By Olivia Hanks
When a vote to ‘take back control’ has given us a new Prime Minister elected by no one – not even by her own party, let alone the country – it’s tempting to give up on it all in despair and just run around collecting imaginary monsters instead. Those, at least, we can control.
The power of the Leave campaign’s slogan was that it tapped into a fear most of us share: the fear that forces too big for us to understand, let alone control, are swallowing up everything that is dear to us. The European Union – conveniently large and faceless – has been the scapegoat for all our troubles for decades, covering up the fact that the democratic deficit in this country is primarily due to an excess of power not in Brussels, but in Westminster.
Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the world. 72% of public expenditure is controlled from Westminster, compared to 19% of spending in central Government in Germany. Under this Tory government, local councils have been struggling to fulfil their basic statutory duties with ever-diminishing budgets.
The recession that many believe to be imminent will no doubt be used as an excuse to wipe out what is left of local government and the welfare state.
So what can we do? Protest, of course – go to rallies, sign petitions if you must. By all means, join a political party: it might be difficult to work out what Labour stand for at the moment, but both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats report thousands of new members have signed up since the referendum.
However, while it’s important to keep up the pressure on those in power, it’s also time to ‘take back control’ at the most local level. Here are six clear and easy steps you can take:
If you voted Remain, you probably spent the days after the referendum looking at international job websites and scouring your family tree for traces of German heritage. But don’t go begging great-aunt Hildegard to adopt you just yet. It’s easy to have idyllic visions of life in France or Sweden or wherever when it’s not your country. A year or two in a foreign land can teach you a lot about that country’s culture, but it takes longer than that to adopt its problems as your own. Life might well seem better when you can’t understand the news on TV, but this is the opposite of taking back control: it’s accepting that you’ll never have any control, and that things are easier that way.
Those few days of fantasy were a necessary part of the post-referendum grieving process for many. But now we’ve got a broken country to mend
2. Make a neighbourhood plan
The fact that neighbourhood plans were introduced by the coalition government makes me instinctively suspicious of them. However, while the concept is certainly not perfect, it does allow communities a say in shaping development in their area.
A neighbourhood plan can be produced by a parish council or a neighbourhood forum (you can set up the latter if there isn’t one in your area). It can cover a village or a small part of an urban area, and sets out planning policies for that area, stating where development will be permitted, and what kind.
The strength of neighbourhood plans is in the fact that they carry legal weight, equal to documents known as local plans, which are drawn up by councils to cover a wider area. Inevitably, the legislation reflects government priorities; neighbourhood plans are intended to encourage development and cannot block it completely. What they can do is give local residents the power to decide what type of housing is acceptable, where it should go, and, for example, to insist on good cycle access or other infrastructure.
3. Join (or start) an energy cooperative
Energy cooperatives are widespread in Denmark, and growing gradually in the UK and other parts of the world. Owned by their members, they use capital from individual investors, which may be supplemented by loans or grants, to implement an energy scheme. Local homes or businesses benefit from reduced energy costs, and investors receive a modest return. Solar has proved the most popular form of community energy in the UK because it is easy to implement small projects. Although the government’s dismissive attitude to renewables and short-sighted cuts to subsidies have dealt a blow to the sector, community energy groups are continuing to pop up around the country, including a new group in Norwich.
4. Buy Local
More money in the local economy helps to build stronger communities
This is an easy one. As much as 50% of the money you spend with a local business stays in the local economy, compared to 5% if you shop at a supermarket, where the profits go to shareholders. More money in the local economy helps to build stronger communities – so drop that nasty Tesco habit and go to the market instead. If that’s too easy, you could follow the example of Lewes, Bristol, Totnes and several other towns and cities in the UK and start a local complementary currency.
5. Talk to your neighbours
The sense of powerlessness that many people feel comes partly from the faceless nature of corporate power. We can’t see the people who are really calling the shots. Knowing the people in our neighbourhood acts as an anchor; it makes us feel more at home in the world and therefore more empowered. It also breaks down fears and stereotypes. It’s easy to feel angry with a mass of people you’ve been told are stealing your benefits, or a mass of people you’ve been told are racist and ignorant; it’s much harder to sustain that anger when faced with a real person who is offering you a cup of tea. It’s not a revolution. But step by step, we might heal some of our wounds and begin to see that taking back control isn’t a single act – it’s something we have to keep on doing all our lives.
featured image via rediff.com