Tony Burton founded Civic Voice, the national charity for the civic movement. He is Chair of the National Lottery Community Fund and CPRE London; Vice Chair of HS2’s Independent Design Panel; and a trustee of TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) and mySociety. He convenes Neighbourhood Planners as a volunteer and is a neighbourhood planning Examiner. He is secretary of his civic society in Mitcham and also chairs the Wandle Valley Forum. I caught up with him to ask about Coronavirus, community and quality of life.
People’s quality of life is greatly affected by the sense of control they feel over their environment. So, how can we use the recent upsurge in mutual aid groups and the growth of community spirit under lockdown to help people become more engaged in how their local areas are created and cared for?
Whenever society is forced to make agile, innovative responses, it’s civil society that acts first, often despite rather than because of strategic players. That social infrastructure is fundamentally important but fundamentally invisible in public debate. As far as it is visible it’s trivial and a nice-to-have rather than an intrinsic part of a responsible society. But in a situation that is extreme — like the current pandemic — it’s another iteration that demonstrates how little governments understand civil society and its value. And the bits of government that matter are usually the furthest away from that understanding.
What long-term effect do you think the pandemic could have on improving people’s quality of life?
Issues that are front and centre around people’s relationship with their neighbourhood: their green space or how fit it is for moving around in ways that are less polluting, with more space for people on foot and on bike.
Whether it changes the power relationships and who’s listened to, I would love to be more optimistic on that, but it’s a constant struggle. In some areas, we may see things going backwards. For example, there’s been an obvious issue around decision-making online to a smaller group of people i.e. officers in local authorities rather than committees, or zoom meetings that the public can’t participate in. Digitisation can break down barriers but I’m yet to be persuaded when it comes to decision-making by local authorities because of the lack of clarity about participation. Moving everything to digital, I have concerns about going online and delegating decisions to officers. Really big, controversial schemes are being made by people who aren’t trusted and whose own elected members turned down.
We seem to be at a fork in the path. Polls have shown a general acceptance for the country to work on health and wellbeing outcomes, rather than simply financial ones, but we are now entering a phase where getting the economy moving again will be paramount. How do we square the two?
I think there’s a distinction here between what you and I might think is the right thing to do and what will get heard and get traction and make a difference. There’s clearly a thinking-person’s opportunity to redefine what progress or growth is. Sustainable development is our most enduring model for that — the triple-bottom line approach to what we’re all trying to do in the world. But I don’t think making points will cut much ice with national government. How can you demonstrate how improvements in social infrastructure bring economic good when the contribution to the economy is ignored by the Treasury? Also, basic health and safety needs will trump all other considerations.
Fundamentally, government is reaching for the wrong answers because those who have the ear of government are not there for the public interest. The extension of help to buy; Section 106 up for renegotiation; increasing working hours on construction sites causing noise pollution; another regulatory review or bonfire of controls… that’s the normal process of politics and power.
Some of it’s through a more mixed economy that contains community land trusts, social enterprise and the cooperative movement. We need a wider variety of ways in which that sort of economic thinking can be framed through organisations such as Power to Change or the New Economics Foundation to see where the green growth agenda aligns. There are powerful voices there that speak in a language that’s about economic and social goals together. Even the Bank of England is beginning to be more rounded.
Volume housebuilders will come up with a piece of research that shows what people want is what they are already producing. It’s having the facts to all that. There will be a tension — a set of voices that will be saying that big cities are dead and we need to remove the green belt and make space for the car. There’ll be another set of voices saying precisely the reverse. It’s not to fall into the trap of just rehearsing old arguments in a new context but to find a different way of doing that.
These are not new issues, but there’s an opportunity to get more traction about who holds power and where they’re making decisions and what we can do to reorganise communities in those debates: a representative model of democracy as opposed to a participative model. At the local level, we need not to think that councils are a one-stop shop, but that knowledge exists outside, so how do we tap into them? There’s Civic Square in West Midlands. New Citizenship project. Tessy Britain in east London. Local Trust. Civic Voice.
What single thing would you do to improve people’s quality of life through the built environment?
Give people a sense of influence over the things that are affecting their lives, because if they have that then people will feel it’s worth getting involved, and the outcomes will follow.
If I’m honest, anything we do with the local authority is problematic. You win small battles, but you never win the war. That’s campaigning life — the stuff that feels great is when you put a smile on people’s faces because you run an open day for them at a building or restore a lifted horse trough with a bit of lottery funding, or bring together with a charter for what might happen in an area — which then crashes against the rocks of local authorities.
I’m an advocate of neighbourhood planning, as is the ability to designate assets of community value. There are limits as to how much influence people have got, but the benefits are in coordination and the process as much as the product. The great things about a neighbourhood plan is that it’s the people who drive the process. On a local plan, you’re being consulted by what a local authority wants, but the concept is really difficult for people to get their head around. It’s only going to be a select band of people who’ll become involved in local plans. There’s been no mechanism that allows those two things to meet with any certainty.
And what about volume house builders?
That business model is broke. It was broke before and it’s even more broke now. We must support those who are more progressive because life is about more than just league tables — it’s about who’s doing the best work. Some will come through the market by demonstrating what good looks like, but some needs to come through regulation; breaking up sites and models that depend on speculating and land rather than building homes just isn’t successful in the long-term.