I recently spent a couple of days visiting some of England’s surviving windmills with a couple of friends. Though it was a holiday rather than a deliberate exercise in political education, two political points came out clearly.
One, which I’ve blogged about previously, is how the windmill not only used to be a key part of the English landscape but also, in its horizontal axis / vertical sail form, is an English invention.
Windmills not only are a British (or perhaps more accurately English) tradition, they are also an example of technical inventiveness of which we can be proud. And yet when in their modern form of wind turbines they are talked about, critics often have been allowed to get away with painting something with such strong English roots as being some sort of alien invasion of our landscape.
The second is the politics of windmill restoration. As has happened with other industrial artefacts, many windmills were for a long time left to decline and decay until a relatively recent interest in their preservation and their history started to turn the tide. A typical windmill open to the public now is once that has been restored in the last twenty years, with the restoration driven by interested locals, funded by a mix of their fundraising and grants, containing historical displays provided by keen local historians and with a small business, such as a cafe or shop, attached.
Whether you want to call it community politics, the Big Society or the Good Society, dozens of windmills display in miniature the mix of public and private that many politicians are now reaching for more widely.
That mix – committed residents, public sector grants in the broadest sense (more likely from sources such as English Heritage than from the local council) and some form of income-generating business – has advantages which rapidly becoming apparent when you consider the alternatives.
An early twentieth century style of municipal socialism that would have nationalised derelict windmills and put them under a command and control structure reporting to the Minister of State for Windmills (Revival Thereof) would have failed to tap the enthusiasm, energy and love for the projects that the mixed model has delivered in so many places.
Nor would leaving it simply to market forces have worked – as it is only the mixed approached of community action and the public sector which has rescued many of these windmills that were previously left untouched and unwanted by private developers. Public sector support provides the funds to value factors which are not priced into the windmill property market.
Above all, the love of their local community that comes from volunteers and residents provides something it is very hard for staff answerable to a management chain that leads off elsewhere to replicate, regardless of whether that management chain is public or private.
It is a benefit I have also seen in other fields, such as in the very successful use of local volunteers to help staff the police front counter at Muswell Hill Police station in North London, providing an information service that is rooted in community knowledge and commitment. It was what you see too in numerous libraries, where the energy of local reading groups extends the benefits of the library. It is what you see successfully supplementing the work of others across many professions.
So seeing what has been done with so many windmills has hardened my scepticism of those who decry attempts to involve the local community in other services.
Rhetoric about involving the public can be used at times as cover for cuts, but as the windmills show – involving the public can also deliver better results than suggested by the narrow minded view that if it’s not being 100% funded and supplied by the state it’s not worthy.