Seaton, Devon (Photo by: Peter Titmus/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Are hanging baskets the key to community cohesion?

The party that misunderstands what hanging baskets mean to communities is already planting the seeds of its failure

It’s possible you missed it, but we are at the tail-end of a Twitter flare-up about hanging baskets. But before it burns out completely, I’d just like to fan the flames again.

On the one side of this passionate social media polemic are those who believe that hanging baskets will give people in declining towns back their civic pride and a feeling that they control the destinies of their communities.

On the other are those who think hanging baskets are a patronising distraction from far more pressing problems in our struggling towns. Both sides have got a point, of course, because the argument is not so much about hanging baskets but about what they represent – and here I fall firmly into the civic pride camp.

Whatever the London commentariat might think, most people really love hanging baskets. They love them for themselves because the sight of them lifts the spirit, but what they really love is what hanging baskets say about a town or village. They are the final flourish of a place that says “community-minded people live here”.

Hanging baskets are what happen in towns that deal with anti-social behaviour

Many years ago, I took a group of people from a village in Derbyshire that wanted ideas on how to improve their neighbourhood to a very similar ex-coal mining village in Nottinghamshire. When we arrived we found no similarities. Where there were few or no services and even fewer places to meet in the Derbyshire village (other than the vandalised bus shelter and the back of a boarded-up pub), its Nottinghamshire counterpart was bustling and thriving with independent shops and little green spaces to sit and talk.

And what was it that everyone noticed? The hanging baskets everywhere – on the lamp posts, over the railings, on the walls of houses and pubs.

It’s exactly the same in the focus groups we’ve been carrying out over the last year in the towns that everyone thought were solid Labour but that voted Conservative for the first time exactly twelve months ago. People love their towns and villages and desperately want them to be places that people want to come and visit again. Ask them to describe their perfect town and everyone starts with hanging baskets.

But just like fixing a window as soon as it is smashed or washing off graffiti before the paint is dry isn’t going to end crime all on its own, so hanging a basket on every lamp post won’t get shops to open or stop a bus shelter from being vandalised.

Hanging baskets are what happen in towns that deal with anti-social behaviour. They are a sign that civic-minded people are actively involved in their communities. Hanging baskets say that this is a place that controls its own destiny – just like Rudy Giuliani’s policy of fixing every broken window did in New York.

When it comes to communities, it isn’t for national and local government to tell people what they need

Many years ago, the residents of a beautiful little village called Ridgeway, nestled on the edge of the Peak District and Sheffield, decided that they wanted to enter the regional In Bloom contest. The obvious place to start was hanging baskets, so inquiries were made and… well, that was when it all got very complicated. The council said no. Their budget for the year did not include hanging baskets in Ridgeway. Fine, they said. “We’ll pay for them.”

The council responded that it wasn’t as easy as that. Someone had to put them up and then someone would have to keep them watered. It all cost money. “No problem!” Ridgeway wanted to put them up themselves and they wanted to look after them.

It just wasn’t possible. The installers had to be qualified and licensed. The lamp posts were on a public highway and illegal attachments would be classed as vandalism.

It took over a year to get the right permissions in place but eventually Ridgeway was bursting with flowers from every lamp post, bus stop and pillar box. The celebrations when they finally did win In Bloom were all the sweeter for the battles they had fought together on the journey.

But the local council should not have been an adversary. When it comes to their own communities, it isn’t for national and local government to tell people what they need. Their role should be to listen and work with people to help them get what they want – and that’s a say in the future of their communities and the power to control their town’s destinies.

The party that understands this will do well at the next general election, just as the party that misunderstands what hanging baskets mean to communities is already planting the seeds of its failure.

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