Big Society hot or cold?

In Redditch, the decision to use waste heat from the crematorium to heat the adjacent swimming pool has sparked something of a controversy. Some described it as taking Big Society a step too far. Few seemed to savour the thought of relaxing in a jacuzzi unwittingly warmed by local citizens making a final contribution to society. I have to say I find it a very sensible idea. But you’ll tell me I’m in a minority.

I suspect that as Big Society slowly turns from political rhetoric into practical reality, we’re going to encounter more controversy. After all, making cost saving lists is one thing: introducing the changes quite another. Change is uncomfortable for many and inevitably every proposal will be met with opposition of some kind: a kind of social Newton’s Third Law perhaps.

And surely it was always thus? When Victorian innovators proposed cremation as a solution to the shortage of burial plots there was plenty of protest. Yet some central London cemeteries had been overused to such an extent that by today’s standards, they be considered a putrid public health disgrace. Indeed many contemporary pundits said just that. But people wanted to stick with the familiar, even though it was in reality unpleasant and at times grotesque. Cremation was wrong, people said, obscene and somehow likely to interfere with the deceased’s heavenly resurrection.

The one time cult film Soylent Green offered a further macabre Big Society solution.  Malnutrition created by overpopulation was the problem. The solution here was to con the elderly into euthanasia. Their corpses were then processed into nutritious food supplements for everyone left behind.

We know that in extreme circumstances cannibalism sometimes takes place. Will a future generation be forced to choose between mass starvation and making Soylent Green a blueprint for positive change? Probably not, but if you plot population growth against domestic food supply, you’ll see that current hot potatoes such as GM crops and a return to turning food waste into pork are almost inevitable. For me, the question is when rather than if.

Although I must confess to a somewhat unusual fascination with the business of death, it does provide a valuable metaphor for life: certainly right now in Redditch, but also in much of the world. Long before Big Society was a twinkle in its founders’ eyes, I had chosen an unconventional solution to my own eventual post mortem dilemma. I’m one of very few Brits signed up to be turned into anatomical exhibit by Bodyworlds, Gunther von Hagens’ organisation. After all, why not continue to challenge and inform people long after I become incapable of speech, by standing naked and dissected on a plinth?

Big Society is going to present us all with stark choices. Often we’ll have to select what we consider the lesser of two evils. To continue as at present is simply not an option. Public spending has to reduce and the more that can be saved through economies, the more money remains to deliver valuable services to societies most vulnerable people.

Let’s return one more time to that swimming pool in Redditch. Heating the water with waste heat from the crematorium clearly doesn’t appeal to everybody. The problem however seems to be that the opportunity presented by the cost saving has not been explained. For example how many day centre places for the elderly does the cost saving fund? Perhaps the money will fund transport to school for hundreds of youngsters, or pay for two police officers to combat drug crime in that same town. Perhaps the population could be consulted on these options. I suspect that, acquainted with the facts and involved in the decision, the only incandescence would be of the recently dead, rather than those raging and very much alive.

Big Society is about involving people, listening to people and helping them make informed choices. There’s a long way still to go!


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