We need some right-sided thinking to shape the future of local services

I’ve been meandering through the fascinating Iain McGilchrist’s, The Master and his Emissary – the divided brain and the Making of the Western World. A clinical psychiatrist, Prof. McGilchrist, examines the nature of the hemispheres of the brain. The left side is designed to exploit the world effectively, but is narrow in focus and prizes theory over experience. It prefers mechanisms to living things, ignores whatever is not explicit, lacks empathy and is unreasonably certain of itself. By contrast the right hemisphere has a broader, more generous understanding of the world, but lacks the certainty to counter the left, because what it knows is more subtle and many faceted. To simplify, McGilchrist contends that since the Industrial Revolution the left hemisphere has had undue influence in Western thought, shaping a dehumanised society where rigid and bureaucratic mentality holds sway at huge cost to human happiness and the world around us.

The effects left-side domination on individuals is manifest in what Peter Berger called the Homeless Mind. He suggests that technocratic ways of thinking emptied life of meaning by destroying what he called the ‘sacred canopy of meanings’ reflecting beliefs about life death and the world in which we live. Exacerbating the Homeless Mind is an increasing sense of longing for place and relationships based on felt connection and cultural continuity. Mobility, fuelled by consumption and the constant change to the physical environments lessens the comforting continuity of ‘home’. McGilchrist contends that a ‘culture of modernity represents a world increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere, and increasingly antagonistic to the right

Cuts in public spending are dismantling services, which have taken years to evolve. There has never been more need for right-sided thinking. Whether or not you believe the current cuts in public services are necessary, so far they seem to have been overly influenced by ‘leftsiders’. The very rational but entirely unreasonable proposals by the Tory controlled cabinet at  Croydon Council to close its award winning Arts and Heritage Services appears a rather crude way to make savings, notwithstanding the support for the service expressed in extensive public consultantion. There are few museums in the UK which so successfully echoed a sense of place and empathy to people whose community was characterised by mobility and transience.

This week Cannock District Council (neither the first, nor the last) tendered for its suite of leisure services including leisure centres, museums, theatres and community services. I am not sure quite how local communities are expected to exercise their newly granted right to bid or challenge to run facilities when host authorities make it impossible for them to compete in a packaged tendering process. In theory new Localism legislation gives citizens unprecedented opportunity to shape civil society but in reality there are huge hurdles overcome, placed by the left-side ‘gatekeepers’.

This week I attended a briefing by a County Council which intends to divest its services to the community, social enterprises and private sector. A genuinely well-intentioned officer told me that “in this process we’re learning as we going along, it took 10 years of measurement and system based thinking to create the services we have today”. I hope that it will take less time to ‘unlearn’ that thinking.

To redesign new services to fit in the rhythm of local life it is important to show that place matters. A museum is no more a machine for looking at objects than a library is a house of books. They are entities with characteristics shaped by location within a community of people with both shared and differing cultural values and experiences. A remote private operator might run a functional service and enable the council to make savings, but ultimately it lacks the empathy of locality. Right-sided services might not be uniform and they might not always be innovative, but they’ll reflect the muddle of life and the people who perform them will be the activists civil society really needs.

My kind of place

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