Green heart of Hawick

Jonathan Dawson makes a trip to an environmental fair in Hawick and explains a recent paradigm shift

Green Heart of Hawick
I spent the weekend down at Hawick, a picturesque town in the Scottish Borders. The event was an environmental fair and conference called Green Heart of Hawick, put on by the irrepressibly enthusiastic Michael Shallis and his team.

The fair had everything, from films (including Al Gore’s "An Convenient Truth" and the wonderful "Power of Community" about Cuba’s response to its peak oil crisis), talks from a variety of speakers and exhibitions of local initiatives such as eco-schools, tree-planting programmes, compost making, local food schemes, allotments and the like.

It is tempting at times to despair at how few basic skills we have retained in our communities as the economy has globalised, but in reality, fairs like this demonstrate that the great British art of amateur tinkering has kept alive many older and more traditional ways of doing things. As if to reinforce the point, towards the end of Saturday afternoon, the town’s streets filled with an army of mounted riders, tracing the boundaries of the town’s lands on horseback in an annual practice that dates back to the 15th century.

I was there by kind invitation to talk about how to build and nurture local economies and how Hawick might go about creating its own transition town initiative. I have referred to transition towns in several previous blogs; these are community-led initiatives that embrace the reality of energy descent as fossil fuels run down as an opportunity to create more convivial and resilient communities.

So why, you might ask, was I advocating on behalf of transition towns rather than ecovillages? Why was I not trying to persuade the citizens of Hawick to model themselves on Findhorn?

Track back to February of this year, the most recent Board meeting of GEN – the Global Ecovillage Network – at the Los Angeles Ecovillage. There, a coin that has been wobbling on the edge for some time fell finally and firmly into the slot of our collective understanding.

This new understanding is reflected in the GEN Manifesto that emerged from that meeting. One section of the manifesto concludes: ‘…it may be of value for us to see today’s ecovillages less as ends in themselves and more as research, demonstration and training centres for sustainable community initiatives in conventional towns and villages worldwide’.

This is a substantial and significant shift in perspective. No longer, it suggests, is the good society that we promote to be created primarily by way of replication of the ecovillage model. Rather, the core purpose of these distinctive, charming, but somewhat artificial communities is to act as laboratories for the development of sustainability models of all kinds that can be scaled up into more conventional communities.

This insight comes to me as a breath of relief. The extent of Findhorn’s distinctiveness cannot be overstated. How on earth would one go about replicating such a unique model – especially given the growth in land prices and tightening of planning regulations over recent decades?

Just as we are coming to recognise that greening Britain’s housing stock will be primarily about intelligent retrofitting rather than new-build, so the building of a more healthy and resilient society needs to happen in existing communities like Hawick.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.