity, and failing social mobility.

Monday, 17 May 2010


By Helen Wells

Research recently conducted by a team involving Keele University, Staffordshire County Council and RoSPA, found that parents’ involvement in driving lessons (for instance sitting in the back seat during a lesson) helped to cut out the age-old quarrels between learner drivers and the mums and dads who offer private practice, resulting in a more productive practice experience.

An evaluation of the initial few months implementation of the Staffordshire Young Driver Coaching Programme (YDCP), has found that young drivers’ learning experiences can be enhanced by getting their parents more involved in lessons generally. The evaluation, carried out as part of the RoSPA/BNFL scholarship scheme, also found that an accompanying resource pack full of materials designed to be used during private practice sessions also proved vital to producing better, safer drivers.

The 17-24 age group is a priority area for Staffordshire County Council as, although that age group represents about 10 per cent of the population, it makes up 28 per cent of all fatal driver casualties.

Although the study could not, at this stage, research long-term goals such as reduced crash rates, it did highlight the kind of good practice - such as parents sitting in on lessons – which other research has suggested might enable those aims to be achieved. The underlying principles of the YDCP are to increase the effectiveness of private practice in conjunction with professional instruction, and to involve parents in the learning to drive process. These principles are supported by findings from international research on road safety, learning to drive, and adolescent development.

A quarter of all approved driving instructors (ADIs) in Staffordshire signed up to the scheme, which is now in its tenth month.

As well as parents recording progress in the learner’s training book, they also received guides about how to support the lessons conducted by the learner’s ADI.

An evaluation of the resource pack’s effectiveness found that it improved the structure of private practice by giving parents a better understanding of their child’s progress with their instructor, while also updating their own knowledge of the Highway Code. This resulted in parents having more confidence to supervise learners and more efficient paid-for lessons - not to mention the guides being used to solve arguments in private practice.

It also culminated in a closer working relationship between ADIs and the local authority road safety unit.

The programme’s evaluation was funded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ scholarship scheme, which was set up after British Nuclear Fuels donated £500,000 to support research that would have a significant impact on improving safety in the UK and around the world. A grant of £20,000 was successfully submitted by Dr Helen Wells of the Research Institute for Law, Politics and Justice, and the Road Safety & Sustainable Travel Unit at Staffordshire County Council.

For more information on the research, contact Dr Helen Wells.