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.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

IN PRAISE OF A LIFE TURNED UPSIDE DOWN


Last weekend I travelled to the south coast to conduct an interview for the research I’m doing on coastal change and the inclusivity of the arrangements by which decisions are made about, for example, whether or not to defend areas from the sea and efforts at regeneration that might impact upon such decisions in the future. Roland O’Brien, my interviewee, was generous to me in every possible way: with coffee, lunch, time and a willingness to talk freely about his experience. I am particularly grateful to him for his time because, as a consequence of his commitment to ensuring that people where he lives have a say in what happens to them, and his ongoing wish that they should get a better shake, this is a commodity in short supply.

It was in the mid-2000s that draft plans with regard to coastal defence in his area were made public, placing hundreds of homes in the vicinity under threat. Angered, Roland roused support against these plans, formed a campaign group and began researching, writing and lobbying. The scale of his commitment has been astonishing – amongst other things, he has been central to the establishment of an area-wide regeneration group, developed a bid for national funding for a regeneration scheme, and served as a local councillor on the back of the need for his area to be defended from the sea. I spoke to him in his office tucked away in the eaves of his house; it is crammed with box files of literature of various kinds which, it strikes me, is a suitable metaphor for the effect of this work on his life and that of his family. This work, this commitment, fills their lives.

Roland O'Brien in his office. Out of shot sit shelf after shelf
of box files containing the minutaie of his campaigning work.
Note the portrait of Don Quixote.
At the moment Roland works on an assembly line for money, whilst his wife Angela teaches. It would be fair to say that they are not rich. He used to work as an agricultural labourer, and whilst the money was not great he enjoyed a degree of freedom to exercise some flexibility with his time. He lost that job, however, and now struggles to make daytime-scheduled Council meetings to the extent that he has to use the very limited amount of holiday over which he has discretion to this end. He told me that he has asked that meetings be held in the evening so that he and other working people can attend, but has made no impression.  Nonetheless, his evenings remain filled with the job of trying to get a better deal for people.

All of this has taken what sounds like an astonishing toll on his life and those around him, both financially and in health terms. Not so long ago he told me that his already limited income had dropped between a quarter and a third as a consequence of his commitment, and that he had suffered a physical collapse when the stress of activity had been especially acute. This year he is going to use his holiday time to spend a week in France with his family, and if anybody deserves to enjoy some time off it is surely these people.  Would it hurt politicians and officials to pay a bit more heed to the toll that civic participation, increasingly vital to the legitimacy of their policy decisions, can exert on people’s lives?  My heart sinks when I read yet another policy document that contains within it the vague but killer phrase “We will work in partnership with communities…”, because this will almost certainly require somebody’s life to be turned upside down, possibly with pernicious effects, and pass unacknowledged. Yesterday, when Roland and I walked past signage at a completed regeneration site that was significantly the result of his efforts he pointed out that at least one organisation that had managed to get its name attached to the end result had had no meaningful involvement in it. Meanwhile, his many hours of work, and perseverance in the face of what sounds like organisational politicking and a variety of obstacles placed in his path, had gone unremarked upon. That he observed this with a good, if weary humour, is of great credit to him.  

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