It’s widely reported today that British highstreets with the highest concentration of fast-food shops, betting shops and nailbars, correspond with the greatest ill-health and shortest mortality rates. Literally, living in a zombie town or neighbourhood means that you die younger than if you live in a town with a variety of locally owned businesses and retailers.
The Mail Online reports that “towns and cities in the north of England and the Midlands fared worst, with Northampton the furthest south in the list of the 10 unhealthiest.” While The Independent notes that “unhealthy businesses concentrate in areas which already experience higher levels of deprivation, obesity and lower life expectancy.” Furthermore, The Guardian notes that “the number of fast food shops in the UK increased by 4,000 between 2014 and 2017, with the most deprived areas now having five times more than the most affluent areas.”
According to the Health on the Highstreet report by The Royal Society for Public Health (link to report pdf):
“The physical environment surrounds us, and in subtle and not so subtle ways, affects our health. The air that we breathe and our access to clean water have a direct impact on our health. Other factors affect our behaviours, influencing our choices about what to eat and drink, how much physical activity we do and how easy it is to be with friends. Planning can ensure that making the healthy choice is the easiest option, but for this to happen, health needs to be an intrinsic, central consideration in the planning process. Ultimately, it needs to be acknowledged that people have to be at the centre: “The intention must be to evolve towns and cities that are good for people to live in: not just for some people, but all people, whatever their income or abilities.”
None of which is new, of course. Sir Michael Marmot has been advocating for years that in public policy planning we need to understand the connection between social inequality and health inequality. Sir Michael was an important contributor to Gordon Brown’s health and poverty alleviation policies, but much of this coordinated and evidence-based approach to public health was been swept aside after 2010, replaced instead with deregulated marketisation. [It’s well worth listening to the edition of Desert Island Disks when Sir Michael was a guest]
To put this in context, however, we have to recognise that local authorities have little control over the social needs of their communities, with competition policy stubbornly applied at a national level only. With a trigger of twenty-five percent ownership of the overall market being needed before an investigation can be undertaken about potential restrictive market practices.
Local authorities can’t apply local rules to protect the diversity of their local economies, so a race-to-the-bottom takes hold.
What I find interesting in this debate, however (which we should really call a scandal), is that there is hardley any discussion that makes the connection between social policy and media regulation in the UK?
We have just seen Ofcom (i.e. the government), relax the rules on Localness for Commercial Radio. According to Matt Deegan, this will allow commercial radio stations to cut costs by amalgamating their content on a regional network basis, with stations linked to provide a minimal amount of local programming. As Deegan suggests,
“If they [the commercial operators] do decide that the local sponsorship and promotions money is not a fair exchange of the costs of delivering local programmes, then the other option is, of course, delivering up to eight local mid-morning programmes and the rest of the programmes coming from London, or the network centre.”
Moreover, the balance and sustainability of our local economies has long been attacked from two angles, both of which have been entirely preventable.
Firstly, the laissez-faire approaches of successive governments to local economies. The seductive promise of scale and efficiency have been the fairytale policy priorities that governments have been enamoured with for decades now.
Instead of promoting diversity and access to markets at a local level, governments have pump-primed large retailers by giving them planning perks and tax breaks, especially with property deals on more favourable out-of-town sites. There is no effective social impact analysis or community sustainability bias in the planning process.
Local people get no veto on the businesses that are set-up in their area. As shops become vacant, fatalism takes over. Democratic accountability is absent as local decisions get over-ruled by nameless and faceless ombudsmen.
The other factor is technology change, and the rise of internet shopping. This is not, however, entirely the fault of the technologies of online retailing, in and of themselves.
The real problem is the deregulation of the labour market that allows companies to drive down wages and employment security, thus giving online retailers a massive unfair advantage in the emerging virtual marketplace.
This is the product of de-unionisation in the UK, and leaves us with vast number of people earning low pay, working in precarious ‘gig’ jobs that offer maximum flexibility for employers, with minimum social accountability for the communities they serve.
My concern, therefore, is where does our media fit within this?
If we continue to deregulate and encourage this race-to-the-bottom, then we will be bereft of any locally organised, managed and embedded media.
We may quickly match the collapse of highstreet by deregulating our local media.
Many of our highstreets have become toxic environments, with little community enrichment, and the same has happened to our local media. The two are connected.
We do have a solution to hand though. Community media, with a guarantee of local ownership, serving the public good on a not-for-profit basis, and reflecting the needs (not just the wants) of our communities, has to be more carefully nurtured.
Community media groups and community radio stations should be able help alleviate some of these obvious social problems, but only if they can join in effective partnerships and alliances between other civic and social groups, health authorities, education providers, skills developers, faith groups, charities, the civic engagement policy authorities, and so on.
The role that community media plays in the UK isn’t overtly recognised as an essential element within the complex networks that shape social and civic society. Nor is it recognised in the policy and planning guidance that is given to civil servents, local authority officers, health service planners, or social care teams.
When community media is taught at universities it’s largely incorporated within media production and media studies departments, rather than within health, social care, community development or social policy and planning departments.
The governments Civil Engagement strategies and Social Value policies often talk-the-talk, but they seldom include community media as a recognised and respected practice that has a clear set of social purposes that are relevent to the communities they serve.
In light of the growing body of evidence, that UK communities are under increasing pressure, and are causing increased levels of social stress, unhappiness and isolation, the government has to step-up funding and support for all community media engagement practices.
This means putting money directly into community media with the provision that it must serve, as many community media projects do now in an ad-hoc and patchwork way, a social value and social impact agenda.
This agenda needs to be locally embedded and accountable, and should emphasise the local identities of the people who live in our different communities, and the many ways that these communities might be developed sustainably in the long-term.
This problem has clearly gone beyond platitudes and ministerial exhalations.
The evidence is clear. The breakdown of the sense of community is bad for our health, and is killing many of us early.
The government is now talking about how we can address this challenge, with refreshed polcies and work aimed at tackling lonilness, but is this enough?
Where is community media in this strategy and appraoch?
Lets look, then, at how we can work together to promote community media as an integral tool for helping with these social problems.
By giving people a voice, and pushing-back against the sterile, unimaginative and centralised commercialism that many of our highstreets now represent, we will be able to help communities prosper as economically diverse and socially inclusive places to prosper, because they have their own distinctive media voices.