If ministers are looking for some new ideas to galvanise their urban policies, let’s hope they didn’t pop into Selfridges this week.
The West End store was the scene for an unusual experiment in city planning. Song Dong, a Chinese installation artist, was building a cityscape out of 72,000 biscuits. Mr Dong explained to the BBC that his artwork, Eating the city, was a response to the growing uniformity of Asian cities whose identity was being lost in the rush for growth.
The great thing about biscuit cities is that only the tastes of their creator are important. In the real world, people understandably get upset when they have custard creams dumped on them when they aspire to chocolate hobnobs. And real people don’t like to settle for crumbs.
It’s that realisation that’s behind the latest pronouncements by communities minister David Miliband. Mr Miliband wants power devolved to the people - a ‘double devolution’ from central to local government, and from town halls to communities. They’re ideas we’ve heard many times before, but it’s refreshing to discover that concepts that have enjoyed common currency in the regeneration world for a decade are being taken seriously at the heart of government. So ideas like local asset ownership and neighbourhood management are likely to be a central part of the reform of local government, while money from dormant accounts may be invested in community organisations.
But there’s a danger. It’s the kind of risk you run when you walk past the biscuit shelves in the supermarket with your kids and take down that packet of jammy dodgers rather than the usual value pack of digestives. It’s known as raising expectations.
Mr Miliband is doing wonderfully well at raising expectations. It’s Gordon Brown who’s playing the role of the stingy dad who takes one look at the trolley and puts the treats back where they came from. It’s no secret that public finances are tight, and the community sector is seldom organised enough to squeal as loudly as others. In that context, the risk is that devolution becomes passing the buck: shifting responsibility without purchasing power. And as disappointments go, that really would take the biscuit.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine