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08/03/2020

Turn that frown upside down

Brexit seems so ‘last year’ now but regardless of your side of the fence, anger was never far from the surface, says Louise Brooke-Smith

As we anticipate the months of negotiations with Brussels to reach the divorce settlement, will the anger of those who wanted to remain morph into a resigned shrug? Or will the strength of feeling move into more domestic areas and perhaps turn towards making sure that our communities at home have a roof over their heads, access to better services and an improved quality of life?

I remember seeing I, Daniel Blake a couple of years ago and getting angrier the more futile his position became – up against a system that seemed inherently unjust and regularly a case of ‘computer says no’. And yet it was a social system that I’d like to think had been designed by intelligent people without malice or a wish to undermine fellow members of society. If you are on the far left of the political divide and #ToryScum is a regular refrain, that might sound incredulous. Those further right of Genghis Khan might think that shelter isn’t a God-given right and see the UN’s sustainability goals as wishy-washy aspirations.

For many of us in the middle it’s sometimes hard to rationalise some government initiatives with obvious inequalities across the UK. When applying the ‘bedroom tax’ en masse, without the ability for it to properly reflect individual circumstances, or the flexibility to allow for regional socio-economic variations, it has simply failed. Call me naive, but it makes me angry to think that policy and systems can’t be designed and applied fairly. It’s like a final solution that, once instigated, has to be seen through, without exception and to devastating effect. It endorses a culture that is clearly widening the divide between the ‘have a lot’ and the ‘have absolutely bugger-all’.

What seemed a well-thought-through policy can, a few years later, seem bonkers. Circumstances and attitudes change. The clever thing is to learn from the past and embrace that change.

“The clever thing is to learn from the past and embrace that change”

It’s great that government is reversing the Beeching cuts and is supporting reinvigorated rural railways to serve our car-reliant communities. Perhaps we could also see the return of cottage hospitals, corner shops, community facilities and municipal parks. It may conjure up images from Enid Blyton, but if we can avoid the one-size-fits-all approach to social policy, be it supporting housing, infrastructure or transport, and start to listen to what our communities want and need – and I mean a community made up of names and not numbers – perhaps some of the recent anger felt across the nation can be corralled and turned into a force for good.

Wouldn’t it be great to see social value and the Fight Inequality Alliance go mainstream? Common sense and a real implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals could result in healthy, sustainable, well-designed residential, commercial and workspace, underpinned by enforceable planning policy. Rather than being a ‘nice to have’ with references in well-meaning design guidance and reliance on the ‘figures stacking up’, we could have clever design and space to breathe in green urban parks instead of more concrete corridors for cars.

Let’s turn the anger into positivity and embrace a post-Brexit world with a set of new design, housing and infrastructure parameters that even the Scandinavians might aspire to. Imagine it as a British ‘hygge’, with an environment and economy that properly reflects social values and environment, social and governance-based investment.

It could make us more friends beyond Europe than rhetoric embossed on a coin. Having a well-housed, healthy society where groups didn’t feel disenfranchised and wellbeing was embedded would be a strong message to sell – is anyone going to get angry over that?  

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a partner at Arcadis LLP and UK head of development and strategy planning

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