Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Big Society or No Such Thing as Society?

I’m still trying to get my head around “The Big Society”, what the Prime Minister David Cameron describes as his “vision and passion”. I am particularly keen to understand how it is to be reconciled with the view that “there is no such thing as society”, articulated by Margaret Thatcher, now Baroness Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister back in the 1980s.

On the surface of it it would seem to be something of an oxymoron. If society doesn’t exist then it cannot be big. Or, conversely, if it is indeed big then the view that it does not exist has to be wrong.

So what exactly is society? What is this thing that is simultaneously big and yet not really there?

Society in its most basic form must be that state in which we live beyond our own selfish existence. It is that common experience that we share whenever we interact, be it socially, in the supermarket, at the bingo hall, down at the local pub, even indeed passing each other in the street and acknowledging the fact that the other person is there.

It may also be, if you prefer, the way in which we support each other by using the skills each of us possess to benefit others, whether we do so for a wage or out of purest altruism. It could be the shopkeeper taking our order, the postman bring our mail, the doctor making us better, the bus driver getting us to where we want to be. We cannot do all these things for ourselves, but by plying our particular trade in the service of others we all manage to muddle along somehow.

The voluntary aspect of being a society is altogether more special. After all it is something from which we derive no personal gain, and which we really don’t have to do. Running a scout group, giving advice, helping out at the local school, organising a residents’ or tenants’ association or an action group – all of these things serve to make life more enjoyable and the environment in which we live more pleasant.

So when Mrs. Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society was she denying that the altruism of what is admittedly an active minority actually existed, that there was behind all of it an ulterior, selfish motive? Or was it just an expression of wishful thinking?

To say there is no such thing as society suggests that people in general are concerned only with Number One, with the furtherance of their own careers and the unrelenting accumulation of personal wealth. It is a call to those who give of their free time to call it a day and to return home to the counting table. It envisions the whole of life as a metaphorical ladder upon which the objective is to climb whilst if necessary treading on the head of the person below.

If this is indeed what Mrs. Thatcher meant then why is it that a quarter of a century on another Conservative Prime Minister sees fit to champion what he calls The Big Society? He after all has never, as far as I am aware, denounced nor even distanced himself from the shocking opinions of his distant predecessor.

In the light of the commonality that exists between the Thatcherites of old and adherents of modern Conservatism it is reasonable to look upon Cameron’s Big Society with a certain degree of scepticism. What is it about the society that the Prime Minister envisages that would find favour amongst those who continue to venerate the undisputed champion of the culture of self?

The answer must logically be found in the fact that the voluntary sector offers something that professionals employed in the public sector per se cannot – work done for free. Why pay a librarian when a retired person looking to get out and meet people or a student in need of work experience and a reference can manage the local library on a day to day basis for nothing?

This cheapskate cynicism is rightly condemned by the Conservatives’ traditional opponents in the Labour Party. Sadly though the criticism focuses usually not upon the exploitative instincts that underpin the Tories’ new-found commitment to a society the very existence of which they were denying not so long ago, but upon the very rationale of volunteering and community self-help.

“Ordinary” people, we are told, are too busy scratching a living to be much bothered about putting anything into the community of which they are a part. All the average (acknowledgements Neil Peart) are concerned about is putting food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs.

Fortunately, so the argument continues, there exists an expert political class (them) whose calling is to manage all our society’s affairs for us. That political class comprises a social elite (whether by education or birthright is unclear) that is specially and uniquely trained to understand all our needs and to deliver them to us in the way that only it knows best.

Back in Portugal

I’m back in Portugal, chuffed to be able to spend an extra week in the sun due to the fact that we didn’t use the timeshare one year back in the dim and distant past.

This time my daughter Rosie is with me. On Sunday she earned a lot of respect from balcony dwellers by jumping into the outdoor swimming pool. By comparison with England it is warm here (t-shirt and shorts), but it isn’t that warm!

I’m very embarrassed that I still can’t speak the language, other than to order a beer and say “Thank You”. I keep promising myself that I’ll take a crash course, but with three jobs and counting I never seem to find the time. It seems so disrespectful to travel to another land year after year and just to expect everybody to converse with me in my native tongue, even though everyone at the site is completely fluent.

Timeshares are for mugs, in this day and age non-owners can enjoy all the facilities we have for half the price. But I do recommend the Clube Praia da Oura to anybody looking to spend a week away from the rain and the cold.

Tomorrow we are off to Seville, partly so that Rosie can at least tell her posh friends that she has been to a new country. Hasta la vista (or is that Italian?).

Thursday, 8 December 2011


Residents win epic court battle against Thames Water over Mogden

ICG leads protest against Mogden expansion in 2009
Thousands of residents are celebrating after the High Court today ruled in their favour at the culmination of their epic battle against the water giant and the odour nuisance that it has continued to inflict upon our community with the timid, indeed sometimes willing, acquiescence of the London Borough of Hounslow.

