Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

What might social justice look like?

So what will this blog be about? Well, potentially many things within what is a broad interest.

In recent years government has gone in for a process known as Shoreline Management Planning, with the second generation of plans now more or less complete. Whereas it was once broadly the case that government would look to defend wherever needed defending (despite being under no legal obligation to do so), it has been observed that the new orthodoxy is to look for areas of coastline that might be allowed to ‘realign’ in natural fashion. The second round of Shoreline Management Plans, then, sets sea defence policy for the entire coast of England and Wales – both by area and over the short (0-20yrs), medium (20-50yrs) and long (50-100yrs) terms. One of four options is possible for each of area (or policy unit) over each of these epochs, although essentially these boil down to whether the area will continue to be defended or not. For example, where I live will see a policy of ‘Hold the Line’ pursued in the short and medium terms – meaning that the coast will be protected to the current standard for a minimum of 50 years – with a switch to a policy of ‘managed realignment’ some times after that. What will happen, or when, is unclear. However, we have been told we can expect to lose our homes – a fate that awaits many others. What happens to us ‘losers’ is also less than clear.  Until recently we could expect to be presented with a bill for the cost of demolishing our homes, although that policy was recently withdrawn. A report is also due on Coastal Pathfinder projects which explored ‘adaptation’ schemes, one of which saw payments made to those losing their homes in North Norfolk. Whether or not this will become an orthodoxy (and for whom), however, I have no idea.

Having been introduced in sharp fashion to the question of what happens to people whom government policy suggests can expect to lose their homes to the sea at some point in the future, and met many others who have been similarly perplexed at the prospect of this, I've developed an interest in what might be considered 'fair' in this context. For example, is it fair that the public purse should stand the burden of either defending or compensating the relatively few individuals whose homes rising sea levels are likely to claim? The utilitarian logic favoured by government says not, and many agree. Conversely, however, we might argue that we relatively few individuals are ultimately the victims of sea level rise caused by the polluting activities of the developed world -  a view for which support might be found in the relevant policy literature. In this case, does a utlitarian logic suffice, or do we need to look at models of social justice that foreground the needs of the vulnerable rather than the well-being of the majority? 

Of course this is only to scratch the surface of a hugely complex subject, and as I read and write more as part of the research I'm doing I'll be kicking these and other ideas around on this blog. My study ‘Informed, Engaged and Empowered? A thicker description of community participation in the setting of coastal climate change adaptation policy’ will look at how communities experience the business of trying to influence decisions around sea defence policy – a key part of how government sees just outcomes being achieved. This, of course, is very much in tune with ideas of ‘localism’ in terms of policy decision-making, which seek to involve citizens in decisions of direct importance to them and has appealed to recent administrations. Inspired by my own experience and valuable conversations with my peers in other threatened communities, my concern is that smaller, less well-off groups of people are inhibited in a variety of ways in terms of influencing policy decisions, and so are less likely to see outcomes that they like.

So, through this blog I’ll be looking at many of the ideas that are relevant to the subject as I try to make better sense of what socially just outcomes might look like. I’ll also write about the information I collect through my own research, and what I think it means. In part, this is a selfish act – I think the best way for me to work is to write regularly and to a deadline, and I’ll be looking to blog once a week. But I also hope that what I come up with may be useful – to others who risk being disadvantaged and who want to argue the toss, policy makers, the officials looking to work with communities under threat, and academics. And if anybody cares to join in the discussion all the better.

With best wishes

Chris

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