Independence schmindependence

We’ll need all the friends we can get if we’re going to get through the next few decades intact.  A few lone voices in Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB) kept banging on about community.  I paid lip service to it, more as a means to an end, but now realise that it is fundamental.  Thank you in particular to Bridget, Trevor and Marc for the important lesson.

Early last year Ashridge Business School generously gave us the opportunity to host an event on any subject we wished.  After long debates we decided not to talk about climate change at all, but instead to call the day “Building Community” and the Future of Berkhamsted.  In organising the event we kept coming back to a circular discussion about how we would wheedle climate change back into the agenda, but the facilitator Chris Nicholls managed to persuade us that we should just let it go.

30 odd different community groups were invited and all accepted, from schools to business, council to sports, lobbying to charity.  All were very grateful for the opportunity to form a wider network and to look over the immediate false peak of our day to day lives.  There followed another Building Community day a few months later, where the theme of community space came through strongly.

TTB strategy is to go where the opportunities exist, following people’s energy as much as anything else.  To me, the most promising route was to concentrate on these Building Community days, develop our position as the glue for other groups in town and catalysts of positive change.  From there we would look at introducing a town plan or Neighbourhood Plan that considered the longer term, including local energy, food, transport and the like.

The third Building Community day built on the community space idea.  We decided to hold a design charrette for the area in the centre of the town that we understood was potentially up for development.

The B-Hive was born.

B-Hive logo
This proved to be a popular hit – the people of Berkhamsted really do care about their town being overdeveloped and losing its character.  A few people put in a lot of effort over a few short weeks to create a popular online presence and to be visible gathering signatories at the weekend markets and town fetes.  In a short time a mailing list twice the size of the TTB equivalent was populated.

Then the charrette came around, with a few hundred people coming through the doors to meet with a team of volunteering architects and urban designers to tour the sites, listen to talks, participate in hands-on workshops to sketch their own plans for the centre of the town, as well as listen to and watch local musical and other artists at play.

That was only the start.  The large pool of sign-ups provided another strange and very welcome quality.  They proved to be willing to help.  In short order, a team of about 30 people, including a sizeable team of architects, urban designers, surveyors, project managers and accountants set to work on a report of the findings.  It was hard work for all concerned, but worth it.

On 21 Oct a group of four of us met up with Dacorum Borough Council and with the Police Commissioner, key landowners on the potential development sites.  Both are now on board.  The Police originally delayed the sale of the former police station until we concluded our consultation, but now are running ahead with the sale.  The hopefully key and important difference is that the B-Hive report will be included in the sales pack.  This is the outcome for which we had hoped.

A bonus is that the people of Berkhamsted appear to want a town square and green space above anything else, i.e. more walking, talking and enjoying each other’s company and less driving.

Above all else, though, I have come to realise that the mere fact of getting people together as a community is the really important outcome of all of this.  It doesn’t so much matter what we manage to achieve regarding the developments in the centre of the town.  They are all a means to an end.  What really matters is that the relationships and interdependence between the people in the town is strengthened and made richer.

I originally thought that this building community work was a sideshow.  As far as I was concerned, we were just doing it to raise our profile.  How wrong could I be?

Our lives and the culture of our society are geared to make us more individual and more independent.  This will just make us all the more vulnerable when those faceless services of energy, food, money and water start to crumble.  We will be left with no support.

To really be able to cope, we need each other.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


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