Mr Justice Ramsay upheld the claim by 1,350 litigants from Isleworth, Hounslow, Whitton, St. Margaret's and Twickenham that Thames Water was liable for breach of duty in relation to odour nuisance from its Isleworth-based Mogden plant.

The judge also found that Thames had breached claimants' human rights under the Human Rights Act, in particular Article 8 of the Convention which protects the enjoyment of home and family life.

Scandalously, legislation due to be introduced by the government will prevent communities from instigating actions such as this one in the future without accepting prohibitive financial risk.

Nevertheless right now is a time for rejoicing, and for expressing my sincere thanks to all those residents who have worked painstakingly through the Mogden Residents' Action Group over many years to bring this about, often in the face of infuriating obstruction, procrastination and betrayal from those upon whose support we should have been entitled to rely.

MRAG and the ICG will consider the full implications of the Council's handling of the Mogden issue and of its attitude towards campaigning residents during the coming weeks.

The full Press Statement released today by Steve Taylor of MRAG is as follows:

Residents successful in ‘David & Goliath’ battle

After a long and arduous fight, 1,350 residents living near Mogden Sewage Treatment Works in Isleworth, Middlesex have won their mammoth battle against Thames Water Utilities Limited in relation to odour nuisance. The residents live in an area which comprises Hounslow, Whitton, Twickenham and St Margarets as well as Isleworth.

At the High Court today (8 December), Judge Mr Justice Ramsay handed down the judgment which holds Thames Water liable for breach of duty in relation to nuisance caused by odour from the Mogden plant. In relation to allegations of negligence surrounding their management and operation at the Works, Mr Justice Ramsey significantly found that Thames Water had, since 1990, failed to have a long term odour management and investment strategy to deal with odour from the site.

Mr Steve Taylor, one of the lead claimants, says: “I hope this case shows that David can take on Goliath in our legal system and win. The case was never about money; it was about holding Thames Water to account for the problems that it has caused us over the last 10 years. The huge impact on ordinary people's lives and on the environment cannot be underestimated. I am extremely grateful to Neil Stockdale and the Environment team at Hugh James as well as our Counsel, Stephen Hockman QC and John Bates, for relentlessly pursuing this case on our behalf. I believe this case is the first of its kind in the UK and the judgment in our favour will have a major influence on the way the managers and owners of sewage treatment works in England and Wales run their businesses"

Although this is a significant victory for the residents, the stark warning is that happy endings like this one might not be possible in the future. The Government plans to change legislation, effectively ending the current ‘no win no fee’ system, exposing claimants to huge upfront financial risks rather than being allowed to recover fees at the end if successful. This will lead to claimants having to take responsibility for both their own expenses and the other side’s costs.

Mr Taylor continues: “I’m shocked and very disappointed about the Government’s plans to change this legislation. The stature and financial clout of Thames Water meant we were only able to take this case forward because of the current ‘no win no fee’ system. Changing this system will deter others in similar situations to ours from bringing cases against big companies and will be a real obstacle for ordinary people to access justice. I would ask the government to think very carefully about the effect that this might have on people’s lives.”

Neil Stockdale, the partner at Hugh James who led the team dealing with the case said, “This result is a vindication of the residents’ genuine desire to protect their environment from blight. Unfortunately however, cases like this will no longer be possible in the future if the Government’s proposed reforms to the funding of litigation are enacted next year.

“The Government is proposing that individuals take cases like this at their own risk; people just can’t afford to take such risks, particularly when they are up against the likes of Thames Water. If people don’t stand up now and oppose the Government's bill they will forever be powerless to take action to protect their legal rights in all sorts of cases. What the Government is suggesting is a real scandal and the biggest threat to access to justice we have ever witnessed in the UK.”

Damages were sought against Thames Water for nuisance caused by odour and mosquitoes but claimants also sought for an injunction to prevent continuing nuisance. Today, the Judge has accepted 18 of the 30 allegations of negligence that were made in addition to finding that Thames Water had breached the claimants’ rights under the Human Rights Act, specifically Article 8 of the convention which protects the enjoyment of home and family life.

The Judge said that the claimants had been caused to suffer significant inconvenience and annoyance from odour over and above that which was inevitable.

In relation to Human Rights, High Court Judge Mr Justice Ramsay says of his decision: "Because I have held that Thames Water failed to carry out the work and conduct the operation at Mogden Sewage Treatment Works with all reasonable regard and care for the interests of other persons, including the claimants, it follows in my view that Thames Water failed properly to respect the rights of claimants and did not do all they reasonably could to prevent odour from migrating from the Mogden Sewage Treatment Works. They did not do what they should have done as a public authority in relation to the rights of the claimants".