Consumers or Citizens?

This week I’ve been reminded of how important it is for all of us to participate in the world around us as citizens, not just as consumers.

Together with my ward colleague Cath Davis, I hosted a residents meeting for one of our local estates that has been experiencing a number of ongoing challenges. Last year, in order to seek out more effective solutions, we committed to meet residents on a regular basis. Around 20 tend to show up every other month and its been great to get to know people and to establish some proper two-way communication. Talking face to face as grown-ups is undoubtedly an improvement on discussing things via social media.

What is immediately noticeable when people get together in a room to talk is that there will be a degree of common concern around certain issues, be it parking problems, anti-social behaviour, speeding drivers… But there will also be a range of opinion about how to solve things, and who should solve things. This is when, sometimes, a little bit of magic can happen, where citizenship can start to bubble up in lots of interesting ways.

What am I on about?

Well, we all live in what is often called a ‘consumer culture’. It isn’t new, Britain has been this way for decades now. Consumer culture is basically ‘transactional’ – even more so in the internet age. We pay money and people we generally don’t know do things for us. Or at least we hope they do. And we get angry if they don’t. Boffins have studied the effect that living in a consumer culture has on people. They find that it makes people more passive, less likely to get involved. It really isn’t great for community.

However, being a citizen is fundamentally ‘relational’. It is about doing things with other people. It involves asking what part each individual person can play. In that sense it’s about making a contribution. Yes, it’s absolutely right to expect that there are professionals we should be able to rely on when our communities face challenges. The Police have a job to do, the Council have a job to do, local schools and leisure facilities have a responsibility to do their bit. But local people are a key part of the jigsaw too. Residents, if given the chance to speak up, will often come up with the most interesting and sustainable ways to tackle shared challenges.

That’s what I think anyway. Do you agree?

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