COVID-19, food poverty, Brexit and housing were central themes of Talk/together discussions across the East of England, writes Jake Puddle.
Talk/together held discussions with members of the public from Norwich, Peterborough, Chelmsford and Stevenage. Brexit was a hot topic, in a week in which UK-EU trade talks had been in the news.
The 2016 referendum divided opinion across the East of England. The vote in the Home Counties and university cities had swung to Remain, while there was strong support for Leave in the Fens and in Essex. Nonetheless, four years on from the vote, our conversations revealed a gradual acceptance of the result and an appetite to heal its polarising effect on British politics. Our discussion groups comprised a mix of Leavers and Remainers, with both groups wanting the UK to secure stable trade relations in the wake of Covid-19. While few participants had altered their opinions on Brexit since the referendum, many noted a need to move on and draw a line behind the fractious political discourse of recent years.
“I was a Remainer – I voted to Remain. But I’ve accepted the fact that we will leave the EU. I just hope that there will be a decent trade deal.”
Another salient issue in the public discussions was food poverty, in the light of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals to cover school holidays. For some, the campaign shone a spotlight on wealth divides in the UK, with concerns expressed over the welfare support available for parents and families at a time of economic uncertainty. For them, the political and social media debates had fractured a sense of togetherness. Other participants, however, took hope from the swell of support shown by local councils and businesses that had offered to fund free meals. They felt that these offers had highlighted solidarity within communities.
“I think people do want to come together. I think you just have to look at what’s going on with the free school meals for kids.”
These conversations on food poverty fed into wider debates around wealth disparities and housing in the East of England. We decided to explore this subject in greater depth, as housing is a topical issue in this region. In parts of Hertfordshire and Cambridge, house prices are among the highest in the UK. There are plans to build some big new housing developments around Cambridge and Bedford and a new garden town in Essex. Whether or not to build on the Green Belt remained a subject of heated debate. How we design and build new housing can also affect our levels of social connection.
There was praise for Stevenage’s town centre regeneration plans where seating and green space are encouraging people to mix and meet. Empty retail space has also been converted into residential property to halt the town centre decline. But people also spoke of blocks of flats that lacked communal space where neighbours could interact, leading elderly residents to become isolated throughout the pandemic. Similarly, new affordable housing was seen to be concentrated in locations that lacked schools, parks and transport links. As one person remarked: “In Norwich, you see these housing estates …but the only thing next to them is a Hungry Horse. What’s that going to bring to the community there?”
Discussing how housing could bring people together, more mixed tenure and affordable housing was a popular suggestion, noting its potential to bridge generational and class divides. The divisions that plans for new housing can cause could be avoided by better community consultation at the planning stage. Others raised the need for better access to green space and outdoor seating areas – with such facilities offering safe places to meet up amid the pandemic.
“These housing estates are going up [and] there’s no infrastructure behind them. There’s no community centres, not even a central park.”
This autumn the Government will look to introduce reforms to the planning system with proposals to bring in new regulations to promote good housing design. Our discussions show that people know that the way we design new housing affects social relationships. It is important that their voices are heard, and that due consideration is given to the importance of planning and housing design in building socially connected communities.
Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. It is coordinated by British Future as part of /Together, a new coalition of household names like the NHS and the Scouts and local organisations from across the UK. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk