Like the orang-utans in Paul Simon's song about the zoo, most of us tend to be “sceptical of changes in our cages”.
The prospect of change in one's immediate environment can be disturbing, but unless we have purchased that environment, we can have only limited influence over what may happen to it. On a larger scale, and on issues which cut across income, social class and geography, there is often something which can justifiably be done, as the successful campaign against the forest sell-off has proved. However, it is on the micro-scale of local planning, that a test of the good society ( not the Big Society) comes under consideration.
The words of the political philosopher John Rawls should be written it letters ten feet high wherever men and women meet to make decisions about their common life: “It is the duty of governments to adjudicate where interests collide.”
That adjudication will inevitably deliver disappointment and as a consequence, resentment for some. Without a clear moral vision of a 'good' which is greater than an individual's personal desires or preferences, the prosperous, articulate and indignant will increasingly divide communities in their determination to keep things to their own liking. And whether that manifests in campaigns to obstruct affordable housing or to oppose wind farms, there will be a dismal future for our children and grandchildren unless such selfish myopia is both challenged and, where necessary, disabled.
Affordable housing is often perceived to be a back door to the introduction of anti-social behaviour into a neighbourhood. In reality, over most of southern England, it means housing for people whose annual household income is less than £60,000. Subject to proper consultation and the observance of planning law with regard to design, privacy, light and safety, how much influence can a decent society permit the Nimbys to exercise? If communities are to thrive, and younger families on average or below average incomes are to have the opportunity to set out on the path to a life which their older and wealthier fellow citizens too often seem ready to deny them, we need to take a sharp look at our responses, expectations and motivation.
None of this is to advocate the building of blocks of flats on village greens or the construction of power stations in National Parks. But in this densely populated small island, where housing costs have gone far beyond the reach of so many people, and where our future energy needs have to be addressed with a much greater degree of realism, urgency – and, it must be said, of self-restraint - things cannot continue to be arranged to the liking of a comfortably-off and often rural minority. A wider and more dispassionate view of the greater good than that which presently obtains will need to be somehow be inculcated, and if necessary, enforced.
Both David Cameron's Big Society tropes and Eric Pickles' very partial view of localism are not only meaningless, but actually present an obstacle to the future cohesion of our common life. Vibrant and sustainable communities are under threat, not only from housing poverty, but from the bitterness and division sown by a narrow self-interest that can only be exacerbated as the adjudicating state is weakened.
The Tory intention (all but unchallenged by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners) is to offload as much social provision as possible to the charity, voluntary and faith sectors. Not only will the function of the state to care for its citizens be therefore removed, any oversight, audit or control of the greater good will be lost in the shrill competition and demands of small local cabals. Devolving power as close as possible to the location in which it is to take effect may seem at first blow to be an idea above reproach. But this will need be handled more carefully than Pickles seems to intend. If subjectivity and local partiality are not to overwhelm the long term social and infrastructure needs of whole communities, there must be an arms-length adjudicator with the capacity, wider knowledge and authority to balance these conflicting interests.
However gilded or beautifully situated the unchanged cages of the sceptical and selfish may be, they will become prisons when the neighbourhoods in which they are situated lose their schools and shops and becomes ghettos for the prosperous and declining elderly – at just about the same time that the oil finally runs out.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger  You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen