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May 30, 2012

It’s good to share


An antidote to the wholly marketised world as described by Michael Sandel may be at hand.  In a certain West Yorkshire village, anyone passing by a well-tended vegetable garden is openly invited to come in and help themselves.  It’s the same all over the village.  The simple idea of sharing seems to be making a comeback.  The grounds of the doctor’s surgery have been turned into an orchard – apple trees, no doubt.  Why has this community decided to grow food to share with others?




It’s good to share

There is an extraordinary sign on the outside of a well-tended West Yorkshire vegetable garden: “Help yourself.”

In the same town this summer, people will be helping themselves to sweetcorn growing around the police station. Compost and watering cans seized in drug farm raids find use in the local gardens. And come the autumn a trip to see a local doctor will be a pick-your-own free-for-all as the health centre’s grounds have been turned into orchards.

Grieving families who want a rose bush at the graveyard are encouraged to think productive – in one case leading to a remembrance garden of broccoli.

Meanwhile, commuters can snip fresh herbs from the beds and pots outside the railway station. It’s all kept weeded by an army of local people who give up an hour or so on the occasional Sunday.

With 40 volunteer beekeepers just trained up, there will soon be honey for all. Anyone inspired to start their own vegetable patch can borrow a community tool library at the community-run allotments.

In the next village, things have been taken even further. The local community are attempting to take over a pub and have already taken over the cinema, the theatre and even the town hall.

In a fold of the wet hills of Yorkshire, the communities of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden are at the vanguard of a movement that is picking up momentum across a UK disillusioned with corporate business, government and cuts. It is neither hippy nor New Age, but is made up of ordinary people, old and young, from both affluent homes and social housing.

Call it a sharing revolution. “Community empowerment, social enterprise, co-operative, it has various titles, but it’s quietly getting huge,” said Mike Perry of the Plunkett Foundation, a thriving national organisation supporting such enterprises nationwide. “I don’t think it’s about the recession as such in financial terms; it’s more that it’s made people think about what’s important to them.

“It starts with food, then it’s taking over a shop that’s closing. Then it’s getting fired up about broadband and renewable energy, taking over infrastructure of their community. We’re at the start of what could be a significant movement.”

Mary Clear, owner of the “help yourself” sign in Todmorden, is overwhelmed with the success of the innovations she has pioneered in her Incredible Edible project, which she set up with her friend, Pam Warhurst, after the banking crisis. Thirty other towns have followed suit.

“It was a reaction to the lack of leadership nationally and locally,” she said. “We wanted to make our own behavioural shift, to bring people together. Everyone eats, yet food is such a marker of social injustice, so we started guerrilla gardening.”

The energetic grandmother of 10 lives a frugal life after being made redundant in the public service cuts. “We’ve no offices, no staff, no money. I’m not against supermarkets or bankers; it’s about kindness and social justice. We want to reach the people who can’t afford a great big glossy coffee-table book called Thrifty Foraging or some such.

“Me and Pam are women of a certain age, we’ve not got balaclavas, it’s just about not being afraid to step forward in your community and do it.”