How do you create a “big society”?

A big song may not be a bad start.

Whether one thinks David Cameron's "big society" is hopelessly deluded or, as Ed Miliband put it, an attempt by the coalition government "to dignify its cuts agenda by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society", few would disagree that the aim of "unleashing community engagement" is a worthy one.

I have an idea that may not have found its way into Tory plans, but perhaps it should. For if the "big society" is to mean anything, it has to be about more than just delivering local services such as libraries, post offices, transport and housing services in a different way -- important though that is. It also has to include the most ambitious target of all, which is to reverse the atomisation of our communities and to bring back some sense of belonging.

In other words: it needs to build social capital, as the former Labour adviser Andy Westwood conceded in a surprisingly fair-minded early response to Cameron's big idea that you can find here.

And it struck me that, quietly, and without being connected with any discussion of the "big society", one type of those "little platoons" Burke urged us to cherish has been showing its worth, in the concert hall, on the much-mocked (mostly justly mocked) format of reality television, and in real communities. I'm talking about choirs.

Real people sing Bach

Who provided a large number of the singers for Mahler's 8th, which opened the Proms last week? Not a group of highly paid professional singers, but the amateurs of the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

Where on Sunday night could you see people of all different sizes, ages and races come together and give up their spare time to rehearse and then perform, both for their pleasure and for that of others? On Don't Stop Believing, Channel 5's show inspired by the success of US TV's Glee. And what was it that brought "a real sense of pride", according to a local teacher, to South Oxhey, a large, despondent and divided housing estate outside Watford? The community choirs, assembled by Gareth Malone, a tireless and inspirational chorusmaster featured in The Choir: Unsung Town and several other BBC series.

This will be no surprise to anyone who has spent much time singing in one; and I write as someone who did so for ten years, including, for five, in either the crypt or the nave of Canterbury Cathedral every Sunday. But that example should not be taken as typical.

In fact, the ones I mentioned above are far better models for choirs or choruses that bring communities or groups together. For, contrary to their slightly elitist image -- ordinary people singing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, imagine! -- the truth is that the chorus is one of the most powerfully egalitarian of institutions.

Unlike in sport, individual success does not require that others should fail (the only competition is to maintain or exceed the standard of performance). And unlike team sports, in which individual effort is noted, rated and judged, the chorus is one.

A footballer may be tempted to take a risky shot at a goal to further his own glory. A singer in a chorus whose voice can be heard amid the throng is doing something wrong; his or her role is to serve and combine in the greater group.

Indeed, it is precisely because of this melding of the many into one that it does not matter all that much if individual members of a chorus have particularly good voices. The embarrassment that leads many men in particular to claim that they can't sing, or to pretend they can only do so in a basso profundo monotone growl (both nonsense -- being genuinely tone-deaf or lacking at least the baritone range of a Frank Sinatra, in my experience, are extremely rare), swiftly disappears when singular imperfections are masked by a greater whole, affording singers the liberty to enjoy the most uplifting of forms of self-expression.

There is a reason why many mining pits used to have male voice choirs and why all religions employ singing as part of their devotions. The eastern bloc countries were very aware of the power of music -- remember the Red Army Band and Chorus? But we have lost, or become shy of, one of the oldest and most bonding of human traditions.

Generous helping

It is a paradox that instances of singing -- such as bellowing out a hymn as part of the daily act of worship schools were meant to provide under the Butler Education Act 1944 -- came to be seen not as acts that enhanced esprit de corps or group solidarity, but as anachronistic, paternalistic examples of repression or religious indoctrination. Try telling that to any group of people who have just sung "Jerusalem", whether at a funeral (as I have done twice in the past few weeks, at those for Sebastian Horsley and Beryl Bainbridge) or at a football match. They know better.

This suggestion may seem frivolous to some, perhaps, or a distraction from the cuts whose effects the "big society" is expected to ameliorate. But if the term is to represent anything real, if individuals are to think more generously about others than concentrating selfishly only on their own "rights", something has to bring them together.

It will not, I think, be through the works of Philip Blond and Robert Putnam suddenly becoming bestsellers that a greater sense of cohesion and mutual obligation will come about. If, however, different people from across an area meet regularly in a common endeavour, they are surely less likely to walk on by or to ignore the problems faced by others, hitherto unknown, who have through this experience become neighbours -- a notion of which our frightened, unfriendly cities, whose dwellers barricade themselves in at home behind triple locks and bars, are in desperate need.

A choir may be only one example of such an endeavour, but it is a good example, and one that deserves the encouragement and support of the Departments of Culture and Education. I would urge anyone who still thinks I'm being foolish, facetious or fatuous in suggesting it to look up any series of BBC2's The Choir, and the third in particular.

Yes, it was a reality TV show. But I'm willing to bet that it brought more joy, hope and sense of community to a run-down, depressing area than any government initiative or grant has in the whole of South Oxhey's existence.

No one knows exactly how to create a "big society". But a big song might not be a bad start.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.