Let’s talk about value rather than cost

What is the value of absence? In a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, John McTernan argues that ‘liberal whingers are wrong-we should shut our libraries’. The thesis is this: technology has taken over. You can access any knowledge you want, anywhere. Libraries are an old idea. Preserving them is useless, wasteful of public resources, and pointless. Preservation, he argues, is about a liberal middle class exorcising their guilt, wanting to do good things for poor people.

A similar line is presented by some about the high street. It is dead, an old idea. The only thing stopping its death knell is nostalgia. This is a harking back to a day that never was. Or indeed, a day that was; where what you got was what the shopkeeper decided to keep, where getting what you wanted came with having to negotiate through meaningless conversation, local prejudice and poor service.

So let’s shut them down. If they are not there, then they are not occupying a space where their presence is uncomfortable. They won’t demand resources. Their pointlessness is addressed logically: they don’t exist. But what kind of place is it exactly, these places without. What kind of society is it?

Recently, I have been part of a process of judging projects for a regeneration award. What was striking in these communities described in terms of ‘multiple deprivation’ was how people bonded around some key ideas: collectivity, activism, doing things for the neighbourhood. Their view is about value; addressing isolation, giving people chances, more informed service delivery, meaning. And, it works. In one case, the services provided by one group for the community had a leverage ratio of 1:10. So, for every £1 public money spent here, the public purse saves £10.

Not everyone participates in the narrative of community, nor local bonding. Sustain our Suburbs argues that the idea of the ‘personalised city’ is a real phenomenon, enabled by wealth, mobility and choice. In other words, not everyone buys ‘community’.

Neither is there a one size fits all answer to , well, anything. Places are mosaics, a patchwork of different types of collective, communities and individuals. Sometimes, they are hard to understand. Sometimes, they are hard to describe. Take bits of them away however, bits that connect the parts, and it is relatively easy to understand what no longer works.

So, the logic of removing assets and resources that are perceived to no longer work creates a problem: what replaces these structures if our desire is a society where the mosaics of how we live our lives, at different points in our life, with different resources, link together?

Markets are human structures, socially created, politically managed. In even the most aggressive market context, there are social spaces whose purpose is not as narrow as the names we call them. It is right to debate how resources are allocated, and how places work.

What is needed though is a set of arguments that talk in a more informed way about value, and less about poor informed views of public cost.


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John Robertson
John Robertson
12 years ago

Diarmaid Lawlor is right, but that makes a typical high street wrong. Skip to the end for my tiny little bit of a solution about Crowdfunding.

I would like high streets to be places with street markets, unexpected shops, possibly a band stand or a park. In practice, many of them are like a shopping centre Mark 1, with identical branches of national chain stores. Worst of all are the shops which display hyper-advertised cheaply-imported products to people who can’t afford them. JB Sports in Clapham was looted for the £54.99 addidas hoodies by people wearing Addidas hoodies and balaclavas.

Now for the answer.

Crowdfunding. That’s a new one. It allows any group of people to pledge to buy a batch of products at cost if the money is raised. If there’s a bit left over it can be sold on ebay or on a market stall – hopefully cheering-up a high street. Hopefully the product can be something that creates UK jobs. UK clothes factories are good at making small batches of things as well as providing jobs, tax revenue and community in places where all these things are needed. is my temporary pitch which may have expired when you get to it. It is about selling UK-manufacturered T shirts made by Manchester Hosiery in Hinckley, Leicestershire. I call them Riotstopper T shirts because they undermine everything that the Addidas hoodie on a London rioter stands for.

A final point. People write about high streets as though factories could look after themselves. I’d happily loose high streets if we could keep our factories!

Peter Jeffs
Peter Jeffs
12 years ago

Diarmaid is (of course) right and we are presented with the age old conundrum as to whether local community tends to form around venues, or whether venues are the result from thriving community (of whatever form).
The truth of course is that both can, and do, happen.
As with libraries the secret is of course not to get too hung up or misled by the ‘label’ attached to a venue. Just because it happens to be called a ‘library’ doesn’t mean in practice that it only value is for lending books and giving information. As such its community value must not only be assessed in those terms. Ditto high streets.
Public sector bodies who often own or can influence future use of such venues are responsible for the wider ‘wellbeing’ agenda. So if they are not assessing and addressing wider value they are not doing their job.
That’s not of course to say that some venues, once assessed, can be shown to provide so little extra value to anyone that an alternative use would be preferable. Nor does it mean that the public sector itself must always resource against the value found … hello this sounds like Big Society (yeah what happened to that?)….

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