Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Peckham Pioneer Health Centre

Yesterday Jonathan Freedland wrote about the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre in the Guardian. He described it as:

sparkling building of glass and light, two radical doctors in the 1930s established the Pioneer Health Centre. It was not a surgery, treating the sick, but rather a place dedicated to spreading - and studying - health. The founders, the husband and wife team of George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse, reckoned health was a lot like disease, that it was contagious. The trick was to create an environment in which people would infect each other with wellbeing.

The result was a beautiful club, boasting an enormous swimming pool, a gym, boxing rings, a dance hall, a library, a creche with "room for perambulators" and a cafeteria serving "compost grown" - organic in today's language - food, produced at the centre's own farm a few miles away in Bromley. Local families could join for 6d a week, thereby ensuring they felt like members rather than recipients of charity. And they joined in their hundreds.

Don't look for it. It's not there anymore. The Centre closed in 1950 and today the site is occupied by a block of luxury flats.

Freedland uses this story to make an important point:
The post-1945 rush to build a universal welfare state trampled on too many small, creative hives of ingenuity. Before the Fabian infatuation with the central state, Britain had been host to a whole ecology of mutual societies, cooperatives, Sunday schools and workers' associations. Most went the way of Peckham, crushed under the giant heel of the Whitehall state.
And something else in the article struck me. Freedland wrote:
I was shown around by Pam Elven, who remembers her eyes lighting up when she first saw the place as a child, some seven decades ago. She watched others in the gym and felt compelled to join in. There was no compulsion or even much direction: people could just get on with what they fancied.
Today there would be an army of access and outreach workers, who would all have to be trained and monitored by other workers. Just look at the advertisements for posts in Newham's parks that I wrote about back in 2005: a "Parks Development Manager (Engagement)" and so on.

I cling to the belief that such posts are largely a job-creation scheme for the middle classes and that people are quite capable of using parks or Pioneer Centres for themselves.

But what if I am wrong? If 60 years of the welfare state has reduced people to a condition where they are incapable of any initiative then we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.

1 comment:

Matthew Huntbach said...

I share your concern about the decline of voluntary organisations like the Peckham scheme, but I'm not so certain that it's all down to sixty year of the welfare state.

In that same period we've seen a vast decline in all sorts of small-scale social organisation. The decline of mass political party membership, trade unions, mainstream religious organisations, and the like have all been part of it.

Personally, if there's one things to blame for it above all, I'd say it's the box in the corner of the room. If you ask people why aren't there all those little clubs and things that used to exist in the past, they'll say "there's no time for it these days". But working hours haven't actually increased, and various labour-saving devices have made home tasks which were once time-consuming much easier. People have time to spend hours a day watching television, that's what they choose to do when in the past they might have been engaged in voluntary organisations.

What I've said above is also simplistic, but no more so than "blame it all on the welfare state". If the large centrally organised welfare state has a share of the blame for the decline of locally organised enterprise - and I agree it has - then so has large centrally organised shopping chains and media entertainment. All have contributed to a system where people have been socially de-skilled and more reliant on doing what they are told by powers remote from their own lives.

But also social mobility has contributed. It's easier to be clubable when you are living with the people you grew up with. To a large extent, clubability worked with inward-looking communities. We might not like to admit it, but the breakdown in social cohesion caused by large-scale immigration has also had its effect. In the poorer parts, social mobility has meant that the sort of person with the emotional and intellectual intelligence to organise things has now moved on to a management career and life in the leafier suburbs. In the past local organisation was often a way of dealing with the frustrations of intelligent people forced through lack of social mobility into unrewarding and unchallenging paid work. What I now see in the council estate I represented for twelve years until last year as a councillor is large numbers of people who actually lack the ability to cope with life, and very few of the sort of figures who once (I was brought up on a council estate, so I know how this used to work) acted as a source of wisdom and stability. That is why the lack of clubability is a particularly big issue in the poorer parts of our country.

I share your concern for various local government posts being "a job-creation scheme for the middle classes", but actually I think there really is a problem with people lacking the initiative to do things like this themselves. The blame for this, however, falls at least as much on modern consumer culture as it does on the welfare state. To this extent, I am more willing than you to contemplate state action to challenge the way people's lives are directed by the big corporations.

You might recognise this as a belated reply to our exchange of views some time ago on child-rearing.