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  • Writer's pictureEmma Woods

Could Butlins give us an insight into utopia?

Is Butlins a relic of a bygone era or does it offer us a taste of a utopian future?

Have you ever been to Center Parcs? Or for those of us where Centre Parcs is on the pricey side perhaps Haven, Pontins or Butlins? Could these holidays give us an insight into different ways of living our everyday lives?

I've had a few conversations with people recently about the Overton window which "is the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time". The graphic shows how viability ranges from policy and popular through to radical and unthinkable. What I have started to realise is that many ideas commonly believed to be "radical" are often acceptable or popular in different contexts. Hot on the heels of hearing Phoebe Tickell speak at the Sheffield Social Enterprise Network Conference where we were invited to flex our imagination muscles, and the latest Upstream podcast, I've also been pondering who gets to decide what's radical?

My parents recently went to Center Parcs and remarked how nice it was to leave the car parked up for the week whilst their grandchildren walked and scooted around the woods. My family and I recently went to Butlins and enjoyed having free access to a family friendly swimming pool, fairground, huge brand-new playground, etc. With two young kids in tow it was invaluable having these activities within short walking distance. We paid extra for breakfast and evening meals and it was liberating not to have the weekly hassle of food shopping and the daily dilemma of what to cook, followed by actually making it and cleaning up after.

This isn't an advert for Center Parcs and Butlins, but an example of how we are willing to accept different ways of living, even if just for our annual holiday.

Take Center Parcs: The idea of parking your car and not using it for a week in your daily life may seem impossible*, whereas being forced to walk, cycle or scoot around the woodlands of Center Parcs is a privilege many pay handsomely for. Both Butlins and Center Parcs sell themselves as being walkable, with leisure facilities, shops and restaurants within close distance. Whilst Butlins might not have been 5* gourmet dining, it did offer a huge variety of food which meant every member of the family could eat what they wanted rather than everyone eating the same meal as we would at home. Economic theory would say this increased everyone's utlity, especially my husband's who is the main cook in our house (and washer upper).

However if you talk about walkable cities or communal eating outside of a holiday context people can be less keen.

What is it about being on holiday that enables us to lean into some of these more "radical" ideas? From my experience, its partly due to the fact we tend to slow down on holiday. Without the pressure of school runs, work and general life it doesn't matter if it takes 30 minutes to walk home slowly rather than race back in the car to get dinner started. Being on holiday gives us freedom to spend our time how we might choose to if our current economic system didn't require us to "earn a living"**.

Perhaps with this slow down we are better able to tap into some of our innate human needs, taking time to rest, connect with friends and nature and pursue activities that regenerate us.


What if we had more leisure time?

Without thinking about the mechanics of it, how would you feel if your working week was 20% shorter but you received the same income? What would you do with this additional leisure time? What sort of communities could we build, creativity could we unleash, hobbies and friendships we could invest in if we had one day a week where we were liberated from 'earning a living'?

Shorter working weeks might seem like a distant, radical utopia but working hours have almost halved from around 3,000 hours per year in 1870 to around 1,600 hours in 2017 (see chart). However how many hours did people work pre-industrialisation? Evidence suggests that whilst peasants in the 13th and 14th Century may have worked 11-12 hour days they only worked around 120-150 days per year, or 2-3 days per week. Enclosure and the industrial revolution actually dramatically increased the number of hours worked. The chart above is a bit like when shops purposely inflate their prices before their black Friday sales, just so it can seem like you're getting a good deal.

Looking at historical data can help to anchor what we consider "normal", but also culture and society can inform what we consider acceptable, popular or radical. Trials of 4 day working weeks and Universal basic income are helping to redefine what is possible and acceptable and helps us to imagine a better future.

Going back to walkable urban areas, so called 15-minute cities, they are viewed by some with suspicion, but why not enjoy that holiday experience in your everyday life?

Looking historically cities were designed to be around a mile square with amenities in easy walking distance due to limited transport options. Today, Bruges remains a modern example of this, having kept it's historic centre largely untouched and largely car-free, and is considered by many to be a fairytale holiday destination.

Apologies for the gif, my husband insisted I include it.

I hope this blog has got you thinking about what radical ideas you might be willing to consider in different areas of your life. Flourish Economics aims to extend and expand the viability of policies currently deemed radical into acceptable or popular areas of the Overton Window. Get in touch to set up a workshop to imagine a radical, hopeful future. In a different context, some ideas might not be so radical after all.


*I realise the privilege of assuming readers have access to a car, which I know is not the case for many who are forced to use public transport that is inadequate in many parts of the country. ** An odd phrase if you really stop and think about it. It implies you have no right to exist if you don't earn a living.

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