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The key to localism is to inspire the ladies in green quilted jackets

Robert AshtonI’ve been running some focus groups with rural parish councils. The plan was to get a sense of attitudes to local development. Specifically, I’ve been trying to understand why those social housing ‘exception site’ developments can be so controversial.

The reality so far has been that news of my visits has leaked. My hoped for informal conversations with locally elected councillors have all been gate-crashed by people opposed to development of any kind. I can tell you it’s quite difficult to listen to 12 people all of whom choose to speak at the same time!

But what I’ve spotted on more than one occasion is that the most dogmatic opponent of development is usually a lady wearing a green quilted jacket. If you live or work in the countryside you’ll have met them. They are usually well educated, articulate dog owning Volvo drivers.

They are ladies I always assume can deliver a foal and arrange the church flowers on a Sunday morning, and still cook a perfect lemon meringue pie in time for lunch. Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly, but not by much! I’ve known many over the years; one was even my PA for a few years. They can be lovely, but they can be frustrating too.

These ladies typify a school of thought that worked well throughout the 20th century. Back then, if you stated your view clearly, concisely and in the clipped accent of the landed gentry, others would accept it as fact. Before the Great War, only the wealthy were well educated and so to an extent did know more, if not know best. The rest of us were happy enough to follow.

The war changed that and as the century progressed, education became universal, horizons widened and opportunities became more equally available. However these doughty dames maintained their influence through tradition. In rural Britain, people deferred to them because their parents and grandparents had done so. Today of course things are very different; or at least changing fast.

It strikes me that there is a real opportunity here to harness the residual power and influence of those ladies in green quilted jackets. You see right now their dogmatic stance is their downfall. The world has changed and it’s relatively easy to out argue them. Localism increasingly means a switch from government control to local ownership (in every sense of the word).

To truly embrace localism and bring control of local affairs to local people, a new generation of community organisations is needed. We need Community Land Trusts, cooperatives to bring back local shops, save dying pubs, bring fast broadband and generate sustainable power. All need strong leaders, good networks and to get started, political lobbying skills too.

My thought for today is this: if we could inspire those ladies in green quilted jackets to champion localism, things would really start to move. Right now they’re annoying because they don’t know what they don’t know.  Help them understand the opportunity and make it their own, and they could be the very force we need to drive sustainable, social change in rural Britain.

I think it’s time to rediscover the delight of a perfectly baked lemon meringue pie!

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