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.
Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.