I'm not very good at DIY but one Saturday, frustrated by the mess in our utility room, I set off for HomeBase and picked up two shelves and a packet of screws. Several hours later I had fixed the planks of wood to my wall and, somewhat to my surprise, that’s where they remain to this day.
Now whenever I walk into our utility room I experience a tiny tinge of pleasure. Not only is the room tidier than in its pre-shelf days — but I’m somehow slightly more connected to that room.
Of course there's nothing particularly unique about my experience. If you have ever painted a wall, done a spot of gardening or baked a cake, then you will have experienced the same small pleasure.
And strange as this might sound, I believe my utility-room-shelves say a great deal about what makes us humans tick. We all take more pride in our surroundings once we’ve invested our own personal capital, and this straightforward connection provides a glimpse of how localism can help to transform society.
Let me illustrate the point…
Imagine you live in a village which suffers from high house prices meaning that when youngsters are ready to put a foot on the housing ladder they have little choice but to move out of the area. As a result school rolls are falling, the village shop is suffering and the post office was closed a couple of years back.
Up until now the only solution was to wait for planners and developers to come to the rescue. However, under our plans, a Local Housing Trust could be established and, crucially, grant itself planning permission to build more houses. And these new homes can be locked in for the benefit of the local community forever.
A similar red-tape-free solution means that rather than parents having to move to a different area in order to get their children into the best school we propose charities, faith-based groups or parents be given the right to establish new schools.
The point is that in both examples the current answer is to wait for the State’s bureaucratic machinery to creak into action. More homes require the Regional Assembly and its Spatial Strategy to dictate where they will go. New schools await direction from the Education Authority to authorise studies of birth rates, population movement and budget projections.
Citizens are rendered helpless and largely irrelevant to the process. After all, government-knows-best and we are therefore expected to accept a glacial pace of change and bureaucratic wastefulness. Education and housing are big issues and – so they say – too important to entrust to locals.
Yet we believe that Local Housing Trusts and parent power would not only build more homes and schools, but could also have a socially transforming impact on society.
After all, once you have been personally involved in helping to design your neighbourhood your engagement as a citizen is automatically much deeper and more profound. And pride in a sense of place is liable to lead to positive changes in behaviour; people picking up litter and being less accepting of anti-social behaviour. So transferring the destiny of a neighbourhood into local hands generates benefits for society which are far greater than the initial project.
This progressive Conservative approach might sound rather like apple pie and motherhood to you. But if it tastes this good, why hasn’t it been tried before?
There are two powerful Conservative traditions that inform this approach. Both have been tried; but never together.
The first can be seen in the guiding principles of one nation Conservatism of the type described by Benjamin Disraeli. The idea that public policy should help foster harmony between a divergent population. That the State has a responsibility to set a framework which is fair and decent. And that when citizens work together they can create a better nation.
The second strain is that of vigorous individualism, aspiration and prosperity. It’s best described through policies like owning your own council house, mass share ownership and a smaller State. It’s instantly recognisable as Thatcherism.
These were both approaches of their time yet today’s enormous advances in technology, like widespread access to the internet, means that everyone can now discover information that was previously the closely-guarded secret of the privileged few in Whitehall. And this means that the settlement between State and citizen is in urgent need of reform too. Suddenly there exists the opportunity for a new, more open form of government which combines both the previous Conservative approaches.
For example, the belief that state education should be universally available and free is easily recognisable as a one nation Conservative tradition. Yet the delivery of those services will be made far more responsive and efficient by embracing the kind of social action that might lead to parents setting up their own school.
And whilst healthcare at the point of need and without charge is one nation in outlook, the individual freedom and power to decide which hospital to attend sounds like classic Thatcherism.
Combining these two traditions is not just a case of having learnt from history; it is also a product of our times. The sense of drift that prevails following a decade of centralised bureaucracy, targets and top-down diktats, has left our population feeling utterly powerless – even questioning whether an alternative approach exists.
Progressive Conservatives believe there is a better way of doing things. It draws on both the one nation and personal responsibility traditions. It recognises how widespread access to information means that individuals and communities are best placed to make local decisions and transform society.
Whereas one nation Conservatism was seen to be the State directing solutions and Thatcherism individuals only out for themselves; modern Conservatives recognise how the open spread of information provides potential for local people to take control and how a better society is built when we work together from street level up, not Whitehall down.
We understand that the solutions to the many problems of today – fixing the broken economy, society and even our politics, lie with the neighbourhood shelf builders of tomorrow.