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Nature can’t compete with a shiny plastic car

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Larry, my two-year-old, and I are making a “hotel for minibeasts”. This is one of the improving workshops laid on by the council at our local park. Others include making tunnels out of living willow and building a loggery. According to the leaflet, such activities are beneficial for children as they “encourage risk-taking play and create a sense of connection to the natural world”.

Whatever that means, I’m all for it. It is freezing and tipping down with rain but Larry and I have donned our waterproofs and headed out to save east London’s stag beetle population from otherwise certain destruction. We join a small huddle of soggy mothers and their offspring under a tree and listen while our instructor, a Very Enthusiastic Lady, tells us what to do.

“Right, guys, this is our five-star mini - beast hotel!” She waves a nicotine-stained finger towards a wooden pallet, painted bright blue. I’m sure the paint must be toxic to one form of wildlife or another but it seems churlish to quibble. “We’re going to fill it up with lots of lovely straw, wool and other natural materials so those minibeasts can keep warm all through the winter.”

The Very Enthusiastic Lady has several jute bags filled with bunches of lavender, broken plant pots, sheep’s wool, straw and dried seed heads. We encourage the children to pick them up and put them into the crate. That takes about two minutes and nobody seems quite sure what to do next. The rain is intensifying from a light drizzle to a steady downpour.

“Hey, that’s great, guys. Just imagine how warm all those minibeasts will be in there!” Larry looks puzzled. He has no idea what minibeasts are, why they need to be warm or why he should care – if I’m honest, I’m also feeling a little hazy on the details. His eyes brighten momentarily when the Lady produces a large power drill and sets about screwing another pallet on top of the first.

“She’s like Bob the Builder!” he says, admiringly. One of the other small boys is standing a few yards away, his face pressed to a gap in the perimeter fence. Larry runs over to join him. What are they doing? I peep through the gap. On the other side is a back garden and on the lawn sits . . . a bright red, shiny, toddler-sized plastic car.

“Broom, broom,” says Larry. “Beep, beep.” I glance anxiously at the Very Enthusiastic Lady. Clearly this is not quite the risk-taking, natural-world-connecting play we are supposed to be encouraging.

“Come on, boys!” she says valiantly. “Let’s put another layer of lavender on top to attract the bees!” But, alas, it’s too late – we’ve lost them. “Don’t want to build a hotel, Mummy. I want to play on the broom-broom car.” The Lady smiles kindly at me and shrugs, in a so-this-is-exactly-why-we’re-all-goingto- hell-in-a-handcart way. She knows when her number’s up.

As we trudge back home through drizzle rapidly morphing into hail, Larry takes my hand and pats it comfortingly. Never mind. We’ll play nature another day.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.