Answers among us, not in bureaucratic process

MARLBOROUGH MAYOR ALISTAIR SOWMAN
Last updated 09:52 07/12/2012

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The social researchers say one of the big trends today is that people are increasingly disconnected from those around them and from political and civic processes.

It's most obvious in the big cities and where communities have lots of minority groups.

As Marlborough grows and changes, it's more important than ever that partnership and collaboration is part of life here.

See a problem? Don't respond with a letter of complaint to the newspaper demanding that the "authorities" find a solution, or moan about what the council is, or isn't, doing. By all means bring the issue into the public arena - but come with solutions or at least ideas for solutions. At the very least, present the issue as needing attention and offer to get involved. The best answers are often out there among us, not at the end of a bureaucratic process.

Nothing is more exhausting for a community than endless negativity - how much more inspiring to hear from the individuals and groups who get out there and get things done.

We are fortunate then that Marlborough has always been very strong on community spirit.

We tend to be low-key but very willing to get stuck in and to help in a situation we can see to be genuine or deserving. Our success stories are genuine, too - built on hard graft and talent.

I think this humility and authenticity are the kind of attributes that appeal to newcomers. But perhaps we don't always realise that it's these almost indefinable qualities that help to make Marlborough the special place it is.

So it's vital that, as we grow, we don't lose these characteristics.

Keeping our community engaged and connected means we all need to find some way, however small, to join in. Our Community Gardens are a wonderful example of community spirit. There is no dispute that there are struggling families within our community. Shared vegetable plots are a positive response to meeting part of that need. They don't require bylaws, just community energy.

The Landscape Working Group is another good example. This group was set up because of concerns about what was happening to the Marlborough landscape. It has proved to be an effective voice for the community, working in a very constructive way with the council to promote good landscape projects on public and private land.

Our primary schools have taken a commendable approach. They have grabbed the idea of applying the council's environmental education through their "fish in drains" project; teaching kids about the importance of keeping pollutants out of our storm water drains.

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Emergency preparedness is another case in point. Some of our small communities have taken great strides recently to be better prepared for emergencies. It's always bemusing that only a small proportion of people prepare for disasters even though we know that, inevitably, something will happen eventually; a flood if not an earthquake.

The more people prepare themselves and their neighbourhoods to cope, the less they have to depend on authorities in an emergency. It's called resilience and it used to be second nature to us all. We need to re-discover it.

I like the words of a former US president who said "the impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbour". Neighbourhood support is a powerful tool and I would like to see more areas across Marlborough setting up these arrangements. But it doesn't necessarily have to be formalised; neighbours just being aware of each other can make a difference in an emergency.

We've had great success with the multi-agency approach to boosting several residential areas of Blenheim where community values have been undermined; areas where vandalism and even burglary have been issues.

The effect of concentrated effort to tidy up these streets and encourage the residents to take ownership of their neighbourhoods is impressive.

Not every area needs this kind of intervention. But let's all remember that we can do our share; care for our street trees, keep our drains and gutters clear, use initiative or, at the very least, report problems.

What's wrong in having pride in your own street - taking out a broom to clean your street drain or pick up a bit of broken glass. It's so easy to sit back and say "we pay rates and we expect service" - easy, but not terribly constructive.

It's a sad day when we expect more and more in the way of public services from the council, while at the same time people are less and less willing to offer any kind of public or civic service themselves.

Ultimately, the more demands made on local government, the more rates go up. Some might suggest that's just the way society is going; less connection, growing isolation. I'd like to think we could put the brakes on that trend before it entrenches itself here in Marlborough.

Back in the 1970s some of you might recall the big push to "think globally, act locally". It was all about individuals taking responsibility for their own immediate environment; a kind of grassroots movement directed at broader environmental planning.

It was a call to action at local level. But it's a message we can still apply. Take our own action, at community level, to achieve our own aspirations.

I realise for some people it will take a change in mindset - away from the council as a bunker, fending off approaches from outside, to the council as a partner, working with the community to help it achieve its own aims and aspirations.

The council's "Smart & Connected" research under way feeds into this thinking.

The nub of it is this idea that Marlborough can become a region that is "smart and connected".

Part of it is about building clever, more successful businesses. But an equally important part of the bigger picture is about building up community strength and resilience at grassroots level. Building - or in some cases re-building - our community ties, our trust, our tolerance.

Social analysts tell us that, in the wider world, people generally are less and less likely to join clubs and service groups or volunteer their time these days. They don't work together on community projects like they used to and they don't know their neighbours so well.

They're more cynical about politics and the media and they meet up with friends less often and even socialise less with family.

At the same time, personal happiness and satisfaction seems to be diminishing. Maybe the two trends are connected?

Our community life is one of our biggest assets in Marlborough, but maintaining it doesn't happen by itself; we each have a responsibility to keep it in great shape for the next generation.

Some of this is just awareness of what we need to build upon; the importance of doing small things at the local level; ensuring we have good community amenities, participating in our community groups and organisations, right down to keeping an eye out for our neighbours. All these little steps build strength and resilience.

- The Marlborough Express

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